Our overlord’s prolonged stay in the dark dungeons of higher education has yielded mostly secondhand stress and delayed Record o’ the Month articles for Angry Metal Guy Himself. But in my case, it has now resulted in not one but two offers to review the great Aeternam, one of the very best when it comes to MENA-folk influenced metal. Ruins of Empires was a slam dunk back in 2017 with its fresh, engaging mixture of Middle Eastern melodies, hard-hitting melodic death metal and progressive structures. Polished to a T and rich in hooks and excellent performances, the Quebec quartet would have a monumental task constructing a worthy follow-up. Have they managed to push themselves to new heights, or do we look upon their latest work and despair?
Nigh every recording artist of success, be it artistically, financially or both, finds themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is repeating yourself too often and becoming rote; the hard place is changing too much and ruining what was never broke before. Aeternam manage not to circumvent these problems, but to balance them, by making small steps to buff their sound further without changing their core essence. Al Qassam is much like Ruin of Empires in many ways. You still have an incredibly varied sound, using Middle Eastern scales and instrumentation, symphonic elements, pummeling drums and lashing riffs, a mixture of harmonious clean vocals and Åkerfeldtian growls, with progressively structured tracks that weave the oriental instrumentation in with the metal so fluidly it feels like second nature.
But it’s not a 1 on 1 copy of Ruins. The songwriting has been polished a step beyond its predecessor, managing to hit hard and be incredibly easy to listen to. An album with this many layers and elements that flows as beautifully as Al Qassam is a rarity indeed, yet aside from a cringeworthy spoken word interlude in “The Bringer of Rain,” not a single note feels awkward or out of place across the album. Every track has a face of its own, using particular instrumentation or choirs sparingly, varying the atmospherics and unleashing a plethora of beautiful hooks. No track outstays its welcome; each moment feels vitally important and the ending always comes well before a composition seems to run out of ideas. The final track is the best example of this: “Poena Universi” is a dark, ominous storm that uses battering riffs and bombastic choirs to construct devastating hooks. This is how you deliver a closer.
My sole gripe with Ruins is the production, which is pretty brickwalled and does not do the rich instrumentation and symphonics justice. Here, too, Al Qassam has made steps but not strides. The master is slightly more dynamic, giving much needed breathing room to the orchestral and folk instrumentation and the choral arrangements. That’s not to say it could not still use more; music this layered needs all the breathing room it can get, and in that regard, Aeternam still stubbornly stick with a receptacle that’s slightly smaller than what lives in it. But rather than actively fatiguing, the density here is merely mildly disappointing, and the expert mixing makes it much easier to forgive.
Aeternam continue to prove how utterly baffling it is that they do not currently have a label. Al Qassam does not make major leaps up from its predecessor, but considering how thoroughly excellent Ruins already was, the fact that it has managed to give even that a spitshine and a tune-up is a considerable feat. Like a sandstorm summoned by Sumerian gods, Al Qassam batters, pummels and enchants in equal measure, with gorgeous folk melodies interweaving progressive death. Impeccably polished songwriting, spot-on performances and a gracious flow smoothened to perfection, Aeternam remain at the absolute pinnacle of MENA inspired metal.