I love Insomnium. Big shock, I know. Of the eight reviews with Insomnium namedrops this year, I own more than half of them. Imagine my dismay when, upon returning from
re-education vacation, I stumbled across a lonely slab of Insomnium-core from November, unreviewed and unloved. From Greece, to boot! Aetherian laid their pearly adoration for melodeath’s upper crust before swine and I’m going to give them their due1. Good thing too, because debut The Untamed Wilderness establishes the Greeks as yet another act to watch in the genre’s burgeoning underclass.
Opener “Wish of Autumn Twilight” underwhelms initially, with a few noticeable defects I’ll touch on in a bit, but a hallmark combination of Insomnium and Be’lakor do just enough to warrant letting the album spin on to the second track. Good thing too, because from second-slated “Dark Earth” forward, Aetherian start slugging bombs out of the park. The marvelous instrumentation encapsulates everything right about the album: gorgeous, cryptic riffs, developed with a natural ease, and stitched together with the unexpected beauty of Omnium Gatherum, the subterranean pall of Be’lakor, and the thick downpour of Insomnium‘s finest. Guitarists Angelos Maniatakos (ex-Damned Creed) and Giorgos Evgeniadis clearly earned top marks in Subtle Hooks 101, slipping attention-grabbing nuggets into “Seeds of Deception” and “As the Veil Fades” that could easily center their own progression. Instead, Aetherian keep things moving and it keeps the songs fresh. The more deliberately paced “Shade of the Sun” and “The Path” lose nothing off their stride, consistently banging out quintessential Insomnium moments without feeling recycled or tired.
Would that I could slap a 4 on this and call it a day. But alas, disappointment is a popped kite string away. Today, it’s the vocals, the grating, mood-crushing equivalent of Bell Witch with an Alaskan throat singer on the mic. Bassist/vocalist Panos Leakos’ substandard growls feature a jarring, crackling fry that are somehow more abrasive than his work in Mist of Nihil. As with the tectonic atmospheres of Be’lakor and Insomnium, Aetherian‘s own labyrinthine forests require a crushing presence to complete the picture. Instead, Leakos feels overmatched. My first spin almost saw me quit the album on “Wish of Autumn Twilight,” before Aetherian‘s glorious riffs could worm into my brain. As The Untamed Wilderness hits its stride, overlooking him becomes easier, and in rare instances, Leakos feels more at ease in the music. I can’t help but wonder if I’m subconsciously tuning him out or if the production is quietly sucking him further into the mix in an attempt to let the riffs shine.
An inherent rawness in the production exacerbates the lack of varnish on the album. The album handles its poignant acoustic passages well, with masters left mercifully un-cinder blocked, but the main thrust of the record needs more thunder. The drum performance in particular, though nothing to write home about, could stand to be plumped up. The Untamed Wilderness‘ tactile deficiencies are light enough to be written off as a first album hiccup, but they represent an area of need going forward. If nothing else, putting a little more meat on the guitars could only help. Maniatakos and Evgeniadis already do so much with their time, pouring purified riffs down your earhole at every opportunity. They benefit from an uncanny focus necessary to tie their long-form compositions together, though at times those compositions might be better served with a haircut. Seven-minute “Black Sails” is the best of the both worlds. Aetherian deftly subvert the record’s established tonality with an unexpected folksiness, natural harmonics, and a trio of acoustic passages, but stay on message with some of the best riffing on the album.
If it seems like this review has too many gripes for a positive score, know this: The Untamed Wilderness, albeit flawed, is some of the most enjoyable melodic death I’ve heard this year. Awards for originality and Top 10 appearances might have to wait until next time, but the riffs here can (and do) carry a tugboat on their back. Aetherian have some kinks to work out, but if they can, they’ve got a bright future ahead of them.