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Ah, the mid nineties. Remember, the time when a great many (well-known) death and black metal bands went downhill fast, abandoning their roots more or less completely to achieve success with a more accessible, “mainstream” sound. I for one do not have fond memories of that particular period. Samael, Rotting Christ, Tiamat, Sentenced, Paradise Lost, Moonspell, you name it; at the time it seemed like all my favourite bands had unanimously decided to stop making good music. For some of them the decline began later than for others (and in many cases supposedly under record company supervision, who knows), but by the time Atrophia Red Sun released their debut ‘Fears’, they all had pretty much left the building. This Polish group hopped on the bandwagon and in doing so, imitated the wrong style, plain and simple. If you want the year 1997 of “extreme” metal compressed onto a single CD, this one’s for you.
Don’t get me wrong now, ‘Fears’ is a perfectly listenable album in every way, in the sense that there is nothing much wrong with the music. The arrangements are (mostly) very good, the song structures logical, the melodies catchy, the musicianship (including vocals) acceptable. It’s just that this is exactly what death metal – even progressive death metal – should not be like. There’s no brutality to speak of, no sense of danger or fear at all. Granted, there’s more “death” to this than many of the well-known albums of the time, but that’s really not saying much. The band do their best at constructing “tasteful” melodic metal but, sadly, they’re not experienced enough to properly accomplish that either. This also has a lot to do with production; the vocals and keyboards are way too high in the mix, the guitar sound is unbelievably weak and the overall emphasis seems to be on high frequencies, which makes the album sound very “hard” – like hammer and anvil, really, but in a bad way. It hurts my ears, and any possibility of atmospheric mysticism remains unachieved.
The music being “good” – well constructed and natural-sounding, if trying a bit too hard at times – is one thing. It having no originality to speak of is another question entirely. The grand majority of riffs, melodies and song parts have the name of some well-known group written all over them; the ones that don’t end up sounding chaotic (in a bad way) and confusing, almost like the band doesn’t really know what they’re doing. As an example, listen to the folk-influenced keyboard melody in ‘This World’: seemingly ok at first but very hard to keep track of attentively. On top of all this, pretty much all songs are simply too long. Even if the structures and individual parts work decently, you get the feeling the songs are not going to end at all and when they eventually do end, you are glad they did. This is obviously not a good thing.
However, there are a few notable high points here too, that save ‘Fears’ from being even close to a total disaster. Starting with ‘Gulf Song’, a keyboard-driven instrumental with speech- and sound samples (apparently a comment on the first Gulf War?), the album gets better towards the end. ‘Fear’ features some very welcome up-tempo parts with a hint of aggression in them; ‘Master Queen’ shows that the band have the ability to arrange a keyboard melody so that it doesn’t instantly resemble the entire ’95-’97 roster of Century Media. I could live without the actual keyboard solos on a few other tracks, but they’re merely a minor nuisance. Clean guitars are used effectively in many places, in particular the very few places when the keys remain quiet – a touch of noticeable atmosphere is, on occasion, reality. Also, the vocalist’s death growl is quite good and not far in style from a lower-pitched Sakis Tolis. His clean(er) voice doesn’t work even nearly as well, I daresay I’ve heard better on a lot of debut demos. A visiting female singer isn’t too impressive either and is pretty much buried in the mix – and this is probably the biggest surprise on the album.
Take Sentenced’s ‘Down’, Rotting Christ’s ‘A Dead Poem’ and Tiamat’s ‘A Deeper Kind of Slumber’; then merge the three together song part by song part, keeping the respective original characteristics of each intact - you now have ‘Fears’. If this sounds good on paper it probably will sound good when listened to, too, in which case I suggest you go for it. Like said earlier, there’s nothing much actually wrong here, and I have to admit I’ve heard albums far worse than this. Even so, I think I’ll pass, thank you very much.