Any dark metal project sourced from early 90’s Bergen, Norway comes with a certain expectation of orthodox-leaning ethos and full participation in the ‘true’ spirit of Norwegian second wave black metal. Aeternus is not a shambling corpse among those long dead or disinterested stalwarts. Ares (Ron Hovland) didn’t appear fully interested in any such self-immolating scene nor was his focus long on the achievements of Bathory and nor some participation in Gorgoroth‘s more notable years. In looking back upon twenty five years of remarkably restless art the soul of the collaborative and clever rhythm guitarist (Ares) speaks loudest; ‘Heathen’ best collects the wanderlust of the past two decades of composition and creates a cumulative introduction to the story thus far without feeling like a compilation of old, dead ideas.
Aeternus were inexplicably one of a few artists to convince me of the value of black metal variants after two decades of tyrannical death and thrash metal worship. ‘Beyond the Wandering Moon’ (1997) remains a howling wind of legend in my mind and the progression from that point would be nothing less than compelling. The core collaboration between Ares, Morrigan (Obtained Enslavement) and Vrolok (Sulphur, ex-Gorgoroth) would go on for three releases eventually including guitarist Radek Nemec (Amok, ex-Taake) as the style moved from folkish progressive black metal towards blackened death metal. Although many consider the projects first three albums their most ‘inspired’ and darkest material there is much to be said for the second trio of full-lengths (featuring Helheim‘s V’gandr on bass) that focused more on a mildly technical blackened death metal, peaking with ‘Hexaeon’ (2006) before a long hiatus.
The silence after 2006 was so lasting, in terms of official releases, that it began to suggest Aeternus was put to rest. My appreciation of the death metal side of the band grew during this time as comparisons to Molested, The Chasm, and even Behemoth popped up in revision. This revision prepped for the project’s revival in the early 2010’s within new collaboration with members of black metal band Gravdal, whom Ares provided live bass work for previous; The resulting album, ‘…and the Seventh His Soul Detesteth’ (2013) was confounding in terms of its moderately unfitting interruption of the progression previous. The return of Aeternus did seem to carry some kinship with the classic death metal rhythms explored on records previous, as does ‘Heathen’ to a lesser degree, but the ‘dark metal’ tag was even more fitting at this point. Otherwise the seeming lifetime between records still finds this latest triumph ultimately related to ‘…and the Seventh His Soul Detesteth’ without revisiting its material or themes.
‘Heathen’ is remarkable for its distillation of Aeternus‘ greater catalog into an uncharacteristically succinct 36 minute blackened death metal record that leads with a grand evolution of its very own sense of rhythm. From the boiling stretches of folkish riffing (“Hedning”) that recalls the early days of Aeternus to the complex arabesque death rhythms of the 2000’s era of the band (“The Significance of Iblis”, “‘Illa Mayyit”) that olden DNA lives on within far less brutal framework. The heavy hammer of late 90’s/early 00’s death metal is largely rescinded in favor of occult blackened death metal and pagan black metal liquidity, allowing for a more dynamic and emotional experience. This will appeal to folks who still idolize the genius of ‘…and So the Night Became’ (1998) that aren’t too married to the fantastic drumming of Vrolok (Erik Hæggernes) which characterized earlier releases.
In reviving Aeternus‘ full discography, most of which I personally own, in juxtaposition with ‘Heathen’ the most striking portion of the record comes with the duo of “The Sword of Retribution” and “Conjuring of the Gentiles” as their collective musical statement is more boldly melodic and almost Taake-esque in terms of transitions; “The Sword of Retribution” appears as a return to the pre-‘Shadows of Old’ (1999) melodic sense but avoids the epic Viking feel in favor of dreamlike guitar work that’d compliment modern releases from Kampfar and Helheim. “Conjuring of the Gentiles” again recalls the end of that first creative apex of the project but welcomes the aforementioned occult blackened death metal patterns that are as related to ‘The Satanist’ as they are to ‘Ascension of Terror’ (2001). This ten minute event early in the album marks it with an deeper than usual atmospheric first impression that is realized further as the album concludes but, I was most captivated by the equal exploration of death metal that only bands like Aeternus can pull off anymore.
The second great apex of the album is the combined efforts of hardest hitting “The Significance of Iblis” and the early melodic black/death metal influenced fury of “How Opaque the Disguise of the Adversary”. This is indicative of that still underappreciated gradual shift into blackened death metal but invokes the rhythmic swing of The Chasm along with guitar work that is distinctly Ares‘ own. “Boudica” actually does something similar with melodic guitar riffs but touches upon some of the Hades-like Viking spirit that characterized the earliest Aeternus output. For the sake of being more succinct than I have been thus far, there is much to be delighted by on ‘Heathen’ if you are dedicated to the history of Aeternus especially if the guitar work has been of great interest previous.
Although I am a huge fan of this project to begin with ‘…and the Seventh His Soul Detesteth’ made sure that I tempered my expectations for something less remarkable than the old works that still remain on their assigned pedestal. ‘Heathen’ is cumulative enough to leave an idiot fanatic like me pleased but also had me questioning my harsh criticisms of the previous album as well. I had initially felt that the record wasn’t much more than a sort of recreation of past ideas for the sake of a diluted ‘greatest hits’ but the reality was that ‘Heathen’ showcases the greatest strengths of Aeternus‘ long existence. There is still such power in the dark rhythms of their music but that forward-looking spirit of the project is evident even when looking over their shoulder at twenty five years of history. Highly recommended both for the nuanced style and spiritual value of the experience. For preview “Hedning” will immediately satisfy, “How Opaque the Disguise of the Adversary” will enthrall, and “The Sword of Retribution” will show the way forward.
Mock the honorless, my foe. 4.0/5.0
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