This is their third studio album, but Aephanemer crossed my path with their second, Prokopticon, which was an easy winner of my Album of the Month in March 2019. I've been eagerly awaiting the next album from them and somehow completely missed it, given that it saw release in November. Fortunately, I have January to catch up on this sort of inadvertent omission! The good news is that it's another really good album and, now I'm past the COVID I had when I was first tackling this, it's easy to see that. COVID clearly messes with the appreciation centres of the brain and it frustrated my appreciation of this one for a while.
Listening now, it's hard to imagine how I didn't fall for Antigone immediately. It's a lively piece for the first track proper, almost a classical dance translated into melodic death metal. There are old rhythms to it, both in the bouncy keyboards and the lyrical delivery in the verses, but the style is a new one, mostly melodeath but with a firm black metal influence in Marion Bascoul's vocals and a few wall of sound sections. This leads to a song that sometimes sounds like Mozart and sometimes Cradle of Filth, which is an unusual but welcome mix.
Of Volition is a lot more traditional, if traditional is a word we can use with Aephanemer. After an Enya-esque opening, it chugs along like melodeath is supposed to, finds a neat melody to layer on the top of it and ends up as much like Iron Maiden as anything more extreme, albeit with a French accent that's there not in the vocals but in the textures of the guitar. Anyone listening to this just has to assume that the band are from somewhere on the continent.
Most of this album is closer to Antigone than Of Volition, but there's another element that spices it up considerably, that's there throughout but obvious on Roots and Leaves and that's prog. This was always my favourite piece from my very first time through, even when COVID wasn't letting a tired brain comprehend what was going on, but it keeps on getting better. There's dynamic play in everything that Aephanemer do but it's at its best on Roots and Leaves, which is a gift that keeps on giving. It's not shocking to find a guitar interlude following it, before the band leap into Strider.
It's easy to call out the songwriting as the best aspect of Aephanemer. Sure, we critics can conjure up comparisons here and there—they've clearly been listening to a lot of Dark Tranquillity—but it wouldn't be fair to suggest that they sound like anyone except themselves. That's an achievement in melodic death metal, where so many bands sound just like *insert favourite Gothenburg sound band here*, and it's sourced as much from of their unique songwriting as Bascoul's dark vocals or the clean symphonic tone of Martin Hamiche's lead guitar. Both those things are in evidence on songs like Panta Rhei or Le Radeau de la Méduse, but they're not the only reasons why they're so obviously Aephanemer.
I don't think this album holds together quite as well as its predecessor, though I really ought to go back to that to listen afresh. It's still a really good album, though, cementing Aephanemer for me as a rare melodeath band with a unique sound of their own, a highly symphonic take that trawls in prog and black and even a little folk, given the presence of Old French Song here, which is a cover of a piece by Tchaikovsky. It can't be coincidence that I prefer my classical music Russian and vibrant, something that I fully expect Hamiche to find too, given that he rarely misses an opportunity to do something in that vein with his guitar.
Now, to not miss the next Aephanemer album in a couple of years time...