Æther Realm – Redneck Vikings from Hell Review

“Everyone’s desperate to get good in the beginning. And then, once you get decent, it gets kind of boring. You feel like you’re drawing the same thing everyone else is.” – Sing “Yesterday” for Me

I’m fascinated by what we humans do to keep ourselves from spinning our wheels in the mud slick of inertia and apathy. The binge/purge cycle of new interests, consuming your thoughts, identity, self-worth, inescapable in its totality, until suddenly dissipating into the (a)ether the moment shit gets hard, the moment the boredom of basic understanding takes hold, the moment your self-expectations can’t live up to reality, and you ignore the crushing self-loathing as you move onto the next shiny toy. Redneck Vikings from Hell speaks to me on that level. In what is easily their most creative album, Æther Realm do what must be done: free themselves from the tower of Tarot,1 “American Wintersun,” and the weight of big-label expectations with an album entirely their own.

On paper, Æther Realm remain a trendy mix of folk and melodic death metal. In practice though, RVfH is unlike anything the North Carolinians have ever produced. Out: the intricate long-form compositions rivaling Wilderun’s best. In: shorter, punchier songs less devoted to the journey yet still trying to mean something. Catchiness is pronounced differently too, as there’s more focus on earworms that are rooted in chorus and structure, rather than monumental riffage. The record even approaches identity from a fresh angle. Where Tarot embued each song its own story and feel within a singular mammoth sound, RVfH instead pulls a card from every deck they own, tarot, Pokemon, or baseball. Rarely do any two of this motley collection sound like they belong on the same record.

Tumbling between the Charlie Daniels voiceovers of “Redneck Vikings from Hell”—courtesy of the surprisingly versatile Jake Jones—is a rollicking, tongue-in-cheek tale of redneck Viking mayhem that surely will have Alestorm partaking of cups. Yet nestled in the superlative, not-your-daddy’s Wintersun meloshred is the one strength that previous Æther Realm releases lacked: their personality. The endearing charm of Ol’ Big Leg and the Æther Boiz always engaged fans online and in-person but until now remained separate from their music. Seeing that humanity manifest in “She’s Back,” the devilish sequel to fan-favorite “Swampwitch” or the Bodom beatdown “TMHC,”2 an ode to their unofficial fan club, is more than welcome. And don’t mistake silliness for weightlessness; Æther Realm’s ability to emotionally wreck you remains intact. The too-close-to-home “Cycle” fucks my shit up as completely and totally as “The Sun, the Moon, the Star,” now in one-fifth the time!

But with change comes pain. Anyone looking for a touchstone back to Æther Realm’s previous material may feel lost. Certain songs—good (“Cycle”), bad (“Goodbye”), and ballad (“Guardian”)—sound like a completely different band. Nothing on the album stands toe-to-toe with Tarot on technical quality, save perhaps “Craft and the Creator,” an 11-minute instrumental wedding of melodeath to everything from djent and synth to flamenco and Wilderun orchestral arrangements. Everywhere you look is potential undone—”Hunger” and its awkward chorus rhymes, “Slave to the Riff,” overstuffed to the point of sloppiness, or “Lean into the Wind,” which takes half a song to unearth a sublime direction and 20 seconds to fumble it away. Worse, the peaks of prior records just aren’t there. Where once they were so rich with material that they sentenced all-time-fucking-great “The Magician” to death as a single, now Æther Realm lean on the bland “One Hollow Road.” It’s hard to swallow, but RVfH’s best moments shine only as bright as a waxing moon in an endless sea of stars. Too many tracks stumble in too many ways, and the end result is the weakest collection of Æther Realm songs to date.

Despite these qualms, the fool will still pin a tacky hatred on Æther Realm’s evolution, rather than the band’s actual execution. “Very different, but not very good” will contort into “Different, not good.” In truth, it’s the difference that RVfH has going for it. Stagnation is the death of art, and whether to stay interesting or stay interested, Æther Realm’s expansion of ideas and influences is off the charts. It feels weird to say, but given the lack of primetime hooks, the worst songs are those most traditionally Æther Realm. Don’t get me wrong. The band’s raison d’être, the chariots-of-fire-in-the-Wintersauna riffs that guitarzillas Donny Burbage and Heinrich Arnold sling, remains intact—if restrained by newfound temperance. But what got Æther Realm this far, the American Wintersun™ brand? I don’t think applies anymore.

For better or worse, Æther Realm have unshackled themselves from a sound that was never wholly their own and would weigh down their career, sooner or later. They are the emperors of their own fate now. RVfH stands not as the follow-up to Tarot, not as the first big-time record since the move to Napalm, but as a reaction to those things. It reflects an urge to shrug off the expectations and demands of both, and the result is easy to respect, if not love. Whether Redneck Vikings from Hell’s quality surpasses the bar set by the standards of fans, the label, or the genre itself is irrelevant; it accomplishes its goal. The boys from North Carolina sure ain’t playing the same thing as everyone else.

Rating: 2.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Napalm Records
Websites: aether-realm.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/aetherrealm
Releases Worldwide: May 1st, 2020

Written By: Eldritch Elitist

In an alternate universe where fun has not been canceled, I am, at this exact moment, gearing up for a headlining show from North Carolina’s Æther Realm. Paladin has just wrapped up a predictably killer opening set, and I’m waiting in anticipation to hear how material from Redneck Vikings from Hell will play in a live context. Obviously, in our own timeline, fun has been canceled until further notice, and to cope, RVfH has become the soundtrack to my isolation. As many fans gathered from its singles, this record is not something that anyone expected to come off the back of 2017’s monumental, best-in-its-genre Tarot. Perhaps that’s for the best; Tarot feels virtually insurmountable, so to pivot into neighboring sonic territory feels smarter than attempting to best its predecessor. This results in an accessible yet deceptively experimental record which, despite infrequent misfires, makes for addictive pop-melodeath comfort food. And yes, it is really fucking fun.

Æther Realm has always set themselves apart from their influences by subverting lyrical expectations, and this has never been more true than with RVfH. Where Ensiferum rides high on drunken battle cries and Children of Bodom revels in crude machismo, Æther Realm is unabashedly earnest. The opening title track sets a great example, poking fun at the irony that is a band of Southern boys playing overtly Finnish melodeath while blending strains of American and Celtic folk. It’s a helluva blast of on-point Ensiferum worship with an excellent rhythmic tangent in its final minute, and it’s hardly the only song of its type. “She’s Back” offers an efficient, whiplashing sequel to one of the band’s best early tunes, and recalls Nekrogoblikon at their best. Penultimate cut “TMHC,” meanwhile, showcases some of Æther Realm’s catchiest lead guitar work to date in a simultaneous love letter to both their fans and Children of Bodom.

As fun as things get when Æther Realm sticks to what they know, Redneck Vikings from Hell is actually at its most compelling when traversing riskier waters. “Goodbye,” while not immediately compelling, has stuck with me through its oddball combination of melodeath melancholy and arena rock pomp to become a surprise favorite of the record. The similarly accessible “Guardian” is another unexpected standout, an aromantic and achingly vulnerable ballad that might be my favorite metal ballad since Sonata Arctica’s early days. Further experiments are made in writing otherwise straightforward melodeath tunes, with tracks like “Lean into the Wind,” “One Hollow Road,” and “Slave to the Riff” ending in curiously anticlimactic fashion. These subdued denouements work from a thematic standpoint when considering the songs’ lyrical trajectories, but from a musical standpoint, the letdown is hard to ignore.

Sporadic songwriting flubs aside, Redneck Vikings from Hell sees Æther Realm operating stronger than ever from a performative standpoint. Most notably, Vincent Jones’ harsh vocals sound more full-throated and aggressive than they did on Tarot, and RVfH’s increased variety allowing him greater opportunities to express his smoky cleans. Tyler Gresham’s drumming is effortlessly blasting as ever, and guitarists Heinrich Arnold and Donny Burbage continue to dole out some of the most charismatic lead guitar performances in the genre. The eleven-minute instrumental “Craft and the Creator” is the purest showcase of these talents to date. The first half of this composition is flat-out amazing, a collection of dramatic swells punctuated by massive hooks and eclectic percussion implementation. The second half is less impressive, but the clean transition into it is natural, and successfully closes the record on an effectively introspective note.

Redneck Vikings from Hell is a record destined to divide Æther Realm fans due to its more accessible nature; that is, after all, kinda the point with this double review. Yet setting aside its handful of confusing songwriting decisions and one track I haven’t managed to fully connect with (the mid-paced, workmanlike melodeath of “Hunger”), RVfH’s successes dwarf its missteps. It is unquestionably the record I’ve spun the most this year in the short time I’ve had it, as it’s a helluva grower filled with evergreen songs that frequently hide more depth than their glossy exteriors imply. I’m admittedly hoping Æther Realm’s next venture is a bit more ambitious, as Tarot proved the band capable of crafting an absolutely outstanding album. Until then, RVfH is a very, very good one, and more than satisfying enough to hold me over until the next outing from what is fast becoming one of my new favorite bands.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Literally, without exaggeration, my favorite album in all of music.
  2. Tiny Metal Hand Crew, for the uninitiated.
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