Aquilus – Bellum I [Things You Might Have Missed 2021]

Griseus by Aquilus was the best metal album of the 2010s never reviewed by It is a wonderful, ethereal, expressive, other-worldly experience tied to the metal genre by its atmospheric, blackened qualities, but spending just as much time and energy on its classical ones. It is, in short, symphonic black metal, but is so much more than this implies. This brings us to December 2021 and its long-overdue sequel, a decade in the making. Bellum I promises to be the first of a two-part release but does more than enough to stand alone as a majestic expression of Horace Rosenqvist’s solo vision.

As with Griseus, it’s not enough to describe Bellum I as symphonic black metal. It is one of the most harmonious unions of aesthetically disparate genres that I’ve heard; a union of moody black metal and transcendental classical. There is as much pure classical music here as there is black metal, though the two are frequently brazenly, often subtly, inter-woven to mesmerizing effect. This is not black metal beefing up its key melodies with an orchestra; these are compositions of the classical sort, which just happen to also wrap up heavy music. The record also generally eschews the bombastic excess of most others blending its two core genres. While there are plenty of cacophonous, intense moments, Rosenqvist’s songwriting and compositional skills feel much more restrained and deliberate. The pieces here are thoughtfully and precisely arranged, belying talent that goes further than simple melodies and harmonies.

I won’t pretend to be remotely knowledgeable about classical music, but what I can say is that there is an incredible range of classical instruments used here. However, none are discordant, overwrought or intrusive. The piano occupies a position of special importance, as some of the most moving passages involve a piano with little or no other instrumentation. The deep orchestral arrangements result in an incredibly rich experience. It’s rich with instruments, rich with atmosphere, and rich with production values. And this richness results in immersion. Bellum I dominates your whole attention and forces you into its world. In this way it’s cinematic. Not cinematic because it sounds like a film score (although it does); rather, it’s akin to sitting in a theater with a vast screen in front and surround sound around. When the music floats, you fly alongside. When it gets heavy, you’re crushed. Even in the quieter passages, it has a menacing, oppressive edge. Lots of records are described as “atmospheric” but few reach the platonic ideal of this word so closely.

Across his two albums, Aquilus has successfully bridged realms in a way that they have not been bridged before1. In a metal scene that frequently struggles with innovation, this alone stands him apart. But Bellum I is absolutely stunning as a musical piece in its own right, and does not simply ride the coattails of freshness without bringing its own quality. Those looking for beer metal can keep looking.2 Those looking for music-induced transfixion can hardly find anything more beautiful or engaging3.

Tracks to check out: This album doesn’t really work that way…

Show 3 footnotes

  1. Wilderun does the symphonic metal thing equally as successfully, but the musical approaches are starkly different.
  2. Where exactly would I look for this amazingly titled “beer metal”? – Steel
  3. And for those of you giving me shit for this in 2021’s list season, yes this will feature in my 2022 list, and yes it will be near the top. It released in December you bastards, do you expect me to make a comparative judgment on the same day I wrote my list?
« »