Downfall of Gaia are one of those rare bands where there’s a compelling argument to make for any of their releases being a personal favorite. From the gnarled neocrust of Epos to the post-metallic somberness of Suffocating in the Swarm of Cranes and Aeon Unveils the Thrones of Decay to the urgent melodic-black-metal infused Atrophy, they’ve never quite retread the same ground twice. Instead, the members of the German/American quartet have chosen to spend their career together exploring different facets in the robust crossroads between black metal, neocrust, and atmospheric sludge metal and rearranging the common building blocks of all three into a variety of shapes.
If one were to write a singular narrative describing the movement of the band’s career, the obvious path to take would be their increased movement into metal and away from their crusty roots, but there’s a lot that would have to be thrown by the wayside to make this work. Although, yes, they have never since been as purely neocrust as on Epos, the ensuing three albums have only moved towards a more metal sound in inches. I’ve seen diehard fans of their early work online bemoan their movement towards metal (and, admittedly, I also found Atrophy to be a bit too heavy on the black metal aspect of their sound for what I want from the band) but listening to Epos or Suffocating and then Atrophy really shows that any sort of stripping of crust out of their sound has been incremental to an extreme.
So where does Ethic of Radical Finitude fit in on a spectrum of the band’s works? First single “As Our Bones Break to the Dance” offered a good indication from day one; the sound we see them capturing on Ethic sits comfortably in the dead center of the meeting ground between black metal and neocrust, not forsaking the post-metal sound they pursued on Aeon entirely, but certainly putting that part of their musical personality on the back-burner for this record.
Looking back on Atrophy – a record on which I thought Downfall of Gaia sold themselves short – it’s hard to not see it as a test run for Ethic. All of the same tendencies towards an icy black metal edge that evokes Immortal or Wiegedood color this album, but they don’t feel nearly as rootless or speculative as they did there. Whereas Atrophy would throw in a strong black metal riff every once in a while to change things up, on Ethic, they feel like events: when that side of their sound emerges around the 3:45 mark in “As Our Bones Break to the Dance” for a hot second, it feels like a jolt of pure aggression that enables the band to return to the melancholia they were playing around with before. Put simply, it feels organic now.
That’s not to imply that Ethic doesn’t stand on its own merits. The record’s core – the two ten-minute epics that come back-to-back, “We Pursue the Serpent of Time” and “Guided Through the Starless Night” – are perhaps two of the best tracks the band has put to tape as of yet, ebbing and flowing between cosmic beauty and tight, sharp-edged riffing as well as they ever have. The first few minutes of “Guided Through the Starless Night” deserve to a special shoutout; the track’s first half in general should be shown to all as a perfect example of how to escalate a song’s momentum. The album, in general, never really drops the ball or misses any beats, and at no point did I feel as though anything should have been other than what it was. (I’d point to this more as an outcome than the reason why, but the tight 40-minute runtime certainly doesn’t hurt in this regard.)
All in all, what we get on Ethic of Radical Finitude is a version of Downfall of Gaia that have managed to perfectly marry two sounds they’ve studied for over 10 years at this point: the desperate urgency of neocrust meets black metal’s aggressive bite and cold atmospherics for an album that is as energetic as it is melancholic, as powerful and hard-hitting as it is beautifully textured. While their tendencies for post-metal atmospherics falls a bit by the wayside as a result of their renewed sharpness, it’s hard to find fault in what the band has accomplished here: Ethic is a fantastic illustration of a band honing their craft to a razor’s edge and creating truly excellent music.
Ethic of Radical Finitude comes out on the 8th of February through Metal Blade Records. You can find a rich and interesting description of the album as both a product and a creative process, as well as merchandise, on Metal Blade’s website.