I recently had a revelation while listening to Hamferð’s stunning debut that the reason why I typically avoid reviewing doom metal is because there’s rarely a middle ground in terms of quality. Traditional doom is typically such a minimalist affair that, if it doesn’t land the intended emotional gut-punch, it results in the most boring of slogs; I can’t recall encountering a doom metal album in recent memory that is merely “okay.” This previously subconscious aversion is what led me to Australia’s Rise of Avernus. Labeled as “Orchestral Doom Death” in AMG’s top-secret promo vault, I figured this Australian act would at the very least make for an interesting listening experience regardless of quality, and with Eigengrau being their second LP, it’s more likely that they’d have their ambitious sound already dialed in. Indeed, Eigengrau is far from boring, and even quite good at times, but Rise of Avernus’ identity crisis makes it a regularly frustrating listen.
For much of Eigengrau’s conservative forty six minute run time, the proceedings don’t exactly reflect their promised doom/death approach. There’s a good dose of melodic death metal1 to be sure, but most of the record’s doom moments are relegated to its first half. Here, the aesthetic is conflicting yet admittedly intriguing; the Epica levels of bombast that endure through the album’s entirety clash with melancholic lead guitar progressions, with the guitars occasionally breaking into traditional death metal grooves that form more suitable backdrops for the dense orchestrations. It’s in Eigengrau’s latter half where RoA finally hits something resembling a consistent stride, with riff-centric aggressive passages (complete with blastbeats) sounding something like an emotionally nuanced Fleshgod Apocalypse.
If this all sounds a bit confusing, that’s because it is. Eigengrau was a tough record to wrap my thoughts around. That’s not because of confusing songwriting – the flow of the individual compositions is actually one of RoA’s strongest suits – but rather because, tonally, this record is all over the place. A small handful of cuts nail a consistent atmosphere, the most notable of which being the ambitious cross-pollination of accessible, Amorphis-esque modern metal and post-metal creepiness a la The Great Old Ones found on “Gehenna,” but most are frustratingly hit-and-miss in their execution. “Forged in Eidolon” is perhaps the worst offender, sporting bland riffs paired with predictably bombastic symphonic arrangements in its first half, yet delivering an utterly compelling back-end that wipes the established slate clean, quickly building a smartly melodic and emotionally exhilarating finale.
More frustrating still is the production. The orchestrations are mixed so high as to frequently obscure the guitars, which was perhaps to be expected since there was clearly an ass-load of effort poured into them. I’m not certain whether the symphonic arrangements are artificial, because they sound so good that you’d expect Eigengrau to have the kind of funding from something on Nuclear Blast. As a result, traditional metal instrumentation falls to the wayside in terms of mix and tone; the generic, stock death metal tone utilized isn’t exactly inviting, and the obnoxious, sticky smacking of the snare and bass drum often make for a downright unpleasant listening experience. It’s easy to forget about the production woes when RoA is performing at their peak – see the propulsive finale “Into Aetherium,” which heightens both the band’s doom and death propensities to create one of the album’s meatiest, most dynamic affairs – but when the music slips into bland bombast, the technical issues are impossible to ignore.
As I reach the end of this review, I realize that I’ve yet to comment on individual performances by the band members. Eigengrau is delivered competently, from the growls to the tremolo runs to the blastbeats and so forth, but the wide-ranging sounds on offer are so damned ambitious that my ears much more frequently gravitate towards Rise of Avernus’ aesthetic uniqueness. Yet too often it feels like the band wants me to like them because of their ambitions alone, as the patchy framework that supports Eigengrau is only engaging for roughly half of its runtime, and the serious production pitfalls heavily hamper its less-than-gripping passages. Even so, the half that remains can be downright absorbing at times, and if Rise of Avernus could regularly deliver the emotional thrills of their brightest ideas, they’d have an absolute hit on their hands. As it stands now, Eigengrau is a dishearteningly hodgepodge affair indicative of an act that hasn’t quite nailed their niche in the exponentially expanding metalverse.