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Album Review: Aeternam – Ruins of Empire

Aeternam is a band who has never gotten its due praise. The Canadian band formed in 2007 and dropped their debut album, Disciples of the Unseen, in 2010 on Metal Blade Records. Pretty impressive for a debut album. Over the course of their three albums, they’ve developed a unique blend of symphonic death metal with “oriental influences.” Their sound makes them part of a small group of bands along with Whispered and Wintersun on Time I that play what I like to call “Panda Express Metal.” The sound I refer to is when a mostly western band incorporates “eastern” and “oriental” sounds into their music. We can argue whether this is cultural appropriation or if it’s respectful or authentic, but today I’m just gonna stick to whether it sounds good or not.

Ruins of Empires is a formidable and detailed album. Even after just the first listen, it is clear a lot of work went into the varied metal writing, the detailed and masterful orchestrations, and the balance between the two. Aeternam is clearly influenced by big label symphonic metal bands and their songwriting and production gives you nothing to separate them from those sorts of bands. Think Epica, Blind Guardian, Wintersun, Borknagar, Fleshgod Apocalypse, or Dimmu Borgir, and you’ll have a good idea of the style and quality. It actually surprised me that this album was self-released and not one of these big label bands. You’ll find both growled and clean vocals all over this album, which are both done well. I especially like the clean vocals but I’m probably in the minority.

Each song tells a different epic story and the writing provides a good amount of variety between epic, aggressive, and beautiful music. “Sun Shield” echos of great movie scores mixed with Borknagar. As soon as the sweet, crisp clean vocals leave you, the band shows off it’s more aggressive song as the song is overtaken by blast beats. The contrasting chorus of this song is catchy and melodic enough for any power metal fan too. “Fallen is the Simulacrum of Bel” provides some great forward driving death metal and beautiful choral voices. My favorite track, “Nightfall on Numidia” is actually not too heavy but incredibly effective and moving. There’s plenty on this album to enjoy.

I do have some grievances, though. First, the late romantic symphonic/operatic paradigm seems strangely juxtaposed with the “oriental” sounds. For example, the first song opens with a Latin text, just like any self-respecting, cheeseball symphonic album should. But wait, isn’t this supposed to an oriental band? The song seems to be about a holy war of some kind, maybe about the British controlling Jerusalem? Why is there a Catholic text at the beginning? There’s a disconnect between the means of communication and what is being communicated. It would be one thing if the band was a western band using a western language to tell a variety of stories, some western and some not, but the band is clearly attempting to incorporate non-western music into their music. I’m not saying bands can’t share the sounds of other countries, but this isn’t authentic imitation. It’s more like what you would hear in a 1940s classic Hollywood movie to signify exoticism. Further, some of the “oriental” influences, which is a word I use lightly for this album, seem pasted on superficially and a bit cheesy. Compare this to other bands attempting to incorporate true Asian music into their metal like Orphaned Land or Tengger Cavalry and you’ll find it to be much smoother and more authentic than this album. The “Asian-ness” on this album jumps out. Take, for example, the song “Praetor of Mercury.” Around the 2:45 mark the music seems to stop and scream at the listener “LOOK ITS ETHNIC” and then go back into a normal melodeath song. It’s not believable or smoothly transitioned. The same thing happens in the middle of “Sun Shield.”

Aeternam shines the most when they aren’t reaching for this cultural gimmick. Without it, their music could easily go toe to toe with Fleshgod or Epica. I wish they would just be a really good symphonic death metal band and quit the other stuff. It doesn’t serve the songs. It doesn’t come off as sincere or authentic. It just gets in the way. That aside, they have written some really great, high quality, epic metal here. And for that, I can’t be too angry.

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