Much, much less than the sum of its parts
Any interest I have in Once Upon the Cross has more to do with how and why it manages to fail than any sort of enjoyment from the music. Of all of Deicide’s releases this is the purest representation of the tried and true ‘Deicide sound’ (fast, thrashy riffing, energetic and savage drumming, endless Christianity bashing in the lyrics, lower and more brutal vocals than usual) and contains a number of songs that can be considered classics for the band, and yet it falls short. It’s far from horrible but it’s one of their least memorable albums, and definitely resides in a very low echelon of their discography.
The most immediate flaw of this album is the production, as it makes the music sound less brutal than it should be – in fact as a whole it sounds very plain and dry. The guitar tone is sanded down and lacks edge, which makes the riffs sound less aggressive. The drums take a similar hit, sounding less propulsive than they should be even when the drummer is blasting. Glen’s voice sounds remarkably dry and tired and making the already simple-minded and witless (by Deicide standards) anti-Christian lyrics sound especially unconvincing. It’s a production job that gives a sound concentrated around the mids, and is not suitable at all for music where intensity and energy is critical.
The biggest issue here though is the way the music is performed: though the riffing and drumming throughout the songs is generally of a high quality the way these songs are delivered robs them of their power. The songs feel slovenly and sluggish despite their implied aggression, and for all the blasting drums and fast riffing the performances feel lifeless. Every song manages to have riffs and drum performances that sound very similar, and a similarly unvaried vocal performance. It’s not like wild variation has ever been a quality of Deicide albums or necessary to them, but this album manages to be so same-y that despite being less than half an hour in length the album gets stale after a couple of songs. Of particular note is the vocal performance, which isn’t as low or brutal as you would expect, and as a result Glen also sounds like he isn’t that bothered with putting some intensity into his performance. This problem compounds with the production flaws to make blast-filled, uniformly brutal riff-laden death metal that is wholly lacking in any sort of fire and topped off with a dry and lazy-sounding vocal performance.
There really isn’t much more to say about this album; there’s very little to the music. It sounds like a 3rd string band with poor production skills imitating Deicide when they don’t want to. That said, it’s not like the songs themselves are bad as they sound great in nearly any other setting, just not here. I guess I view this album in the same way certain categorically wrong lunatics view albums like Judas Priest’s S trilogy – it’s a collection of quality songs hampered by sterile production and lacklustre performances. Pick up When Satan Lives instead if you want to hear some of these songs played well.