Us no-wage slaves ceaselessly cranking the almighty Angry Metal Guy Patented Review Mill (patent pending) usually have the choice between handing a review in at least 12 days before release or receiving 50 lashes and a metalcore promo. But now and then, the brutal roar of Steel Druhm‘s voice comes through the trap door above, barking orders to review a promo that has already been released but is so good it still requires a write-up, lest the unwashed masses find themselves missing out. Such was the case with Aeternam‘s latest opus, Ruins of Empires, and wiping the blood-streaked sweat from my gaunt and hollow face, I volunteered with quavering voice to accept the burden.
Not that there is much of a burden to listening to Ruins of Empires. Aeternam have produced another fantastic slab of oriental symphonic death metal, a scorching album of 1001 great songwriting ideas, splattered with inventive middle-eastern melodies and instrumentation, and expertly weaving between pummeling bluntness and subtle acoustics. “Damascus Gate” opens on ominous drums and chanting, but it wastes little time on subtlety; before the minute is out, grandstanding guitars knock the pieces off the board, chased by an avalanche of proud symphonics. The influence of oriental metal godfathers Orphaned Land is obvious but this album is much more immediate, and when the song abruptly switches gears into an almost Swedish death metal slaughter it feels natural and fitting.
The knack for impeccable songwriting is what lifts Aeternam far above the level of peers like Myrath. Like watery rapids the tracks have a lively yet continuous flow, never feeling like they were stitched together or awkwardly placed. The occasional jarring moments, such as the sudden break for acoustic world music in the middle of Behemothian knockout “Sun Shield,” are calculated wake-up calls but fit like peanut butter and jelly. The way the band builds up the tracks with impeccable balance between memorability and diversity reminds me of Wilderun in the best way, although Ruins of Empires is less progressive than that.
Good songwriting means nothing without great musicians to execute it, and the band does not let down. The graceful oriental scales flowing ceaselessly from the guitars are spot-on, whether in backing riffs, lead licks or the plentiful solos. The majority of the vocals are a massive growl reminiscent of Nergal, but the cleans are performed just as admirably and choirs are used tastefully and effectively. The drums are clearly not satisfied merely providing a backbeat; especially when the music speeds up the full range of the kit is employed with great precision. The bass does tend to get buried, as is customary in symphonic metal, but here’s an omelette.
More than anything Aeternam bring proof to the sum being more than its parts. A great many elements went into Ruins of Empires but none of them are superfluous and are used with care. Two largely acoustic songs, “The Keeper of Shangri-La” and “Nightfall on Numidia,” allow for some breathing room amongst the dense orchestral acrobatics, without which the album would overwhelm. But on the heels of the former, “Fallen Is the Simulacrum of Bel” creates an immediate pick-me-up with Dimmu Borgir style symphonics, forming a dynamic counterpoint to the soothing folk and ensuring the pace stays high. This is a fully formed album, more than just a collection of songs even though the tracks are not directly connected, and that balance is where the band shines.
Which makes the one big flaw all the more galling. Aside from the acoustics, Ruins is marred by a brickwalled production. It makes me want to stab someone in the scrotum, because I cannot fathom the train of thought it must take to decide an album with this many tracks and this many elements vying for attention needs to be squashed into the auditory equivalent of apricot jam. Other than this rather sizable gripe, there is little to complain about. The instruments sound bright and the mix is great, although the bass is under-appreciated as usual. A more dynamic master would have made a great album into a masterpiece, but it was not to be.
However, don’t let this turn you off Ruins of Empires. Oriental metal may no longer be the new kid on the block, and the market has been thoroughly broken in, but wares of this quality are always in demand. The songwriting is nearly flawless, the execution full of fire and the balance impeccable. Aeternam rose from the snow and pine of Canada and dragged their audience before the Gods of desert sands. Don’t miss this.