After listening to their new album Tarot it’s really tempting to compare North Carolina’s Æther Realm to the big names in folk metal and melodeath. The most obvious one is Children of Bodom, especially given vocalist Vincent “Jake” Jones’s spot-on imitation of COB frontman Aleksi Laiho’s trademark “Yow!” But calling Æther Realm “a folky Children of Bodom” totally doesn’t do the band justice. With this album they show that they’re oh so much more.
I first saw and heard Æther Realm in early 2013 when they opened for Turisas at the former Jaxx in Springfield, VA. At that time, they had just released their debut full-length, 2013’s One Chosen by the Gods. It was a pretty standard Viking metal album in the vein of Ensiferum or Amon Amarth (not “Viking metal,” I know). Since then, their sound has gotten bigger and badder, with even more addictive melodic hooks and death metal heaviness, plus some symphonic and black metal touches. While they’ve still got a foot in the folk and pagan metal scene, with this album they plant themselves firmly in melodic death metal.
And they haven’t gone unnoticed – last year, they did a US tour with Alestorm and Nekrogoblikon, and they’re embarking on a European tour with Alestorm in September. They’ve made it! And Tarot makes it clear why. This album is epic, in all senses of the word – they tackle larger-than-life themes with this concept album about the Tarot deck, and they pursue not just melodies and heaviness (although there’s plenty of both) but also symphonic grandeur and acoustic beauty to create an atmosphere of magic and mysticism.
The first song, “The Fool,” introduces all the expansive new elements in their sound – morose tremolo riffs that wouldn’t be out of place in atmospheric black metal, a solemn choir à la Caladan Brood, poignant clean vocals. There are also some heavy headbang-compelling riffs and some seriously harsh harsh vocals. The second song, “Tarot,” is the one that will really have your heart racing and your head banging. It combines racing riffs and an epic soaring melody, with a groovy, stompy part halfway through – more mandatory headbanging here. This is probably my favorite fast song on the album.
Just about every song also has some melodic hook that will have you hooked, but of all the insanely catchy melodies, “The Tower” probably has the catchiest. Just see if you can stop yourself dancing or rocking out to this song.
After that we get a special treat with guest vocals by Chris Bowes of Alestorm on, of course, “King of Cups.” The music also has a bit of that pirate-jig Alestorm sound. Overall, the sound is COB meets Alestorm, plus Æther Realm’s own style of fantastical melody – a little folky, a lot epic, like something that belongs on a fantasy movie soundtrack, if the whole movie was shot in fast forward.
In a total change of pace, this is followed by “Death,” a slow and melancholy song that calls to mind Wintersun’s slower songs, and it’s every bit as catchy and moving as “Death and the Healing.” So that’s my favorite slow song.
The next song, “The Chariot,” which they’ve been playing live for a long time, is one of their more obviously COB-like songs, with heavy pounding guitars and snarlier vocals, although they still have their own melodic touches, too. There’s undeniably more of a death metal vibe to this album than their debut. And also some blackness: the next song, “The Devil,” features a grandiose dark sound over blast beats and harsh vocals with more of roaring sound.
Toward the end of the album, a moody feel takes over, with a lot of clean vocals, melancholy riffage (the main riff of “Strength” recalls one of Amon Amarth’s few moody songs, “Embrace of the Endless Ocean”) and pensive lyrical themes. From Jake’s expressive, somber voice, you’d never believe this guy once wore a pizza costume on stage 😉
The last song on the album, “The Sun, the Moon, the Star” (Stars?) is 19 minutes long. You know you’re reaching for the stars when you attempt a song that long – but they shoot the moon with this one. For a while I didn’t even realize the song was that long, meaning it doesn’t get boring. After the bit-tunes intro, there are more Wintersun vibes in the melancholy sound and later on, the cold fury of the riffs. Even the lyrics sound like Wintersun:
Cold is the wind that chills me down to my bones
And cold is the knowledge that for this I abandoned my home
Cold is my sorrow, like a knife in my chest
And cold is the path that I chose
With their slower pace and clean(er) vocals, the last few songs also best showcase Jake’s lyrics. My favorites, from “Strength”:
Light will dim, and hope recedes
You can hang yourself from the gallows tree
But in time even the mightiest oaks will fall
Will you still be there at the end of it all?
Ash to ash, dust to dust
Swords grow dull and iron rusts
I feel the weight of the water bearing down on me
But I got two good hands and I know my strength
I also like the prayer in “Temperance,” which is accompanied with acoustic guitar and gentle keyboard:
Gods I call to thee
Grant me life and strength
And if my strength should fail
Grant me force of will
Should my will be broke
Grant me light and hope
And If my hope recedes
Give me death and peace
And, from the last song:
The Sun, the Moon, the Stars
Shine less brightly with you so far
I never knew sorrow
’til you asked me to follow my heart
For all the tales I’ve told
And these whispers of silver and gold
I’d throw them all away
To gaze on your face once more
I can’t find anything bad to say about this album – it’s about as near perfect as you can get. If you want something as aggressive as Children of Bodom, as melodic as Equilibrium, from a band with a sense of humor like Alestorm, and as epic as the almighty Wintersun, then this is the album for you.