Dramatis Personæ is the sound of a band trying to relocate the European orchestral metal canon into their snakey and spidery Southern-Hemispherical home. Australia’s Rise of Avernus would love to have Fleshgod Apocalypse‘s authentic Italian heritage of classical music and opera informing their extremity – it’s this quality which made Oracles so ground-breaking. There’s a valiant effort for this grandeur: the record’s title is a Latin reference to the character list in drama, their name refers to the Latin word for an Italian crater, and their prior release even had a pretentious French title – L’Appel du Vide. These markers of ‘credibility’ obfuscate that Dramatis Personæ is actually a fairly orthodox fusion of extreme metal with orchestrations, in the vein of Septicflesh or Dimmu Borgir. The metal component is closer to doom here, but with touches of modernity creeping into the very core-style breakdowns and beats often used.
Unfortunately, Rise of Avernus fall down similarly to Fleshgod Apocalypse‘s more recent records. The orchestrations, including keyboard, strings and horns, largely do the melodic heavy-lifting, leaving the guitars to chug along merely providing rhythm. The irony of orchestral metal is that you expect the additional instruments and classical arrangements to heighten complexity and provide a healthy counter-balance to the heaviness: instead, these extensions replace guitar melodies and elaborate percussion both here and all too often, elsewhere. From the very opening of the EP on “In the Absence of Will…” this is apparent, with strings pre-empting typical metal instrumentation. Even when the core riff has established itself, it seems to be there only to ground the music within metal, unsubtly blasting through with simple chromatic chord progressions, leaving the orchestral top-layer well alone. Only on closer “In Hope We Drown” did I note a more diverse riff which actually leads the song, supplemented, rather than dominated, by the keyboard and occasional female cleans. Dramatis Personæ is plenty heavy, with strong rhythms and blast beats underpinning much of the record, but the tangible dichotomy between the metal and the orchestral lets the material down, as writing memorable guitar lines is largely neglected.
To be fair to the band, the production is also responsible for the limited metal nuances. The mixing emphasizes the strings and piano above the guitars, leaving the heavier layers to compete in a limited dynamic range. It’s the industry standard of 6 but this does not do justice to a genre which necessitates melody from both distorted and classical instruments. That the chosen guitar and drum tones could definitely be more crunchy to juxtapose the orchestrations hampers proceedings too.
All this is a shame since I think Rise of Avernus are on to the right idea. At its core the music is often entertaining, tying the free-flying and generous orchestrations with serious moshing-potential in the core-influenced breakdowns and chugging riffs. Aside from a couple of soft interludes, their style shifts between mid-paced doom often adorned with sombre chants and subtle-enough piano (see “In Hope We Drown”), and more energetic blast beats and simple riffs designed to induce head-banging (“In the Absence of Will…,” “Acta Est Fabula”). These sections are very simple and what you would find in metalcore – albeit with more violins – but there’s a reason why it works, as it fuses the melodic with the aggressive in a compelling way. “Acta Est Fabula” epitomizes this, with a harsh spoken-word passage narrated by Enslaved‘s Grutle Kjellson followed by a breakdown All That Remains would be proud of. The highlight is “An Alarum of Fate,” featuring a little bit of everything Rise of Avernus does well with an epic chorus and the least offensive male cleans on the EP.
I feel like this is a solid starting point, clearly demarcating the band’s intentions and style but falling short of spectacular. Given Dramatis Personæ is just an EP, I’m hopeful for a better integrated duality of the classical with the metal in the future, especially given their slim streaks of originality. Since when did shrimp and Fosters even try to compete with the Renaissance and the opera anyway?