Persefone - Aathma - (10/10)
Published on February 24, 2017
Did someone order the
prog metal supreme?
Hailing from the little-known European state of Andorra and accounting for fully 25% of the principality’s gross metallic exports, according to the Encyclopedia Metallum. Of the four Andorran bands listed there, only three are active, bringing the number up to 33%; factor in that one has only released a demo, and it’s more like 50%; and adjusting for the fact that the only other established Andorran act, Nami (who also share half their line-up), have released two full-length albums to Persefone’s now five and you’ve got yourself about a 70:30 split.1 In light of these unlikely odds, Persefone are very much shaping themselves up to be “the little progressive metal band that could.” Their previous release, 2013’s Spiritual Migration, caused quite a stir among the more well-informed prog circles, and Aathma just might represent the pinnacle of progressive music to date.
That’s a fairly bold claim, and one rightly challenged by more extreme acts like Opeth and Enslaved, not to mention the countless avant garde bands out there who truly exist on the precipice of modern musical progression. However, within their immediate scope of reference, it’s hard to think of a band who’ve done it better. Whereas Spiritual Migration took primarily from the Dream Theater playbook, along with a hefty added dose of the European tradition, Aathma—as the involvement of Cynic mastermind (and lone-remaining member) Paul Masvidal might suggest—leans toward a more technical and aggressive direction. This isn’t to say they’ve suddenly become a tech-death band or anything like that; this record is still very much in kind with the one before it. However, while it keeps the same basic template in tact, its expression is done so in a far more direct and, dare I say it, more advanced manner.
Aathma plays into as many progressive metal clichés as you care to name. Yet it does so with such conviction and mastery of craft that its every second feels entirely fresh and undeniably vital. The record opens dramatically with, “Infinitesimal Spark,” which features Masvidal’s pitch-shifted voice delivering a spate of his trademark new wave mysticism (the kind of which only he is allowed) before “One Of Many…” cuts in with a slew of off-kilter, low-end slides and a dazzling keyboard display, which perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come. From there, all the listener has to do is sit back, as both the songs themselves and the album as a whole take you through the best of everything progressive metal has to offer.
There are those who thought such a feat had already been achieved with Spiritual Migration. Yet, while that was a fine record to be sure, Aathma sees Persefone operating on a whole different level. The compositions are tighter; the instrumentation more intricate and diverse; the riffs and vocals are both more aggressive and expansive, all at once; and the entire experience is, likewise, more memorable, in spite of its expanded scope. As mentioned above, while the traditional, Dream Theater-esque, template remains intact, there’s a noticeable addition of Cynic thrown into the mix, along with mild flourishes of latter-day Death to be found throughout. Yet the album never feels disconnected or in any way internally inconsistent. One of Aathma’s greatest strengths is the way its tracks flow-into and build upon one another, to create an experience that is persistently challenging, yet never without recognizable reward. For an hour-long, progressive metal opus, Aathma is simply a joy to listen to, and it is similarly effortless in its enjoyment—never becoming dull or overwhelming, despite its dense and intricate content.
Each and every track on here (beyond the introduction(s) is absolutely flawless. However, even amidst such perfection, the Masvidal-lead “Living Waves” stands tall. Masvidal’s leads and vocals give the track an almost other-worldly quality, and the electronicly-backed drum break that forms its centrepiece is simply elating. It’s almost a shame to think that this could have been the kind of thing Cynic might have one day given us, had they been able to keep themselves together. From there, the listener is offered a brief respite, via the soft, instrumental “Vaccum”, before being hit with it’s heaviest and longest offering “Stillness is Timeless”, which provides a conclusion of sorts, with keyboard player Miguel Espinosa bringing back the piano-refrain from its opening numbers.
Had Persefone decided to end the record at “Stillness is Timeless”, Aathma would still be every bit the progressive metal masterpiece that it is. Persefone decided to go one-further, however, and close the record out with an extra, four-part, title track, which sees the band covering as much ground as they have throughout the entirety of the rest of the record, while maintaining an equal degree of quality. Normally these multi-part tracks are self-indulgent nightmares, especially when they double as title-tracks as well. Yet the “Aathma” suite remains nothing short of outstanding and, while it could have been an entirely separate release all on its own, provides only further reason why this record is arguably everything progressive metal has been working toward throughout its history.
If Aathma isn’t the pinnacle of progressive metal, then it’s certainly circling the summit. Andorra might not seemingly have the numbers behind it but, now with a perfect record under their belt and a near-perfect track-record behind them, Persefone have emerged as true contenders to the progressive throne.
1 Although, Andorra has an estimated population of only about 79,000, so I guess that’s not bad per capita? I’m not doing the maths on that though.