Gorod has been a highlight of the tech death scene for over a decade. While they surfaced in 2005, I was first bowled over by 2009’s Process of New Decline. The record had razor-sharp riffing, sick harmonies and a techy sound that gave Obscura‘s Cosmogenesis a run for its money in the ‘best tech death of 2009’ awards. Gorod‘s precision riffs and intensity surfaced again in 2012 on a blistering (and as I joked “notey“) A Perfect Absolution and the band dropped A Maze of Recycled Creeds in 2015. Æthra, which is being released from the band’s new home at the French label Overpowered Records, is Gorod‘s sixth slab of techy goodness.1 Through all of it, Gorod has yet to release a bad album. Therefore, the question I wanted the answer to when I finally got a chance to pop the album on was “will Æthra be good or, like, really good?”
The musicianship in Gorod is ridiculous. The baseline expectations for tech death have always been extreme, but Æthra is another reminder that the genre requires true virtuosity to stand out. The virtuoso guitar work from Mathieu Pascal and Nicolas Alberny hammers this point home. Throughout Æthra, the two work together in lockstep, surgically manufacturing harmonized Björriff (“Goddess of Dirt”) after doubled-up solo (“And the Moon Turned Back,” “Hina”) and throwing in heaps of infectious groove. A player easily as accomplished as Gorod‘s impressive axemen, Benoit Claus’s bass rumbles, swoops and undergirds the techy and sometimes even neo-classical riffing (“Hina”). Claus’ bass bolsters Karol Diers’ powerful drums to unify a rhythm section as impressive as any in death metal. Diers’ performance is notable for his versatility. He slides comfortably between grindy intensity (“The Sentry”) and splashy jazz cymbals (“And the Moon…”), never out of his element. Æthra is a masterclass in technical skill, and it’s a more progressive record to boot.
Æthra is Gorod‘s most dynamic album yet. Nowhere is this as clear as in vocalist Julien Deyres’ developing style. Deyres contributes, on top of growls and screams, throaty cleans, monotone sludge-scream/singing (“The Sentry”), and black metal screeches (“Chandra and the Maiden”). While at its core, Æthra shares A Maze of Recycled Creeds‘ directness, Gorod navigates epicycles around its techy core. At times they push into blasty, blackened territories, while at others they remind me of The Hunter era Mastodon (“Æthra,” “The Sentry”) with rough cleans in a minor key driving these pieces forward. There’s never a sense that anything feels out of place as the record rips along. Gorod‘s mastery of its style means the listener never questions when they wander into Opethian bong water prog on the title track or drop half-time breakdowns that would make Whitechapel red with envy (“And the Moon…,” “Goddess of Dirt”). It all meshes into an album that is as thoughtful as it is fun to listen to. Even the surprisingly Behemothy “Bekhten’s Curse,” with Deyres aping Nergal’s “heretic priest” delivery, felt perfectly logical on the album despite being a quirky moment in Gorod‘s history.
It helps, of course, that Gorod finally got the production they deserve. While A Perfect Absolution has aged alright, both A Maze of Recycled Creeds and Process of New Decline suffer from dated tech death production. Æthra, on the other hand, features a sound that is sharp, but that for once doesn’t feel dated. The drums sound like drums, while the guitars have a wide range of great tone. Æthra is loud, of course, but not among tech death’s worse offenders. Claus could be higher in the mix—he’s easier to lose as he doesn’t use a fretless bass—but he’s still present, if not prominent. Weirdly, Æthra was more immediate in cheap earbuds than in my monitor headphones or speakers. It could be that this is “user error,”2 but I do sometimes wonder if people don’t mix and master with small speakers in mind.
Æthra is a tour de force that displays Gorod‘s particular talents for writing and performing fun and brutal music. The dynamic songwriting and, in particular, vocal and guitar performances, make for a sound that may not be as brutal as it was when I discovered them nigh on a decade ago, but that is just as impressive. Aside from minuscule complaints—throwaway guitar solos (“Goddess of Dirt,” “And the Moon…”) or a mix that’s more direct in bad speakers—Æthra is a record that is difficult to fault from a band that’s popular, but not as popular as they deserve. Now it just needs to stand the test of time.