On the surface, the concept of ever actively reducing complexity seems fairly antithetical to entire purpose of technical death metal. Considering that this is a genre that prides itself on taking an already extreme form of music and heaping layers of further intricacy on top, why would one ever want to head back in the opposite direction? On 2015’s excellent A Maze of Recycled Creeds, France’s Gorod released what was possibly one of their most intricate offerings yet to unanimous praise. So why alter that winning formula?
Aethra (or “mother of the moon“) does just that, taking a deliberate and measured step back from the overwhelming technicality that has otherwise defined Gorod’s recent works. From the outset, opening track “Wolfsmond” still treats us to the rapid-fire bursts and delightful jazz-inspired chord work that have remained a mainstay of the band’s sound. However, there is a clear emphasis on punchy riffs over mile-a-minute lead guitar work, and across the remainder of the album, it quickly becomes apparent that Aethra is Gorod taking a step back and instead exercising their mastery of what fundamentally defines their sound. And it’s fucking good. Predecessor A Maze of Recycled Creeds was already an absolute delight while being probably the band’s most technically challenging album, but Aethra frequently harkens back to the grime and punch of 2006’s legendary Leading Vision, from the snappy low-end work on “Hina” to an absolutely filthy downtempo breakdown in “Goddess of Dirt”. Somehow, the album manages to balance the unmistakable virtuosic flair of 2010s Gorod (“Bekthen’s Curse”, “Chandra and the Maiden”) with being an unrelenting slab of absolutely nasty tech death at its core, and that alone is enough to make Aethra a phenomenal listen from the get-go.
In the midst of all this, the band still manage to expand their horizons in other ways. Perhaps the most notable addition to the album are Julien Deyres’ clean vocals, as briefly heard on lead single “The Sentry” and title track “Aethra”, the latter of which brazenly approaches the closest thing we’ll probably hear to Gorod taking a page out of Crack the Skye-era Mastodon‘s book. While clean vocals were somewhat sparingly used in the band’s previous works — such as the Transcendence EP and a few of the narration parts in A Perfect Absolution — Aethra happily puts them front and centre on multiple occasions, and does a surprisingly cohesive job of it. At no point do the clean parts feel at odds with the remainder of the music, with the title track in particular featuring an absolute earworm of a chorus. Beyond that, Deyres’ history background also allows him to bring a neat thematic element to the album; each song on Aethra retells the story of a different lunar deity, which is then vividly brought to life by colourful guitar lines that happily swing between snappy blast beat-driven riffs and tasty jazz fusion-inspired licks.
It’s unlikely anyone expected a veteran band like Gorod to so dramatically shift gears and release an album like Aethra at this stage in their careers, but the metal listening world is genuinely better off for it. Much like fan favourite “Transcendence” before it, the album synthesizes everything there is to love about this band’s eclecticism so effortlessly that it’s hard not to immediately find oneself swept along. Between its fantastic grooves and impeccable guitar work, Aethra is a solid front-runner in a year that’s already seen a ridiculous amount of excellent releases — and definitely waxes far more than it wanes. (Sorry.)