Since the label’s inception, The Artisan Era has been edging into Unique Leader’s territory like it’s the South China Sea. With Inferi, Augury, and a slew of up-and-coming tech-death acts under its thumb, the label has established an ear for quality in an overindulgent niche. And as much as The Artisan Era’s output tends towards the frilly, keyboards-and-synth-orchestra side of the genre, I’m still keen to hear from their bands, and Washington’s Aethereus have my attention.
Absentia stabs at the very heart of tech death in 2018, extracting a sound that draws from all the capillaries of the genre. While the album structures itself like an indulgent epic a la Beyond Creation, the riffs deftly mix techy melodicism and the strangling dissonance of Ulcerate. The gripping opening track “Cascades of Light” accomplishes this via the Deathspell Omega trick of simply neglecting to un-fret notes after they’re played in the melodic line, letting them run together into a ringing chord.1 In fact, the main melody of “Cascades of Light” — as demonstrated in the song’s piano-led bridge — is surprisingly beautiful, and provides material for the rest of the song in the form of melodic contours or emphatically placed chords. At six and a half minutes, “Cascades of Light” manages to feel both exciting and easy to follow because of the band’s clever re-use of this catchy melody. Later on, “Fluorescent Halls of Decay” gets plenty more mileage out of the Deathspell technique by beginning its jarring main riff with a descending swipe of the strings. With this in hand, the band embarks upon a slower and groovier journey that courts the more brutal among us and does a damn fine job of it.
Not every song on Absentia is so successful, however. The title track relies on an Obscura-esque riff that feels positively jaunty and the song seems constructed mostly to provide solo spots, both of which feel cluttered by too much background motion. The symphonic interlude “Mortal Abrogation” simply shouldn’t be on this record; it’s cheesy and detracts from the excellence of the rest of the record’s A-side, which is good enough to make the back half feel a bit lackluster. Both “Absentia” and the instrumental “The Black Circle” contribute to this as well, to the extent that the album appears to really lose steam after “Fluorescent Halls of Decay.” Luckily, Aethereus still have some fight in them after these, and “The Pale Beast” combines intense technicality and a sense of grandeur into a closer strong enough to wrap up the last Inferi album all over again, even sans Strnad.
In this day and age, one rarely needs to comment on the performances coming out of a tech-death record; there are a ton of great players out there, and suffice it to say Aethereus are all among them. Equally satisfying is the album’s production, which throws the spidery guitars into a sharp relief and captures the bass and kick drum with equal care. Gone are the days when all tech death sounded like a gated-and-gridded release from some bedroom deathcore act; Absentia continues the welcome production style of modern, somewhat more organic tech production and uses a light touch on the master to boot. Even during the songs, I’d rather skip, this record sounds fantastic.
If it’s tech-death you want, Absentia delivers. Aethereus‘ debut has its share of missteps, but their mix of modern tech death techniques hits the spot, drawing from many of the genre’s modern front-runners. Consistency is the band’s next hurdle; the four really great songs here, “Cascades of Light,” “Writhe,” “Fluorescent Halls of Decay,” and “The Pale Beast,” would make for a great EP, but the rest of Absentia can feel a bit like padding between these momentous songs. Still, the material is there, but it makes one wonder how long the current mainstream tech-death sound from the likes of Beyond Creation and Inferi will stay in vogue. Aethereus are somewhat successful in bridging the gap between these bombastic bands and the shuddering unrest of Ulcerate et al., but it’s just that intermediacy that puts them in danger. A band like this can either innovate or stagnate, and despite its success, this album does little of the former. But for the time being, Absentia proves Aethereus both extremely competent and a worthwhile addition to anyone’s prog/tech-death library.