Why do I do this? I am not paid to write here; I wouldn’t mind but I never set out to cash in on my inconsistent drivel at 700 words a pop. Love of the gig, the craft, the community all register and indeed carry me when nothing flows and everything comes out like shit, but that did not impel me to sign up. Having something to say reads more like a line on a CV than a raison d’etre, but maybe. Tarot make me think so. I can count on one hand the number of records that so immediately and viscerally impacted me as Æther Realm‘s second effort. Rectifying its absence here might just be why Jørn put me on this planet.

Breathless, electric-fingered riffs that sounds better than anything written in Wintersun‘s sauna; deep orchestral compositions contributed by Dan Müller of Wilderun fame; a flair for the theatrical not unlike Xanthrochroid and fellow North Carolinians Undrask; shout-along choruses that bang around your head for months on end; only a baby-hating commie would complain about that. But what puts Æther Realm on that next level? Is it the melo-centric multiverse’s worth of influences? From “The Chariot,” the best Children of Bodom track in a decade, to “The Devil,” a Fleshgod Apocalypse stomper with infectious cadence, to Song of the Year candidate “King of Cups,” featuring who else but Alestorm’s Chris Bowes, Tarot reveals a new facet with every card it unveils. Is it the narrative achievement of allowing a lyrical collection of page-turning vignettes like “Tarot,” “Death,” and “The Emperor” to culminate into a fulfilling storyline? What about titanic closer “The Sun, the Moon, the Star,” an near-twenty-minute epic that, despite whiffs of self-indulgence, could hang with “Mana,” “Cockroach King,” or “And Then There Was Silence” any day of the week?

Maybe it’s the charisma. Screwy yet well-executed diversions into flamenco, Old West player piano, and even chiptunes only bolster the distinct appeal of each song’s identity. Æther Realm‘s online presence brands them as preeminently self-aware and quite likeable, and bassist/vocalist Vincent Jones lets that quality bleed into his performance. His delivery is easy to follow and never loses legibility or fails complement the day’s adventure. The production likewise is one of the best jobs of the year, somehow finding space to treat blast beats, choir swells, virtuoso solos, and orchestra sweeps with all the love and tenderness they deserve. Both emphasize emotional connection with the music, worming you through the fearful flight of “Tarot,” the resignation and resolve of “Strength” and “Temperance,” and the tear-jerking climax of “The Sun, the Moon, the Star.” Unlike other albums that tout a hollow concept as a main draw – or worse, sacrifice principled musical  composition at the altar of the narrative – I found myself fully invested in the careful balance of artistic mediums.

Maybe it’s that combination of story and spark that made my listen today, probably my 50th of the year, as engrossing and blood-pumping as my first. Maybe it’s none of the above, and instead is some intangible that I’ll never nail down. The album should suffer no detractors, not even those armed with the minor but legitimate gripes about length or excessiveness, because what Æther Realm have achieved here is spectacular. I have no idea how they will top Tarot, but I can’t wait to see them try.

Tracks to Check Out:  “King of Cups,” “The Chariot,” and “The Sun, The Moon, the Star”