The pushed envelope is licked shut with the tongue of pretense; the understated, the conceptual, and the bizarre find friends and conduits in those few artists with both the talent and the intrepidity to wrestle their muses in their hour of greatest strength. Picasso, Rothko, Pollock and their ilk of 20th century visionaries spilled their paint and blood to destroy the boundaries of visual art, and in that avant-garde tradition, many metal musicians have found a guiding light, a beacon of utter blackness in a starry night sky. For the past two years, my “Album of the Year” honor has gone to albums that clawed at the seams of extreme metal; while imperfect, they represented a rare glimpse at the technicolor darkness trapped perpetually beyond the horizon of the genre. It’s too early to call 2015, which I must say has piddled forth only a dilute stream of quality metal; but I can say without doubt that this album is a contender.
Much like the previous paragraph, A Tunnel to Eden is pretentious. It’s philosophical – the second song is entitled “The Atheist Phenomenon” – dramatic, and ends with a half-hour suite of songs that attempt to encompass the entirety of a human life and the delusion of free will. It makes frequent references to Abrahamic tradition while decrying the very existence of God. But it’s good. A Tunnel to Eden took every risk possible to achieve an epic scope and each one paid dividends.
Alustrium‘s sophomore offering, A Tunnel to Eden synthesizes disparate influences into something new yet achingly familiar, paying heed to their forebears in Death and Atheist while incorporating flourishes only possible after melodeath’s bloating in the 2000s. The band wisely sidesteps outright tech-death while remaining virtuosic and inventive, weaving complex strands of rhythm and melody in the vein of Dark Tranquility‘s Damage Done and Character albums. If Between the Buried and Me spent less time examining the finer details of their navels, they would be writing this kind of music. Every song A Tunnel to Eden offers is just about flawless, starting with the opening title track.
Not since Teethed Glory and Injury has an opener grabbed me as much as “A Tunnel to Eden.” With its heart-wrenching lyrics of alienation and a search for self-discovery, the stage is set for the album’s ambitious and introspective lyrical concepts, which prove consistently excellent and well-delivered by the band’s trio of vocal contributors, led by frontman Jerry Martin. It’s not just the lyrics that impress here; the album’s riffs are fantastic, flaunting a heavy Gothenburg influence while diving into the brutal when needed, as on the snappy “The Atheist Phenomenon.” Almost every cut features guitar solos and wailing leads that manage to be complex and interesting while lacking even a hint of self-indulgence. Even the long and complicated leads in “My Possessor,” which recall some of Psycroptic‘s recent work, flow effortlessly from point to distant point, connecting heavy chugs to an airy Cynic-inspired solo section, complete with fusion drumming and that arpeggio from “Hotel California.”
The second half of A Tunnel to Eden is the 30-minute ‘Illusion of Choice’ suite, made up of the album’s longest and most ambitious songs (“Genesis,” “Eros,” and “Thanatos”), arriving after the beautiful mid-album instrumental “Lucid Intervals.” These stretch out the runtime of the album past what I normally consider appropriate – bringing the total length far past the hour mark. They truly are a worthy addition, but one wonders why the band chose to put all of this into one album, rather than designating it a double LP or two separate works. The ‘Choice’ suite utilizes the same kaleidoscopic palette as the rest of the album and isn’t thematically different, yet it would have been more impactful to hear the two separately. Luckily, they’re well-proportioned to act as functionally separate discs.
This may very well be 2015’s best prog-death album, and Alustrium the best up-and-coming “traditional” progressive death metal band in years. While not as jaw-dropping as Beyond Creation or as innovative – or anywhere near as dark – as Ulcerate and their nascent ilk, the band are obviously fantastic writers and performers, and A Tunnel to Eden is truly epic and inspired. Its middle-of-the-road approach might seem vanilla, but holy hell have they put a lot of sauce and jimmies on the cone – and it shows no signs of melting soon. It’s one of the year’s best releases, period, is chock-full of righteous God-denyin’ lyrics that would make Richard Dawkins bang his head, and has the prettiest album cover since Ecdysis; a whole orchard of forbidden fruits with the friendliest snakes around.