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I'm always partial to an Americanized interpretation of Scandinavian styles, so long as it is executed with some measure of finesse and ingrained with a fair bit of the stylistic heterogeneity oftentimes present here as opposed to straight-faced transposition. Epic melodic death metal isn't exactly the first on anyone's list when they think of North Carolina, yet here we are with Æther Realm, who draw from a veritable assortment of Finnish mainstays, glossing over the final product with their own creative handprint. It sort of reminds me of Ohio's Hammer Horde, or the now-defunct Virginia export Orna Annon, which puts One Chosen by the Gods in adequately respectable company as far as I am concerned. That's not to say that there aren't a few mishaps along the way, or that Æther Realm are built of the same sturdy eminence that defines those they hope to emulate, but the potential is obvious.
So defining what exactly One Chosen by the Gods is obviously requires a smattering of name drops. We have the obvious Wintersun/Frosttide influence concerning the way the keyboards are implemented, sort of supplementing the swerving, surgical riffing volleys instead of saturating the entire sound in pontifical bombast. I was skeptical at first, but there is certainly an admirable level of balance here with the synths, not unlike Wintersun's debut or some of Ensiferum's more ostentatious moments. This is a decent enough framework to build upon, and Æther Realm surprised me at a few junctures, not limited to the album highlight "Swampwitch." I wonder if this song title was intentional, because the murky note progressions, languid hooks and gang vocals absolutely scream of mid-era Kalmah to my ears.
The implementation of guest vocalists always feels fresh here, as the female caterwauling provided by Elly Jones really helps stabilize some of the more ambitious and symphonic pieces like the impressive closer "Oak." Vincent Jones' (are they related?) lead vocals are another matter altogether. His battle orders are delivered via a fairly capable blackened sneer, but the lyrics themselves are more or less rubbish, and the fact that he is reasonably intelligible results in a few iffy moments. Here we also begin to see the first traces of forced emulation and the imbalances that come with it, specifically the overuse of random grunting every time the tempo drops and a breakdown cycles in. The epic resonance of the album's atmosphere carries it far enough to earn a passing grade, but I would personally love to see more clean vocals integrated in the future.
I do appreciate Æther Realm's ability to toe the line between folk influences and the slugging allure of the guitars, as they rarely push the former to Equilibrium levels of intemperance. The better songs here are quite explosive, including the aforementioned "Swampwitch" along with the more staggered and soundly-constructed "Winter's Grasp." While I wish that the rhythm section would distinguish itself independently as opposed to riding shotgun with the vibrant leads, songs like "Odin Will Provide" contain enough surgical chugging to build up a decent sweat. Overall, I found One Chosen by the Gods to be a hardly unique, yet compelling listen, hampered somewhat by the average production values along with the fact that the vocalist isn't the greatest. That said, this band definitely has all of the prerequisites needed to excel, especially from a logistical point of view. I find no fault in claiming Æther Realm as an act to keep an eye out for, and One Chosen by the Gods an album to procure if you are captivated by this fusion of styles.
American metal doesn't possess any singular identity, largely because it has no real national identity to speak of, just a smattering of different ones brought over from the rest of the world over the past few centuries. But part of what makes it so interesting is all of the various possibilities that come into play from the resulting diversity, though much of it tends to be wasted on rehashing a lot of watered down ideas from the NYHC scene and the Gothenburg scene of late. North Carolina has become a place of interest recently as there is a band known as Æther Realm that falls into neither of these two categories, though they do naturally possess a strong melodic death metal influence in common with some of the mainstays of the present metalcore scene. My band Frost Giant had the honor of opening up for them a couple months back at the Philadelphia wing of their tour with Wilderun at a small basement bar in Fish Town, and though the venue was about as small as a walk-in closet, the resulting show was quite a treat for the ears.
To put it mildly, this band sounds like they should have hailed from the land of Wintersun, Children Of Bodom and Insomnium just east of Sweden. The keyboard/symphonic aesthetic alone is a dead ringer for the common sound that all of those bands share, alone with a great number of melodic black and power metal bands from the same area. Along for the ride is a tasteful smattering of folksy acoustic guitar passages and technical lead guitar work that straddles the fences between early Ensiferum and Kalmah, complete with a mandatory mixture of clean and harsh vocal work that definitely conjures up images of Jari Mäenpää's signature sound. It's an album that is just shy of being overtly technical, yet so loaded up with brilliantly realized riff work and digitally precise drumming that it points to maybe a slightly influence coming from Arsis at times, though the harsh vocal work is the only really obvious commonality that both bands tend to share. But above all else, this is an album of actual songs that are quite memorable and very easy to follow.
Much like the somewhat conceptually structured but otherwise free flowing albums heard out of a number of European power and melodeath acts from the earlier 2000s, there is a clear sense of introduction and conclusion, as well as a chapter and verse structure to "One Chosen By The Gods". The introductory instrumental "Journey Of Discovery" has a sort of serenade character to it, almost to the point of being a lullaby at first, which develops into an expansive celebration of sound that brings to mind the long forgotten days of Nocturnal Rites' era as a full retro power metal act, particularly their lone ballad "The Legend Lives On", though this particular instrumental takes its epic cues from a more folksy and sea-worthy direction. Similarly, the closing extravaganza of riffs and technical feats "Oak", spearheading one of the most memorable choruses on this album as well, closes on the same principle theme, almost as if an echo of the prologue occurring within the epilogue.
For anyone who has followed this band for the past couple years, one will note that about 1/3 of this album had already been released, in the same studio form no less. While the heavily catchy yet somber character of "Odin Will Provide", the Ensiferum based nimble and atmospheric sound of "Ravensong" and the technically brilliant nod to Kalmah in "Swampwitch" are all highlight songs unto themselves, much of the truly intricate parts of this album are enclosed within the newly released songs here. Particularly the opening speeder "Hourglass" brings out the majestic wonder of this band's sound with a host of thrashing beats and glorious tremolo riffs right out of the Amon Amarth arsenal and, when married to the symphonic keyboard sounds, puts Children Of Bodom on notice along with all the other Finnish outfits that have been in the underachiever category of late. Leave us also not forget the magnificent title song "One Chosen By The Gods", which highlights a brilliant use of clean gang vocals in a manner not heard out of Ensiferum in a few years.
There is very little to complain about her, apart from maybe all the confusion regarding where this band is from given their characteristically Finnish sound, so much so that the band actually has a disclaimer on their home website. That bear-skin that vocalist and bassist Vincent Jones is sporting isn't just for show, but is a clear indicator of a band that lives up to an over-the-top image with a strong stage-presence and an indominable metallic spirit. This is a band to watch in the coming years, especially for those who can't get enough of the ongoing folk metal craze and want something a little bit rawer and colder than Turisas. It was a thrill opening up for these guys, and all with money to burn are encouraged to check them out the next time they roll within driving distance of one's abode.