The vaunted sophomore album. The dreaded sophomore album. It’s a metal rite of passage nowadays, fully reflective of our hyper-streamlined society, for the raw and promising to go from who-the-fucks to our favorite bands in an insanely compressed period of time. This tends to be especially true for AMG favorites—see Wilderun, Æther Realm, Khemmis, Cân Bardd, Altars of Grief, Hamferð, etc., etc. Since the opening bars of their 2016 debut Momento Mori, I prayed that someday Aephanemer would assume their rightful place in that most hallowed legion. The French quartet lacked polish, but succulent melodies and an air of elegance buoyed a debut that screamed “Next Big Thing.” But now duty demands patience and a stony gaze; no fanboying allowed. Prokopton must stand on its own, no matter how palpable my priapism.
Thankfully, Prokopton eases much of my apprehension post-haste. The opening title track immediately unfurls a clear blue sky and a rushing breeze, soaring over the once-fetid swamps of Kalmah now purified by poise and grace. “Prokopton’s” use of synth elements replicates the intent of those Finns, though in practice, the luminous orchestration—replete with essential violin tones—add a refined air. Martin Hamiche leads the geyser of riffs, their kinetics coalescing with the cascading strings of synth melody to make the title track’s rampant Kalmah-turned-Ensiferum energy direct and delicious. But while “Prokopton” works, it also feels relatively restrained, in danger of falling into the mid-tempo trap that defanged Memento Mori. Despite Hamiche’s delicious melodies, Aephanemer‘s earlier work exuded inexperience. The ingredients were there, but with less capable hands compiling them, something was missing: a draw, a pull, a cohesion to slap a bow on it.
Prokopton solves this issue in part by writing some of the best damn intros I’ve heard in this tired, beautiful genre. Seriously. Pop “The Sovereign” on and tell me you feel nothing in your cold, bored, prog-infested heart. Tell me you’d rather listen to more buried screams and blast beats than the burst of Running Wild exuberance of “Back Again,” or the oh-shit-here-comes-the-jam build on “Bloodline,” or the third-act immediacy of “Dissonance Within.” Whether or not the energy keeps up is beside the point (it often does, don’t fret); every song is set up for success. The songwriting displays a seasoned approach, aged unnaturally quick in three short years, utilizing those early earwvrms to their maximum capacity. Aephanemer flag and develop their core melodies smartly, building on Memento Mori‘s cards-on-the-table approach but adding a necessary level of complexity. The melodies are irresistible, slick without feeling cheesy, raising the bar higher and higher as the stacked tracklisting progresses. This may lead some to fatigue or the perception of wankery as the dense orchestration, the riff cannonade, the unrepentant energy can overwhelm with little respite. However, this is the trade-off necessary to excise the dull moments that plagued the over-long Memento Mori and it’s absolutely worth it. Aephanemer‘s improvement is immediate and immense.
Even extending past the songs, the record oozes quality (just look at that Nik Sundin art). Rhythm guitarist Marion Bascoul helms the mic, and does so with a unique blend of unconventional accent, controlled temper, and that distinctive timbre that female growls tend to have. Her subtle cadence shifts from verse to verse add essential variation to a less rangy delivery that might have felt rote without it. When she dips into her cleans on “Snowblind,” the sophistication and quality add depth to what is otherwise Prokopton‘s only less-than-legendary track. The Dan Swanö mix sounds gorgeous, working in Mickaël Bonnevialle’s drums in impactful ways and giving the overall production an unsynthesized beauty that melodeath often lacks. However, Lucie Woaye Hune’s bass needs more plump, squeezed out by an unforgiving master and the galaxy of layers fighting for air beneath it.
Whether because of “Bloodline” ratcheting up the energy to seemingly impossible heights, however the hell closer “If I Should Die” stays catchy for nine whole minutes, or the many, many riffs, hooks, nooks, and crannies that I can’t help but lose it to, Prokopton is firmly entrenched as my favorite melodeath record of the year. Hell, it’s probably only second to Tarot (another sophomore starlet) since I’ve started here. “The Sovereign” will likely muscle out the weak for Song o’ the Year because I’m predictable and it’s awesome. I’m having more fun loving this damn album than any released in almost two years. I hoped that like many metal darlings before them, Aephanemer‘s second record would begin their trek toward eventual stardom, but you know what? The sound is fresh. The execution is impeccable. Screw the eventual. Prokopton put Aephanemer in that conversation right this minute.