Persefone is the best band you’ve never heard of. Despite their general lack of widespread recognition, these guys from Andorra have been pumping out top-tier progressive death metal for over a decade and have essentially established the fact that they can do no wrong. From their 2006 cult classic Core to 2013’s Meshuggah-tinged Spritual Migration, Persefone has consistently expanded upon their sound while never sacrificing a modicum of quality or originality. And, though Aathma doesn’t quite match up to their very best, it nonetheless transports the band’s unique brand of death metal to unfamiliar sonic realms, taking a multitude of risks while never completely abandoning their signature style.
In the four years since Spiritual Migration, Persefone’s sound has dropped a good deal of its tech-death heaviness in favor of airy, spacey keyboards and ambient piano melodies. There’s a good deal of room to breathe in the mix, creating an atmosphere that’s far less busy than your average metal record. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still very much a death metal album—but it’s one that places a significant amount of emphasis on atmosphere. From the get-go, Aathma hits the listener with a pair of instrumental, piano-driven tracks before transitioning into “Prison Skin,” the first true song. “Prison Skin” proceeds to set the stage for the remainder of the record by delivering a lengthy, complex, and atmospheric progressive death metal performance. However, it also introduces Aathma’s only true flaw: a general lack of overarching coherence. It’s a good song without a doubt, but the failure of its numerous sections to truly transition into and synch with one another considerably hinders the final product. This is an issue that permeates throughout much of the record’s front half, as there’s a certain sense of unevenness that besets the transitions both between and within songs. This is by no means a deal-breaker because, unsurprisingly, the performances themselves are complex and engaging, but it’s nonetheless a disappointing aspect that ultimately prevents Aathma from reaching the heights of its predecessors.
While the six first tracks roughly follow the same pattern, “Living Waves” comes out of nowhere with an extended autotuned opening. Spanning the track’s first two minutes, it initially struck me as an outlandish way to ruin one of Aathma’s best tracks, a potentially interesting leap of faith gone terribly wrong. However, with subsequent listens, I’ve grown to appreciate this weird little chunk of the record and would even tag it as the moment where Aathma starts to truly gain momentum. Immediately following the intro’s conclusion, “Living Waves” explodes into a Spiritual Migration-esque death metal section before giving way to some of the record’s best songwriting and atmospheric implementation. This momentum carries Aathma all the way to its conclusion, with both “Stillness is Timeless” and the exceptional 4-part title track distinguishing themselves as some of the band’s best work to date. The title track in particular draws clear influence from Core, featuring the return of haunting, emotive female vocals. Spanning almost twenty minutes, it’s a fitting conclusion that serves as a reminder of Persefone’s silent supremacy within the death metal world.
The vocals and instrumental work throughout the album are top-notch, but it feels as though things don’t fully click from a songwriting standpoint until “Living Waves.” Still, even tracks like “No Face Mindless” that fail to maintain a consistent level of quality do manage to boast some truly fantastic moments, but it’s nonetheless a little disheartening that Persefone couldn’t quite stick the landing from start to finish. Judged by any standard beyond that of Persefone’s earlier material, though, Aathma is a triumph. It takes risks, and though a few don’t quite pan out as well as the band would’ve hoped, it’s nonetheless an engrossing, highly enjoyable slab of progressive death metal. I wouldn’t necessarily peg it as the place to start for Persefone newcomers, but for grizzled fans, Aathma won’t disappoint.