Considering the nature of its music, it’s both fitting and poetic that Andorran progressive death metal sextet Persefone took its [modified] name from the Greek queen of the underworld. Having spent the last fifteen or so years building a strong catalog and following—while also enduring several line-up changes—the group is well versed in the vision, skill, confidence, and dedication needed to stand out amongst the crowd. Case in point: Aathma¸ the band’s fifth studio LP (and first with guitarist Filipe Baldaia and drummer Sergi Verdeguar). Although it doesn’t alter the style so much as utilize its best qualities, it’s nonetheless a wonderfully atmospheric, dynamic, epic, and unified aural ride that any fan of the genre should dig.
Part of the reason why Aathma flows so well and sounds so good is because it was overseen by legendary producer Jens Bogren, who’s worked many major metal artists, including Katatonia, Opeth, Pain of Salvation, Symphony X, and Haken. Likewise, its magnificent cover was designed by the equally iconic Travis Smith, and it features guest appearances from guitarist Øystein Landsverk (Leprous), vocalist Paul Masvidal (Cynic), and vocalist Merethe Soltvedt, all of whom add distinctive touches to make the record shine even more.
Actually, Masvidal lends his characteristically robotic tone to moody opener “An Infinitesimal Spark,” issuing prophetic statements over a computerized soundscape that evokes early Ayreon. Halfway through, a continuous piano passage induces a dramatic call-to-action as the foundation continues to swirl. It then bleeds into and leads “One of Many,” an equally brief instrumental highlighted by elaborate rhythms and fiery guitar licks, before carrying into “Prison Skin,” the first proper song on Aathma. Of course, the dual-layered riffs, eccentric keyboards, aggressive percussion, and brutal vocals suggest bands like Enslaved and Between the Buried and Me, but Persefone still manages to feel distinctive as well (mostly due to the added layer of operatic male singing). The overarching ethereal coating keeps everything urgent and spacey, too. Like much of the sequence, this track doesn’t push new boundaries, choosing instead to achieve established trademarks expertly.
“Spirals Within Thy Being” is even more frenzied and sophisticated, with a majorly hyperactive arrangement that intersperses tranquil transitions frequently enough to feel larger-than-life. It’s also one of the strongest tracks melodically, with forceful clean singing that complements the growls very well. Ingeniously, “Cosmic Walkers” adapts the piano motif in “One of Many” and counterbalances it with complex syncopation, emotional guitarwork, and subtle symphonic touches to yield yet another beautiful instrumental passage. Afterward, “No Faced Mindless” stands out most because of its dense chants, while “Living Waves” utilizes Masvidal exceptionally to blend the Persefone sound with the silky heaviness of early Cynic. “Vacuum” serves as a light interlude consisting of delicate piano notes, cascading strings, and intertwining guitar arpeggios. It’s a peaceful and luscious break from the preceding madness, not to mention a fine set-up for the generally relentless “Stillness is Timeless” (whose middle section provides a similarly serene and organic deviation akin to the intellectual interplay of Animals as Leaders). The track also has some of the best harmonies on Aathma.
The journey ends with the title piece, which is broken into four parts: “Universal Oneness,” “Spiritual Bliss,” “One with the Light,” and “Many of One.” Its opening mixture of swirling tones and oceanic waves appropriately sparks a sense of lavish storytelling, which is then fulfilled with more atmospheric vehemence and controlled instability. “Spiritual Bliss” grows patiently from initial calmness (matched with narration from Soltvedt) to incredible intricacy and speed, whereas the third movement is, aside from a brief break two-thirds in, mainly hellish from start to finish. As for the concluding section, it’s basically a sublime piano ballad led by Soltvedt’s elegant and pained laments. She gives a gorgeous performance that conveys empowerment and fragility simultaneously, and, coupled with the equally conflicted closing orchestration, she ensures that the LP finishes on a profound note.
Aathma further cements how crafty and skilled Persefone is. Sure, the sextet fits alongside its stylistic peers rather than challenges and deviates from them, but when a band does it this well, that alone is more or less sufficient. Fortunately, though, the band earns extra favor for its focused and clever conceptuality, as well as its scattered idiosyncrasies (such as the guest musicians), which add substantial variety to the sequence. All in all, Persefone deserves to be on the radar of every genre fan, as it’s crafted one of the first great progressive rock albums of 2017.