There’s no shortage of metal acts trying to create tension by juxtaposing beauty and harshness. Just look at the popularity of the blackgaze movement,fronted by bands like Alcest and Deafheaven. But very few of them do it as well as Melbourne’s Aquilus does on Bellum I. This record is a sweeping statement, the scope of which no amount of hyperbole can overstate. It shifts between extreme metal, classical, and European folk music, treating each disparate ingredient with the utmost respect. This sort of genre alchemy often gets bogged down by the weight of its ambitions, its aims far exceeding the ability to bring them into fruition. The result is often bloated and cheesy, met with replies of, “I can see where they’re going, but…”
But on Bellum I, Aquilus manages to avoid any of the pitfalls that ensnare lesser contemporaries, either by some black magic or by virtue of just being really freaking good. And the bulk of the credit goes to visionary composer Horace Rosenqvist, whose skill for weaving musical elements that almost sound like a game of Mad Libs between music nerds.
Blasts of machine gun drums and shredded guitars are accompanied by lush string arrangements and Chopin-esque piano melodies. Occasionally, mandolas, flutes, and balalaika interrupt the metal riffage with a spot of earnest folk music. The tracks are long and sweeping, composed more like classical movements than verses and choruses. A great example of this is the sprawling “Eternal Unrest,” a thirteen minute opus with the solo piano of “Moon Isabelline” serving as an epilogue. As high of a peak as those eighteen minutes are, the rest of the record has no trouble keeping pace. The entire sixty-two minute running time maintains the same sort of savant-level composition.
Most importantly though, Rosenqvist doesn’t merely juxtapose delicate bits of classical with harsh metal: many of the heavy moments are gorgeous in their own right, even amid shrieked vocals. The melodies and harmonies delivered by the distorted guitars move from dissonant to inspiring at a moment’s notice.
In a musical landscape where ambitions outweigh talent and where so many metal bands attempt to create tension by tracing over Alcest’s blueprint, it’s inspiring to hear a take as fresh and moving as Bellum I.
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