Much ink has been spilled, here and otherwise, virtually and physically, on the hardships in following up on a masterpiece. Life goes on; your career as an artist goes on. You wish to make more art, but the weight of what you had just produced, whether a month or a year have passed, looms constantly on the horizon. Countless bands have fallen victim to this most dire of straits and the question: how should one treat their own sound following a masterpiece? Should the same style simply be repeated in the effort of creating, if not another masterpiece, a pleasing facsimile of what’s already worked? Or should the previous style be discarded, since there’s no way you’re going to recreate the circumstances of the previous release and thus might as well seek other, as-fertile pastures?
Persefone are no newcomers to metal, but they do stand in the shadow of their previous release, The Spiritual Migration. This album, lauded by many (including us) as a masterpiece of modern progressive metal, completely destroys any but two or three other releases in its own genre. It was, and remains, fresh, surprising, intimately familiar and yet, somehow, irreverent at the same time. Therefore, when the band announced a crowdfunding campaign for its follow up last year, titled Aathma, breaths were held across the community. Can Persefone achieve one of the two options above? That is, can they either recreate something close to The Spiritual Migration or, failing that, depart from that monumental creation into something just as good?
The simple answer is no. 2017 sees us delving into a Persefone album that’s hard to delve into, as it continues little to distinguish itself within the band’s own career and the trajectory their sub-genre has been on for years. You see, when stripped down to bare parts, what most attracted the purveyor of modern progressive metal (here’s a reminder on what that means) is how unexpected, bold and fresh The Spiritual Migration was. In contrast, Aathma is incredibly safe, sounding exactly as one would expect it to. Even worse, save for a few breakaway tracks like “Prison Skin” or “Stillness is Timeless,” most of the album also sounds stale and un-evocative.
The flaw lies in many places, a multi-faceted failure which nonetheless, can be traced to three different sources. The first, and most important in Persefone’s case, is the guitar work. The Spiritual Migration enjoyed incredibly evocative, inventive and simply downright surprising guitar composition. Hear, it has been replaced by late-era Dream Theater-like riffing upon riffing upon bridging upon soloing, blocks and blocks of guitar sounds which, while technically proficient, lack any type of feel or expression. Even worse, they simply don’t distinguish themselves from each other, leading Aathma to mingle together into an indistinguishable soup of separately valid ideas lacking any cohesion.
This ties into the second point, as such a lack of flow might be attributed to how hard the band tries to push the concept of the album on this release. Similar to the route of Cynic and The Contortionist (Paul Masvidal’s vocoder-heavy guest spot on the album should tell you more than you need to know), it appears as if Persefone has decided to double down on the Eastern-philosophy-influenced lyricism and aesthetics. While those ideas were present aplenty on The Spiritual Migration (just the album name is enough to make that point), it was infused with this sense of grandiosity and power which the above two bands have never been able to achieve. But on Aathma, that ease of expression and immediate power of ideas, even if sometimes expressed awkwardly as on the previous release, is completely missing. Instead, voice overs, sprawling song structure, reoccurring themes and more elements in service to a concept bog down the album. From the decision to open the album with not one but two intro tracks, leaving the first moments of Aathma disjointed and out of context, to the decision to split the last track into four parts without any apparent reason for it, Persefone stumble again and again on the different elements of a concept album instead of just making one. Things feel either too calculated or superficial, an awkward paradox that leaves the album sounding weak.
Which brings us to our third, and perhaps most fatal, point of contention: the synths. One of the things which made The Spiritual Migration so damn good was how little the synth roles on it “made sense” in the traditional, progressive metal sense. They would swoop in and out of the composition; their tone was rich and beguiling; they were just so damn huge. Here, they have been almost completely neutered, left to the roles always reserved to them by bands who don’t have a better idea what to do with them, namely unisons and solos. Their tone feels smaller, their roles feel more limited and, overall, they seem symptomatic of the lethargy gripping Aathma by its throat.
We’ve spent more than 700 words by now on saying why the album isn’t that great, which might lead someone to thinking that it’s terrible. It’s not; we simply love the band so much that we’d rather focus on the flaws, as we’ve proclaimed to do many times in the past. To reiterate: Aathma isn’t a terrible album. Many of its parts are serviceable, its production is good and the technical proficiency is there. But when measured against the verve, boldness and sheer power of their last release, it falls immeasurably short, at best another addition for die-hard fans of the sub-genre/band and at worst, a sad monument to the intangible, elusive and ephemeral nature of masterpieces.
Aathma is available 2/24 via ViciSolum Records, and can be pre-ordered here.