Downfall of Gaia hit me hard in recent years, blowing me away with 2014’s Aeon Unveils the Thrones of Decay and 2016’s Atrophy. Both albums explored the idea of a world in decline with a combination of post-metal and black metal that proudly upheld the torch of the almighty (and sadly defunct) Altar of Plagues. Yet fifth full-length Ethic of Radical Finitude initially made me nervous due to its somewhat pretentious title and the fear that the German quartet had no tricks left in the bag. It turns out those worries couldn’t have been more misplaced, because Ethic is the band’s best album yet.
Much like previous records, Ethic is not a reinvention, but a refinement. Once again the sound is essentially a continuation of the post-black style Altar of Plagues introduced on White Tomb, complete with rushing black metal riffs, crawling post-metal buildups, and echoing melodies that sound like the spirit of the Earth itself grappling for a broken sky. Ethic further perfects this style with some of the band’s most concise writing yet. First proper track “The Grotesque Illusion of Being” does more in six minutes than most bands do in twelve, combining immense melodies with transcendent riffs that evoke the intense emotion of King Apathy1 before tying it all together with the classic “clean interlude followed by explosive ending” songwriting trick. The formula is nothing new, but its execution is so inspired I can’t help but clench my teeth at the raw power of it all. Late highlight “As Our Bones Break to the Dance” is similarly concise and potent, spending five minutes weaving between some of the most striking and evocative leads Gaia have ever delivered.
Other tracks show the band incorporating new elements and more variety. “We Pursue the Serpent of Time” spends its first minutes reeling with an aching riff before picking up the pace and delivering a dramatic bout of spoken word that sounds like something from an old My Dying Bride or Anathema song. I can’t recall the band ever doing something like this before, yet it sounds perfectly fitting. Closer “Of Withering Violet Leaves” pulls a similar trick, following its extended buildup with a deep Gothic croon that echoes with grim finality. Sadly, even though this is a very good song, I can’t help but feel it doesn’t match the potency of its predecessors. Likewise, while “Guided Through a Starless Night” attempts to mix things up by eschewing an explosive climax in favor of an extended female spoken word passage, the passage goes on too long and fails to maintain interest.
Fortunately, these are some of the only flaws in an otherwise terrific record. The production wisely abandons the wispiness of Atrophy in favor of a huge, punchy sound that perfectly captures both the cascading desperation of the riffs and the dexterity of Michael Kadnar’s drumming. Once again Kadnar remains one of my favorite drummers out there, maintaining a wholly human feel whether blasting like a madman or maneuvering his way through quivering buildups. Yet guitarists Marco Mazzola and Dominik Goncalves dos Reis are the real stars of Ethic, filling these 40 minutes with some of the most inspired riffs and melodies of Gaia‘s career. Their transitions are always fluid while their ideas are at once downcast and empowering, as if burning with the rage of a dying planet. Dominik’s vocals are the final piece that ties it all together, with a garbled rasp that sounds downright tortured—or rather, like he was tortured, but has now freed himself and is imparting every scrap of painful knowledge upon those who are willing to listen.
While I’m giving the same score to Ethic that I did to Gaia‘s previous two albums, I’d actually argue Ethic is better than either. The songwriting is tighter, the production works better, the ideas are of a consistently higher caliber, and something about it just feels far more personal than before. The result is sure to please previous fans, not to mention those interested in a more fluid and organic version of Harakiri for the Sky. Ethic of Radical Finitude shows Downfall of Gaia taking what’s worked so well for them in the past and making it even better, whittling their style down to a piercing point that drives home their harrowing message of a collapsing planet. We should all be there to listen.
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: v0 mp3
Label: Metal Blade Records
Websites: downfallofgaia.bandcamp.com | downfallofgaia.com | facebook.com/downfallofgaia
Releases Worldwide: February 8th, 2019