It’s not often that I would give an EP a full-length review, but Germany’s Maladie have a history of stretching the concept of what an EP might be. This year sees the third chapter in their Symptoms series of EPs. The first was released in 2016, with an album length single track (in eight movements). The second, from 2019, opens with a track that recalls some of the motifs from the first EP, making it a natural successor. So much so that the two could have been released as one longer album (and fitting, just, on one CD), and anyone that didn’t know already would never realise they were two individual releases. Symptoms III, however, strikes out in a new direction. Almost all traces of the black metal Maladie are gone, as Symptoms III is an almost entirely acoustic affair with no harsh vocals, and should therefore appeal to a far greater audience than the previous releases. It also makes a wonderful entry point into the band’s music, for those who are more adventurous. I freely admit I had never heard of Maladie prior to this EP, but I have thoroughly enjoyed working my way through their back catalogue.
While there is definitely black metal in the music of Maladie, they are far more than that – which is good from my point of view, as I’ve never been a great fan of black metal. In fact, the band describe themselves as “plague metal”. They remind me more of bands like In The Woods, Ulver and Anathema, and one of the aspects I particularly like is their choice of instrumentation. Saxophone, piano, flute and cello are not instruments you hear too often in black metal, but they are beautifully utilised and incredibly impactful. The vocals are varied; clean, harsh, chanted, narrated, sung and screamed. Even the language is varied, and despite Maladie being German, there is English, French and Latin and, I think, Spanish in the mix. I was going to call the music of Maladie eclectic, but I think multi-faceted is perhaps more accurate. At times pummelling and brutal, but never for too long. The variation and complexity of Maladie’s compositions means I’m constantly engaged, and passages that I probably couldn’t tolerate for any greater length are actually surprisingly enjoyable. If anything, it is more arduous to describe the music of Maladie than it is to listen to it.
When I first read the press release for Symptoms III, knowing nothing about the band or the sound of their previous releases, the impression I had was that this was somewhat akin to Opeth’s Damnation. My inference couldn’t have been more wrong, and while this EP will probably appeal to fans of Damnation, it’s not really similar at all, sonically or structurally. If I am to compare to another band, it would probably be In The Woods or Anathema once more. Or perhaps maybe to Green Carnation, and their Acoustic Verses. The starkness and simplicity of the acoustic setting really allows the musicianship of Maladie to shine. While the saxophone might no longer provide quite the contrast it does against more extreme music, it is perhaps the greatest reference point to the “normal” sound of Maladie. Still melodic and anthemic, Maladie simply show they can do fragility as well as they can frenzy and ferocity. And even if the vocals are not harsh, they still display the same range of emotions, employing a great deal of drama and theatricality. That theatricality, as with any of their releases, walks a fine line. It would be easy to fall into pretentiousness, but to Maladie’s credit, they never do. The tortured cries at the end of Tenebrae are a case in point, wonderfully delivered.
As well as being a mostly acoustic affair, Symptoms III is also the most pared down in the series in other ways. It’s the shortest of the three, and perhaps the only one that is actually of EP length. And while the releases of Maladie have been performed by a band reaching up to nine members, only three perform on Symptoms III: Déhà on vocals, Hauke on saxophone, and the immensely talented multi-instrumentalist Björn Köppler on everything else. With no vocals on the final track, the band is down to two. Decretum is no gentle closing instrumental piece though, and has an insistent and sweeping rhythmic flow that repeats and crescendos in a glorious fashion. It’s a quite spectacular climax for what could probably be considered a rather subdued affair in terms of Maladie’s discography. It’s a strong finish, and for me the EP does get better almost with every track. The opening number is easily my least favourite, and every song is successively more impressive, with Inanimentum my favourite. Decretum is almost necessary, just to take things down a notch, and allow the EP to end on a more positive note.
Overall, what Maladie delivers with Symptoms III is some of the most breathtakingly beautiful songs they’ve ever performed. Even if at times the music and vocals are agonisingly and overwhelmingly melancholic, there remains a beauty to them. It’s intimate, introverted, and deliciously atmospheric. It’s also hard not to note that for a band who describes themselves as “plague metal”, the self-reflective nature of Symptoms III is one that strikes home powerfully in the second year of a Covid-filled world. The lyrics fairly overtly reference suicide, and there are some very dark moments. But as moribund as it is, it’s surprisingly never particularly morbid. By the end, and somewhat ironically, with the wordless Decretum, it has stepped out of the shadows, and back into the light. With another album scheduled for release later this year, I feel strangely conflicted. While I am excited to hear what The Sick is Dead, Long Live the Sick has to offer, I can’t wait to hear Symptoms IV. There will be a Symptoms IV, guys, right? Right?
01. Excidium – The Innocent Child (4:58)
02. Nihilum – The Shield Effect (3:36)
03. Tenebrae – No More Pain (4:18)
04. Inanimentum – Last Farewell (4:50)
05. Decretum – The Passage (4:57)
Total Time – 22:39
Déhà – Vocals
Hauke – Saxophone
Björn Köppler – Guitars, Bass, Strings, Drums, Percussion
Record Label: Apostasy
Country of Origin: Germany
Date of Release: 10th September 2021