Review

AQUILUS Griseus

Album · 2011 · Symphonic Black Metal
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5/5 ·
DippoMagoo
MMA Reviewers Challenge: Album Selected by adg211288

As a power metal fan, atmospheric black metal is one of those genres you'd think should be the total opposite of what I enjoy: Where power metal is often fast, upbeat and happy, atmospheric black metal is often slow, dark and grim, making it tonally the exact opposite. However, while the genre is far from what I'd consider my area of expertise, I have heard a few albums within that style that have impressed me over the years, the most obvious of those being Marrow of the Spirit, by Agalloch. It turns out, I actually very much enjoy music that's built around setting a dark tone and creating a strong atmosphere, which is obviously what this genre does. I also happen to enjoy classical music from time to time, as well as folk music. Now, how does that seemingly random sentence fit in with everything else in this paragraph? Well, let's just say, none of my previous experience could have possibly prepared me for the masterpiece that is Griseus, the debut (and currently only) full length release from Australian one man band Aquilus.

To be honest, I'd have a hard time even describing Griseus as a black metal album. Don't take that the wrong way, or anything: There certainly are some harsh vocals here, and in fact they certainly do have a very dark, blackened tone to them as you'd expect from the genre. And yes, there definitely are some very heavy passages on this release, which again fits in perfectly for black metal. So then, why would I say what I did at the start of this paragraph? Basically, while there are many passages here I could easily consider black metal, I'd say well over half of the album is actually very calm and subdued, actually very relaxing at times, even for this particular type of black metal, though it's certainly still dark and very atmospheric. The use of acoustic guitars to create a thick atmosphere is extremely impressive and definitely one of the album's biggest strengths.

However, the real key to this album is where the classical music reference I made earlier comes in. Yes, there are many symphonic black metal bands that use elements of classical music to make their symphonic elements sound epic, with Dimmu Borgir being an obvious example of that, but where bands like that tend to use it in a very flashy way, Waldorf, the man behind Aquilus, uses classical piano throughout this album in a very nice way, adding even more atmosphere to the music. There are some orchestral elements as well, but even these are used in a very deliberate manner, and feel like a very natural part of the music. There are many sections, though, where the piano takes over and these sections are absolutely stunning and some of the best parts of the album. Perhaps the best example of this is around the midway point of the intro track “Nihil”, where the piano is used in a very creepy way, and gives way to an extended classical section that is simply incredible, and was the first point on my first listen where I was absolutely amazed by what I was hearing.

One last element to the music is the occasional use of folk music. This is done in two ways. Occasionally, the acoustic guitar sections give way to some dark folk melodies, and these are done very well, but there are also brief sections where actual folk elements appear, with the most obvious of these being near the end of “Latent Thistle”, where the often dark music gives way to a very beautiful and upbeat folk section briefly, and it's definitely a memorable moment. So on the whole, while there certainly are strong elements of black metal on this release, I'd say there's a surprising amount of non metal elements, and everything is blended together very impressively, with each track flowing seamlessly from one element to another, and everything fits together perfectly.

Vocals are used rather sparingly throughout, with the album on the whole being focused on largely extended instrumental sections. There are a couple styles of vocals here, though. First up, the black metal growls are very powerful and fit in very well with the heavier sections. Between the sound of the vocals and the rather raw production on these sections, the black metal sections are very powerful and are mostly used in quick but explosive bursts. There are also some clean vocals here, where Waldorf layers his voice in such a way that it often sounds like choral vocals, even though it's all the work of one man. These vocals work well and are mostly used during some of the classical sections. I especially like one point right at the end of “Loss”, where it's a classical section with Waldorf using those choral style vocals in the background, but he also uses his growls in a very theatrical kind of way that almost sounds as if he's trying to use them classically. It's quite the interesting effect and works really well.

It's hard to single out any one track here, as everything is very well done. This is a very long album, nearly reaching 80 minutes and there are 8 tracks, three of which go over 10 minutes, while only one is under 6 minutes, so obviously there's no simple interludes or no real straight-forward songs here. At the same time, I can say not a second is wasted, and I actually have an easy time giving the album consecutive spins, so that has to say something for an album this long, considering it's not even in one of my usual favorite genres. As tough as it is to do a song by song breakdown, I can give a very brief summary and list highlights for each track. First up, “Nihil” is a 14 minute opener which starts off with a nice atmospheric intro, before the black metal elements take over for a while, and we get our first taste of Waldorf's growls. This section lasts a while and the tone of the guitar is wonderful and helps add to the atmosphere of the music. As the track hits its midway point, the incredible classical section I mentioned before comes in and lasts a while, and then the track ends with a nice acoustic folk section. An excellent track overall, which introduces every element of the album in a very effective way.

Next is “Loss”, which starts off with a nice piano section, before the black metal elements again take over for a while. The second half is largely soft and atmospheric, and then that incredibly vocal section I mentioned earlier ends the track in stunning fashion. After that, it makes sense that the next track “Smokefall” would get off to the fastest start of any track up to that point. The intro reminds me a bit of Opeth, both in the guitar tone and how the drums sound, though the track quickly moves into darker territory with its first black metal section. The black metal elements are featured more prominently on this track than on most of the other tracks, as the first half constantly alternates between heavier sections with growls, and atmospheric sections where the acoustic guitars lead the way with some haunting melodies. I mentioned it already, but damn the acoustic guitar playing on this album is incredible! Towards the end the track softens up a bit, which leads us into “In Lands of Ashes”, the softest track on this album. Pianos are very dominant on this track, as it's a near 12 minute mostly instrumental track that alternates nicely between classical piano sections and slightly folk influenced sections where the guitars take over. There are occasional whispers in the second half, but otherwise the track has little in the way of vocals, and it's a very peaceful and relaxing track, while still being atmospheric. You may think a track that long with no heavier sections and few vocals would be boring, but if so, you'd be absolutely wrong, as the composition here is fantastic and the music is absolutely beautiful at times, making it stand out just as much as any of the other tracks here.

In contrast to that track, “Latent Thistle” opens with the most explosive black metal section on the album, with some very heavy riffs, epic growls and a cool guitar solo. It's definitely the heaviest sequence on the album, but again, the guitar work is brilliant, and the once the acoustic guitars kick in for a softer section, things get atmospheric and very beautiful once again. Near the end of the track is the folk section I mentioned earlier appears and is absolutely stunning. Next is “Arboreal Sleep”, another track which effectively alternates between heavy sections where the growls appear, and softer acoustic sections. There's a very nice use of the clean vocals early on as well, which gives way to an extended piano section where classical elements appear once again. The end of the track features some very quiet vocals, which are used nicely and fit in well with the tone of the music at that point. After that is “The Fawn”, which opens up with a beautiful classical piano section, before turning into another fairly dark and heavy track in the middle, where the black metal elements take over for a bit. Lastly, we have 17 minute closing track “Night Bell”, which opens up with a rather soft section where choral style vocals are used and we get a nice guitar solo section, before the music gets heavier and we get the last real black metal section on the album. After that, the track softens up quite a bit and turns into one of the more classical influenced tracks, with some excellent piano sections throughout the second half that end the album on an impressive note. Some of the piano playing here is amazing, managing to both be very dark and very beautiful at the same time.

Overall, Griseus is quite the surprising album, as it manages to combine elements of atmospheric black metal, classical music and folk music in a very effective way, and it's certainly one of the most beautiful and most instrumentally exciting black metal albums I've ever heard. Even though it's a long album and there are many different elements used throughout, everything is done so brilliantly and flows together so fluidly, that it ends up feeling like a shorter album then it really is, and it definitely feels like everything came together perfectly on this one. Absolutely brilliant and a must hear for any fan of black metal, or just anyone who wants to hear some atmospheric music that is equal parts dark and beautiful. I'd say it makes me curious to explore other genres more than I ever have before, but at the same time I can also say I don't expect to find many albums outside of my usual styles I enjoy as much as this one, as it's definitely something special.
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Sisslith wrote:
4 months ago
A complete review for a gem of an album.
Nightfly wrote:
4 months ago
A great album and great review.
4 months ago
A one of a kind album as far as I'm aware.
Unitron wrote:
4 months ago
Great review, sounds interesting. I might check it out sometime.
adg211288 wrote:
4 months ago
Brilliant review, Travis, I'm glad you liked the album!

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