This past January the Israeli band Orphaned Land put out a highly ambitious album that attempted to further their blend of progressive metal and the indigenous sounds of Yemen and Israel, but despite pulling out all the stops, the entire production fell flat. The marriage between the two disparate style lacked cohesion, it was unbearably bombastic, and the songs simply did not deliver like they should have. On the other hand, Aealo, the tenth album by Greek black metal greats Rotting Christ, succeeds in every aspect where Orphaned Land failed, wasting no time in finding the perfect balance between ambitious extreme metal and the folk music of their homeland. Considering just how consistent the band has been over the last 20 years, that shouldn’t be a surprise, but the further we dive into Aealo, the more impressive and extraordinary it turns out to be.
Taking its title from an ancient Greek word meaning “catastrophe”, Aealo is an impassioned tribute to a land and race that has endured a lot of hardship over centuries. Granted, that’s not exactly a stretch for Rotting Christ, who explored similar themes on such exceptional albums as 1996’s Triarchy of the Lost Lovers, 1997’s A Dead Poem, and 2007’s remarkable Theogonia, but there’s a life to the new record, a palpable sense of passion that makes it one of the strongest efforts in their very deep discography.
The core of vocalist/guitarist/leader Sakis Tolis, longtime drummer Themis Tolis, bassist Andreas Lagios, and guitarist George Bokos is as solid as ever, as the foursome provides workmanlike black metal arrangements, with the requisite tremelo picking, throttling tempos, and ornate melodies, but more than ever before, they rely on various sonic accoutrements and guest musicians to enhance the music, and it works beautifully. There’s no self-indulgence to this window dressing, either, as every outside touch is tastefully used and rendered with the skill of artists disciplined to know how much is too much. Traditional string instruments are utilized to wonderful effect on the cinematic “dub-sag-ta-ke” and “Eon Aenaos”, while the great Primordial frontman A.A. Nemtheanga lends his formidable vocals to the moody “Thou Art Lord”.
Female vocals play a vital role from start to finish, something made apparent instantly on the title track, as a Greek women’s choir leads the track off with mournful, chanted verses. Masculine and feminine voices interweave in spellbinding fashion on the majestic “Demonon Vrosis”, gentle female harmonies underscoring Sakis’s menacing growl, while similarly, lithe, delicate upper-register guitar melodies and a sublime mid-song solo offset the stomping groove of the rhythm riffs. “Nekron Iahes”, meanwhile, puts those entrancing female vocals front and center, serving as a fitting introduction to a harrowing finale of the album, which is highlighted by a stunning reading by Diamanda Galas of “Orders From the Dead” from her 2003 conceptual piece Defixiones, Will and Testament, in which the vocal legend delivers her indictment of the Turkish genocide of Armenians, Assyrians and Anatolian Greeks in the early 20th century, marvelously backed up by an elegiac arrangement by the band.
Indeed, it all comes back to the actual band, and the four musicians rise to the occasion, their use of dynamics so well-timed, fully knowledgeable that an extreme metal band needn’t be blast-beating all the time. Sure, we do get faster fare like the whirlwind “Santa Muerte”, but the band’s ability to mix things up keeps us riveted, whether it’s the deliberate, almost primal pace of “Noctis Era”, the exotic jamming of “Fire Death and Fear”, or the ominous march of “…Pir Threontai”. In fact, Aealo is not unlike the recent albums by fellow black metal veterans Marduk and Gorgoroth, who have managed to reinvent themselves to the point where it truly feels like they’ve achieved a late-career creative breakthrough. Theogonia felt like Rotting Christ was starting to head in a direction towards something special, and this new album sees them coming closer than ever to that goal.