Metalcore and symphonic metal must be two of the most sterile and over-produced genres in heavy music, but nobody told Age of Athena. The Canadian quartet fuse the two as if blending malt and hops, and they expect you to be whisked away by their epic sweep. Indeed, the biggest crime of the band’s debut album is its hold on your senses. This should be a bland exercise in cliché and predictability, yet it’s none of these things.
You’ll be screaming Nightwish as soon as you hear the emotive soprano voice of Helen Illumina on opener, ‘Lost in Darkness’, but the Finns don’t do chugging breakdown riffs in the middle eight like these Canadians. The cascading piano passages in the chorus are more in line with what you’d expect, and the flawless instrument separation in the mix speaks of a band that would relish a big budget. Age of Athena like their melodic death metal and the double-kick skank beats of power metal, but they’re not averse to the extravagant riffing of Megadeth on ‘Fallen Skies’. You might have reservations about it sounding too much like Evanescence in the melodic parts, but the enchanting guitar melodies and male death metal vocals in the bridge and chorus give it a venomous hiss.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Gate to Oblivion is its consistency of purpose. You’re expecting it to go south as the album progresses, yet the first half of this record retains your nod of approval with few gripes. ‘Dance with the Devil’ is a wicked burst of symphonic thrash with a Phrygian dominant flavour and an abundance of alternate palm-muting to keep the musician crowd happy. Helen Illumina is the star of the show on the emotive power ballad, ‘Ephemeral’. It’s no exaggeration to say this would have been a hit in the era of CD sales and strong intellectual property rights when artists needed heavy radio rotation to grow their fanbase. Those celestial keyboard chimes and drawling guitars provide the ideal platform for Illumina to hold her chest and gaze at the distant moon with the most heart-felt soprano vocals she can muster. This is how you write a chorus. You can even forgive the rare cliché of recycling it at the end in a higher octave.
You might notice how the metalcore elements dissipate after the first two tracks, and you’re right to fear if the stagnant sounds of melodic death metal will fill the rhythmic void. This is the case on ‘Burn Down the Sun’, and no amount of heavy metal extravagance can save it from an innocuous outcome. The piano ballad, ‘All or Nothing’, is another tepid affair despite the powerful vocal register of Helen Illumina. But these are the only flaws. Listen to the brutality of closing track, ‘Sickness without Sense’ – this could be Fleshgod Apocalypse in its sinister symphonic might. The guitar work and harsh vocal technique of Zachary Ross provide a remarkable contrast to the angelic sorrow of Illumina’s voice. It’ll be a struggle replicating the impeccable thrust of this on a live stage, but the overall musicianship is of the highest order and even goes as far as a dazzling keyboard solo on ‘Together We Fall’.
There’s no need to view Gate to Oblivion as a guilty pleasure. Unleash the Archers are beyond reach for now, but this debut LP matches the magical sparkle of Nightwish and raids the arsenal of thrash metal for inspiration when you’re starting to tire. Give it a listen and see how it overcomes your scepticism. It might even capture your imagination.
Release Date: 17/12/2021
Record Label: Self Released
Standout tracks: Lost in Darkness, Dance with the Devil, Ephemeral
Suggested Further Listening: Nightwish – Imaginaerum (2011), Sinergy – To Hell and Back (2000), Unleash the Archers – Time Stands Still (2015)