Monday, November 4, 2013

Apathy - Beneath The Ashen Sky (2013)

"Viktor Jonas isn't a rock star. He is a musician. With every strum of the strings, press of a button, touch of a key, or twist of a knob, he is giving of himself for your enjoyment. And "Ghost Light" is the man himself, written into musical form." That summary first appeared on our site on August 15, 2012. Having just finished a lengthy review of the then new Apathy album, "Ghost Light," we found ourselves cutting to the core of the man behind the music. Some things have changed since then, but many more have stayed exactly the same. Viktor Jonas may never be on the cover of Metal Hammer or Revolver. That is probably for the best. His music speaks far louder than any cover story or expose ever could. And the return of Apathy, only a year later, is a blessing for the death/doom genre. He is still in control of all things instrumental, from guitar to bass, drums to keys; that will never change. But he is joined by a new vocalist, and a new set of songs that embody the man himself. That is what makes "Beneath The Ashen Sky" a captivating listen from beginning to end.

Despite thinking we knew what to expect, Jonas outdoes himself early in "Leper Tides;" his drum programming has returned more powerful than before, without losing any of the punch the kick drum provides. But all of the force of the drums would be wasted without an equally commanding guitar lead, something he seems to supply endlessly. Somehow, Jonas finds a perfect harmony between all of the instrumental pieces, a tricky process that few truly succeed at. The vocal component suits the mix well, as Philip Grüning screams his way over a sturdy foundation. That analogy, the one of the building, rings true over the course of these nine songs, each track adding a new floor. On "The Burial Ground," each drum beat pounds nails and rivets into place, a series of double kicks mechanizing the entire process. But it isn't all brute force; finesse plays a key role here, as Jonas crafts backing melodies and deep soundscapes. Each layer must protect the one above and below, so their timing and balance is important, if not crucial. One misstep, whether it be in the all out aggressive section, or the smooth melodic portion, could throw the entire track off the rails. Luckily, there is no such stumble, seamlessly flowing into "Typhoon." The dynamics are the same, offsetting heavy with soft, but there is no filler here; the bass work alone would be enough to make the track stand out, not to mention the strong performance from Grüning.

As you get into the mid section of the album, there is no let down to be found. "Fear Me" embodies it's title, with Grüning's screams becoming even more chilling. The clarity here is especially impressive, with each fragment of the main riff shining through clearly and crisply. That lead is one of the more catchy riffs on the album, an incredible feat given the driving tempo and harshness of the lead vocal. This is the most pure form of death/doom you'll find, borrowing heavily from both. But like the other titans of the genre, Jonas is not content to fuse those two alone; his use of melodic elements adds another dimension. To this point, the lyrical content has forged it's own path, but on "Murder Sun," the music and lyrics come together to form an unbreakable tie. Under the hammer and anvil of Jonas, the drums pound away at your very core, all the while Grüning rains down solar charged words of disappointment and hate. Having grown tired of humanities failings, the sun becomes a terror. The lyrics speak for the music, and the music elevates the lyrics. Together, they form one of the strongest songs on the album, one that connects directly to "Amongst The Dead." The imagery here is staggering, with each screaming verse painting a bleak picture of walking through a sea of corpses, echoed by the devastating instrumental.

When the pace slows down, albeit seldom, Jonas can deliver an even bigger blow. It's in times like these that it becomes hard to believe the drums are programmed. The depth of sound he has crafted in this computer driven kit is astounding, from kicks to snares, toms to cymbals. His work on each individual piece makes the structure stand so tall, never wavering, never fearing that it could all collapse under the weight. Instead, it grows stronger with each movement, the bass and drums anchoring the entire operation. It allows Grüning to reach deep and summon every ounce of hate and rage. The reward? A two minute interlude that shows Jonas at his musical best. As dynamic as he is as a multi-instrumentalist, it is the quiet, melodic moments that best showcase those abilities. It lets his creativity shine through in ways the metal genre doesn't usually embrace. This is the ultimate show of vision for Jonas, who calmly exits his solo piece, "Luna," and forges ahead into the last track, "Endgame." once again, the transition means everything, as he flows from one to the next. No jump, no skip, just a smooth bridging of the gap from solemn to pained. It also becomes the home for some of his most subtly beautiful instrumental work, captured so delicately in the lead and drum backing.

It's hard to throw the word genius around. There will be backlash, questioning, even ridicule. But what Viktor Jonas has shown, release after release, album after album, is that he is playing on a far different level than everyone else. He is a multi-million dollar corporation, erecting a skyscraper with the help of plans, machinery, and state of the art equipment; everyone else is back in Amish country, raising a barn. That isn't a knock on other bands who dwell in the same genre as Jonas, and by no means is it meant to tear anyone down. But after hearing what this one man puts together, it's hard to believe there are even bands in the same stratosphere. But luckily, he isn't alone; Grüning has written and delivered a performance of his own, one that completes the scope of the album. One without the other might not stand as tall, or even as firmly. But together, they are undeniable in their excellence. And while many have declared the death/doom genre dead, year after year, it's still alive and well. Apathy may have just erected a new headquarters, "Beneath The Ashen Sky."


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