Altar of Plagues’ Teethed Glory and Injury was one of last year’s biggest head-scratchers. A bizarre re-imagining of White Tomb’s post-black bliss, Teethed’s percussive industrial guitars, electronic ambience, and strange fascination with interpretive dance was a far cry from the droning chords and go-nature/fuck-humanity outlook of earlier releases. Oddly compelling, but it hardly satisfied my ‘flannel shirt black metal’ craving, spurring me to seek artists capturing Plagues’ older essence. In this search, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Internet (right next to erotic Sonic the Hedgehog fan fiction, if I recall correctly), I uncovered Downfall of Gaia, and my dick has been crooked ever since. Their 2012 Metal Blade debut Suffocating in the Swarm of Cranes was a prettier and more riff-dense version of Plagues’ Mammal, proving ‘x-worship’ isn’t always a dismissal when a band can succeed so convincingly. Flash forward to today – how does Aeon Unveils the Throne of Decay measure up?
Ignore the Myst-screenshot cover art: Aeon is a great record, vast in scope, bumping up the black metal influence and dominating the sound Plagues first revealed. Though the bands share no members, those who think I’m stretching the comparison are directed to opener “Darkness Inflames These Sapphire Eyes,” whose impending-apocalypse ambiance is nearly identical to White Tomb’s prelude. Similarities continue: fiery blastbeats over whooshing, choral guitars? Check. Ultra-raspy shrieks coupled with distant, bellowing wails? Check. Sludgy, lumbering riffs and desolate interludes with drumbeats building to a sky-collapsing crescendo? Check and check – see “Carved Into Shadows” and “Whispers of Aeon,” respectively.
It’s absolutely familiar – but when it’s so engaging and performed without a twitch of insincerity, so what? Moreover, the band manages what few copycats can: they actually improve the base sound. Whereas Mammal milked riffs dry, Aeon lovingly introduces them, gives them their moment of glory, and then directs them offstage as another superb moment takes the forefront. See “To Carry Myself To The Grave,” whose initial progression channels Weakling in all its battlefield-galloping glory before layering on echoing, desperation-ridden melodies and collapsing into a rapidly picked line that crashes like a coastal rain squall. Likewise, the opening riff of “Whispers of Aeon” is pure second-wave black metal, but rather than garnishing it with a flurry of blastbeats, the band shift into a washy mid-paced trudge before bursting into one of the most menacing verses on the album.
Some of these transitions could be smoother, like the seemingly unintentional false-ending on aforementioned “Sapphire Eyes,” but these moments are infrequent – instead, it’s the production that really bothers me. Excluding the bleak plucking of instrumental “Ascending The Throne,” the album comes with a disappointing DR of 5. Like Panopticon, music like this should be allowed to blossom and breathe free – here, it’s a bit too constricted, and while the compression does lend a powerful wall-of-sound feel that grew on me with subsequent listens, one is still all too aware this was created in a studio.
Thankfully, all elements remain well-balanced and clear, allowing the performances to shine. And shine they do – the drumwork, in particular, is excellent, with transcendent blasting, lively cymbal-crushing buildups, and steady ambling beats merging gracefully into the compositions. The guitars are similarly impressive – the tone has bite, resonance, and an immense feel of mournfulness, with varied riffcraft in the blackened bashing, eruptive arms-to-the-sky melodies (“Of Stillness and Solitude”), and squealing landslide sludge (“Carved Into Shadows”). And I don’t care how many times I hear a climatic chord shift coupled with a distant roar – I want to clench my fist and howl with pleasure every time.
Through it all, one might miss that Aeon is, in fact, a concept album about time, which ‘passes without mercy.’ (Having spent the last three hours massaging my genitals to pictures of Amy Rose, I can certainly relate). Sealed with distorted-guitar-turned-sad-piano instrumental coda “Excavated,” the album and concept are intriguingly developed. But the burning question remains: are Downfall of Gaia mere clones? Despite the similarities, not really – their diversity of riffs, greater abundance of soaring climaxes, and lack of Plagues’ experimental edge establish them more as a refinement than a carbon copy. Sure, the mix saps some danger and mystery, but that’s nearly excusable given the material’s sheer potency. Admittedly, those who find Wolves in the Throne Room toothless or cringe at the ‘D’ word (hint: no hearing in the afterlife) may want to pass; for the rest, don your headphones, take a long nighttime walk, and try to forget how you’re wasting your life jerking off to hedgehog porn.