Album Title: Leiden
Label: The Artisan Era
Date of Release: 14 January 2022
Ah, the sophomore release, otherwise known as the ‘difficult second album’. Four years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing ‘Absentia’, the debut long-player from US technical death metal band Aethereus. Aside from being one of an increasing number of bands that insist on having a moniker beginning with ‘Ae’, I found that there was precious little else to complain about at the time. With the benefit of a little hindsight, I will be honest and suggest that the debut didn’t live quite as long in my memory as I had hoped or expected. I think that much of this was caused because of the sheer amount of tech death that is out there at the moment; as a result, Aethereus along with many other acts suffered from the onrushing saturation, at least as far as I am concerned in any case. I’m sure others may disagree slightly.
With an unchanged line-up from the 2018 debut, the quintet remains comprised of vocalist Vance Bratcher, guitarists Kyle Chapman and Ben Gassman, bassist Scott Hermans and drummer Matthew Behner. Together, undeterred by the competition and the onset of the global Covid pandemic, Aethereus set about writing and recording the follow-up to their debut instead of touring. The result is ‘Leiden’ and it is clear from the outset that the West Coast quintet have lost none of their bite since the debut. In fact, if it’s possible, ‘Leiden’ sees the band up the ante even further, to deliver an album that’s even more aggressive and challenging than ever before. Anger and frustration at the inability to tour may of course be a factor, but regardless, ‘Leiden’ is a pretty savage beast.
Not only is it savage, but it’s an interesting listen too. By that, I mean that there’s a core of pure aggression mixed with subtle melody and bold cinematic orchestration that can create a sense of majesty at times. But in addition, Aethereus mix in plenty of unsettling, deliberate discordance as well as moments of free jazz within the multi-layered, multi-textured soundscapes. Such intensity, power, and discomfort won’t be to everyone’s taste and I do find myself liking some tracks more than others. But it isn’t a dull ride, and it definitely keeps you on your toes throughout.
The 55-minute affair that’s ‘Leiden’ took a few listens to get to grips with, and even now, I am still teasing out little nuances that I’d not heard before within the majority of the eight individual tracks.
Opening composition ‘Aberration’ is a microcosm of the album as a whole, distilled into nearly seven minutes of ambitious malevolence. It begins in foreboding fashion, with a dark cinematic orchestrated intro. And then the first sinister bass note is plucked and at that point I know I’m about to hear something nasty. From there, we’re greeted with blastbeats aplenty, swirling, fast and incisive riffing, subterranean bass work and plenty of twists and turns, all laced with differing amounts of orchestration along the way. At points, the melodies are masked but serene, at others, the instrumental gymnastics lend an uncomfortable jarring quality that only enhances the extreme nature of the soundtrack. It is all then topped off by the deep, guttural growls of Vance Bratcher, who sounds like a human possessed. Expansive lead breaks, smatterings of groove, and moments of minimalist jazz all add something important to the track, a song that’s as ambitious as it sounds.
‘Endless Cycle Of Rebirth’ sees Aethereus introducing some really chunky riffs, and meaty death metal as well as some surprisingly melodic moments led by the lead guitar work from Chapman and Gassman, which almost veer into melodeath or even power metal territory, albeit never as expansive and carefree as either. Needless to say that I am a big fan of this track, easily one of the most immediate on the album, if ‘immediate’ is an accurate descriptor for this kind of brutality.
I’m less keen on ‘Shrouded In Kaleidoscopic Skin’ if I’m honest, as it focuses on the more discordant, jazzy influences that are so important to the Aethereus sound. The opening acoustic guitars deliver a jarring sound, made even more potent by some heaviness that clashes, only increasing the sense of the chaotic. Despite this, there is the odd groove or fleeting moment of melody, but once the elongated outro enters, bringing with it a demented and dark cinematic dirge, any pretence at fluffiness disappears in an instant.
‘Behold, The World Eater’ goes someway to redress the balance with some exceptional melodic interplay within yet another bludgeoning death metal assault. The quieter sections allow some wonderfully expressive bass to take centre stage, whilst some of the lead guitar breaks are stunning, as is the drumming, which is pin sharp, precise and thunderous. And, if I hadn’t clocked it already, it’s the point where I recognise the strength of the production, allowing each instrument to be heard and never completely lost, however extreme the cacophony becomes.
Another personal favourite has to be the ambitious nine-minute ‘The Living Abyss’. My attention is captured in the opening seconds thanks to a delicate piano melody, but it is the orchestration that elevates this song in my estimations. Juxtaposing some higher-pitched screams and a generally slower tempo, the symphonic arrangements dip in and out, bringing with them that sense of majesty every time they reappear. It’s like putting a tuxedo on a Tasmanian Devil, but it really works, underlining the ambition of Aethereus possibly the most of any of the tracks, especially in the final stages when all hell breaks loose within a glorious crescendo of sorts.
And with that, I come to the conclusion of this review in a bit of a quandary. Without a doubt, ‘Leiden’ is an impressive body of work. It leaves nothing in the locker in terms of ambition, technicality, and aggression. The ability of the musicians is without question, and I can see this record being popular in techdeath circles. As such, I respect Aethereus and ‘Leiden’ very much. There is a ‘but’ here though, and that ‘but’ is that as much as I respect the music, I don’t fall head over heels in love with it. There are key moments that I thoroughly enjoy, whilst other parts just leave me a little less enamoured. I therefore find it just a touch frustrating. Make no mistake though, Aethereus are an incredible band and ‘Leiden’ will rightly garner much praise in many quarters.
The Score of Much Metal: 87%
Check out my other 2022 reviews here:
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: