Review: Æther Realm – Tarot

I want you to imagine a record that has the folksy edge of Ensiferum combined with the melodic complexity of Wintersun all delivered through this very Mors Principium Est sounding package. That, in a nutshell, is Æther Realm‘s Tarot. Sounds delicious, right?

But let’s step back for a moment. If you haven’t heard of Æther Realm, I’m not surprised. Their 2013 debut, One Chosen by the Gods, which though a laudable effort in its own right, was a bit too overt in its Wintersun meets Ensiferum worship, and came off as more novelty than anything of actual substance. Nevertheless, if you did happen to stumble upon it, Gods showed that these Vikings hailing from the North – North Carolina that is – have the musical chops to recreate the melo-death magic of their forebears even if it lacked originality. And though Tarot is also chock full of all the usual troupes one expects out of a high-quality folksy melo-death release, unlike Gods, the album doesn’t fall victim to it due to Tarot’s overarching concept which forces the band to incorporate their muses in more creative ways.

The album’s concept, in case it wasn’t already obvious, is that tracks are named after the trump cards of a standard 78-card tarot deck, with each track named after one of the Major Arcana. The almost eight minute opener, “The Fool,” starts your arcane journey off in Insomnium fashion, introducing a simple but beautiful melody that continues to build tension before giving way to a venerable blast beat shit storm soon after. But the back half of this single has a somewhat power vibe to it, cresting with a delicate piano interlude accompanied with some very well done beauty and the beast vocals. It ends in a venerable chugfest though, which makes for the perfect head-nodding warm-up for the second and self-titled track, “Tarot.” Though their love affair with bands like Ensiferum and Kalmah is on full display here, this track is orchestrated with such aplomb it is easily forgivable and is one of the best melo-death tunes I’ve heard in years. Its follow-up, “The Tower,” follows in the same vein but is much more straightforward, clocking in at just hair under the three minute mark.

“King of Cups” on the other hand is what happens when Alestorm and Wintersun have a love child, and is indeed as glorious as that sounds. It features none other than Chris Bowes of Alestorm himself as a guest vocalist, and his contributions are fantastic, imbuing this fairly serious tune with a sense of playfulness and drinking song tomfoolery. “Death” goes all Insomnium again, and though a bit more subdued than its predecessors is still just as potent. “The Chariot” is quintessential Wintersun again through and through and another six half minute romp.

The back half of Tarot pretty much follows the same formula as the first, ebbing and flowing between all the various aforementioned influences offering one catchy riff after the next. If there is one major gripe to be had with Tarot, it is with the almost twenty minute Wintersun inspired finale, “The Sun, The Moon, The Star,” which is simply too damn long. There are indeed plenty of magic moments contained within but after ten high quality tracks clocking in a little under an hour, the band should have called it a day and ended it there.

Tarot was mixed and mastered by Kile Odell who did a superlative job producing and recording this album. First and foremost, the mix is very well balanced and balks on the idea of “guitars first, everyone else second” mentality that most of its contemporaries adopt, with no one instrument really dominating your ear’s attention. Odell also made sure that every harp pluck and little atmospheric accouterment shines through, never getting lost in the melo-death shuffle. I am particularly impressed with the drums, which are crisp, clear, and always ever present in the mix. Couple all that with his stellar DR10 master, which sounds vibrant, dynamic, and again, doesn’t try to make everything loud for loudness sake, and you have one of the best sounding records of the year. Make no mistake about it, all of these mastering choices were crucial to pull off an album such as this one, with all of its complex arrangements and sheer sonic girth. The fact is Tarot wouldn’t have nearly been as effective if every track had been compressed into oblivion – just listen to their debut. QED.

I think many of you will agree that melo-death and its various offshoots are one of the more jaded sub-genres of metal – which is why by the way I rarely have one on my year-end list. However, occasionally, an album comes along that pushes all of my melo-death buttons just right and rekindles my love affair with the genre as a whole. And this year that record is Æther Realm‘s Tarot. Deal me in.

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