Aeternitas are show people. The touch of a thespian graces every pocket of their off-off-off Broadway metal career. 2016’s House of Usher took a step back from their Rappacinis Tochter stage show, to a green-as-a-clover Dr. Wvrm‘s great relief. Even then, the Poe-inspired production struggled to balance theatrics, symphonics, and plain old musics. Now, the Germans ditch a single narrative for a collection of them in hopes that fifth entry Tales of the Grotesque can mend the gap between art and fart. It’s one ripe cheese wedge, but don’t be surprised if it reeks ever more of eye-watering Époisses instead of classy Camembert.
Everyone from Xanthochroid to Hoth have laid claim to the cinematic metal tag, but Aeternitas own the damn thing. “The Tell-Tale Heart” comes loaded for bear with intertwined vocal leads, concept lyrics that lead the gothic atmosphere around by the nose, and symphonic layering more processed than the cheese on a Lunchables pizza. In other words, nothing has really changed. As with Usher, the struggle to blend riff with Rachmaninoff denies the listener a chance to interact with the music. The full blast symphonics boot the actual instruments outside the hall, leaving only overwrought vocals and an overbearing production to carry the record. “The Tell-Tale Heart” itself fails to cut through all the bullshit and provide true emotion. This trend extends across the record, resulting in a hit-or-miss roller coaster ride based on the efficacy of the pre-fabricated construction and often mediocre choruses. When done well, “The Raven” and “The Portrait” build a sense of purpose despite their flaws. Strong hooks – exempting the vocal quality – and a surprisingly competent team effort direct the track in ways that most songs can’t. The norm instead tumbles up and down through “Child of Darkness,” floundering in a sea of troubles.
So the cheese wheel is still tumbling down that hill, and not you, not me, not a hundred brain-dead Brits can stop it. But even Aeternitas must progress, and “The Experiment” outdoes itself en route to the most head-scratching moment of my metal reviewing career. The track’s bombast works fine until a repetitive “Let It Go” rip-off chorus scorches every bit of earth it can. It’s a befuddling decision that adds new depth to the “Disney metal” pejorative I leveled at them last time. Every person with ears heard that song at least once in 2013 and the connection, intentional or otherwise, is both intrusive and unnecessary. Even exempting the chorus, it bears the band’s hallmark ability of trying to do far too much, win, lose, or draw. That tactic stands in stark contrast to the less-is-more songs that work the best, tracks like “Eldorado” and “Dream in a Dream.” With a piano in the former and Blind Guardian-styled acoustic guitar in the latter, both simply and effectively do with one instrument what most other tracks fail to do with the whole damn concert hall.
Aeternitas tap Julia Marou to take over Alma Mathar’s female lead role in a like-for-dislike trade. Marou may be lifeless and monotone, but she can’t break the album on her own. I can’t say the same for Bandmann. Marou garners most of the spotlight, a small coup given the overwrought and often painful performance opposite her. “Deus Ex Machina” and “The Bells” in particular embody Bandmann’s nadir, with the latter further exacerbating the band’s tendency to just miss the mark. “The Bells'” super-saturated saccharin might have been an easy win but for both distinctly awful sets of vocals. The production – with Henning Basse (Firewind) back for guest vocals and some assistance in the booth – is a gargantuan monstrosity that does no one any favors. Vocal forwardness aside, rending worthwhile riffs from the auto-pilot guitars is hard enough without the symphony stealing their lunch money every song.
Expecting Aeternitas to fully drop their theatre-inspired raison d’etre in exchange for some unshackled song-writing and a tempered approach is a lot to ask. However, those hoping for even a modicum of progress will be disappointed. Just as many moments on this album leave me shaking my head at the waste of potential as wincing at a missed note or yawning at an unsuccessful hook. The metal just isn’t as important to the record as their conceit, and it shows. In the face of their last record – one that I still maintain was decent – Tales of the Grotesque can’t exit stage right fast enough.
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Massacre Records
Websites: aeternitas-official.bandcamp.com | aeternitas-online.de | facebook.com/aeternitas.official
Releases Worldwide: June 29th, 2018