When Steel Druhm pitched my weekly Hot Pocket and Fanta allotment down the Well of Rookie Souls, he shouted something about it being “ultra mega super cheesy.” I thought he meant my pepperoni-infused beauties, but it turns out he was talking about the cheese-nuke of an assignment he dropped on my work slab. Aeternitas, symphonic stars of stage and screen, went full Les Miz with 2009’s Rappacinis Tochter, a Hawthorne-inspired musical that saw band members trade in their instruments for costumes and scripts.1 After a seven-year layoff, the German septet is back in the studio with the intention of funneling their molten cheese lava into an Edgar Allen Poe silhouette mold. The resulting House of Usher is a lively block of Rauchkäse that is decidedly more metal than its predecessor but still struggles to find the correct balance between music and musical.
For better or for worse, Aeternitas pre- and post-Rappacinis Tochter are effectively different bands. Gone are the delineations of Tristania if Morten Veland had a residence in Gothenburg during the mid-90’s; in their place, a Broadway kaleidoscope of Epica-based symphonic metal with touches of gothic, synth, and melodic death. While Avantasia seems like a good reference point for this extravagance, House of Usher resembles a musical sequel to Rappacinis Tochter more closely than Ghostlights’ 31 flavors of rock opera. A poppiness lingers under the surface, emanating primarily from Alma Mather’s sugary vocals and a chorus-heavy composition, though only rarely does the album entirely divest itself from metal. Following instrumental curtain-puller “Le Couer,” “House of Usher” opens the show with a cheese-filled tune with all the prerequisite catchiness necessitated by the genre. The track pens a straightforward script emblematic of Aeternitas’ strengths, opening with a declaratory melody and downtempo verses that string-cheese along until the orchestra colors in catchy choruses. Hook-centric cuts like “Can You Hear the Demons” and “Buried Alive” thrive under this formula, soaring across the stage with bombast and height.
Though never milquetoast, the over-the-top theatric interplay between Aeternitas’ symphonics and the dueling vocals of Mather and Oliver Bandmann often obscure the defining characteristics of each track, the chorus returning instead to the Broadway-est common denominator. “Buried Alive” blends its curious, spacey intro into its fondue fountain quite adequately, but the dubstep-pop punky intrigue of “Tears” flounders into choir vocals after being cursed out by the stage manager for not following directions. Additionally, Aeternitas’ guitars are woefully underutilized and leave most of the interesting riffs to their orchestra, similar to AMG’s assessment of Fleshgod Apocalypse’s Agony. Coupled with the fact that House of Usher is built out of pure blocks of Limburger, it should come as no surprise that the proceedings are largely toothless. This is more eventuality than side effect given the dearth of compositional variety. Compounding this issue, everything past “Can You Hear the Demons” smacks of dry-well retreads that would have been cut if not for the album’s narrative obligations. A valiant attempt at turning the cheese factor up to 11 cannot save Usher’s final act from eye-glazing homogeny, its inspirations better spent previously on the spin.
Highlights “Roderick” and “Fear” scratch the metal itch while largely avoiding the record’s Disney metal pitfalls, the latter harkening back to the Aeternitas of old with a fantastic The Jester Race-ian riff. When allowed to shine, the guitars give House of Usher a glint of steel that suggests a reigned-in symphonic production would have served the album better. To her credit, Mather rarely puts a note out of place and displays an impressive amount of range. Bandmann acquits himself admirably, but keeping up with Mather’s dynamics is a tough ask and he stretches himself thin doing so. With Henning Basse (Firewind) coming in solely for vocal production, it’s surprising that the duo is aired out at times and are easily overtaken by the full thrust of the symphonic section.
The verdict on Aeternitas is as straightforward as one of their song structures: no lactose-intolerants need apply. If you can stomach House of Usher grating Parmesan on your pasta far past you saying “when,” you’ll find something to enjoy here. The real test lies in your resilience to repetition. Variety is the spice of life and Aeternitas desperately needs some to cut this four-cheese blend.