Album: Aathma (2017)
Genre: prog/death metal
Where to buy: Bandcamp
You expect prog metal to have a certain amount of complexity, but few things prepare you for the elaborate manifold of Aathma, Persefone’s hour-long 2017 effort. I say “manifold” because while you listen to this album it is not inappropriate to picture those visualizations of n-dimensional space found in topology textbooks, trying their best to represent sixth-dimensional figures (or whatever) in a two-dimensional image. Such representations are inherently reductive, but we may find illumination with the right combination of attention and openness, which is a tidy metaphor for appreciating Aathma. Initially, the album comes off as complex for the sake of complexity, appealing to a sort of idealized form of progressive metal without having quite enough wind in its sails to justify its reach. But further listens reveal Persefone’s work in the album’s composition, and the end result is a combination of progressive, death, and melodic metal that is bent on pushing its own boundaries.
You can hear this expansion of borders all over Aathma. The music is demanding, keeping listeners on their feet. Persefone plays with meter, dynamics, vocals, instrumental technicalities, and composition, and the ground is always shifting under your feet. Get used to it. Tracks merge and flow into and across one another. The first three tracks are two short instrumentals, the first with spoken words to set the album’s philosophical and grandiose tone, the second emerging from the melodies of the first, and from there the third, this last with a more traditional song structure and lyrics to expand on the first overture. The final third of the album is a long, multi-movement suite (“Aathma” parts I-IV) that incorporates all of the compositional elements the band has used up to that point, and more. Moments of minimal and soft instrumentation, particularly by the keys at moderate tempos, give way to furious and intense crescendos that rip through complicated fills with precision. The vocals alternate between screaming death vocals and melodic singing, and even give us a lullaby at one point. Behind the vocals, not content to stay in one lane, the instruments play with color, filling the tiniest gaps with movement. The album is a true palimpsest, painting over itself in vividly clean production.
Even lyrically, Aathma sets its goals high. The songs are distinctly existential. “An Infinitesimal Spark” instructs us to “awaken to the light of pure love,” which, I admit, is easier said than done. “Prison Skin” laments the speaker’s loss of identity and human intimacy. “Spirals Within Thy Being” is a eulogy for one’s past self. “No Faced Mindless” is not a callback to Spirited Away, but an admission that our true selves exist beyond the meager corporeality of our existence. This is high-concept stuff, even if Persefone is not the first band to put it to music. What’s great is the way they’ve done it, marrying the uncertainty of such profound questioning with their best attempt at musical progressivism. And like those mathematical manifolds, if Aathma gives us the outlines of Persefone’s concept of prog-melo-death, we can still grasp what they were aiming for and the path they chose to get as close to there as possible.
For all the ambition, Aathma is not messy in the least. There is not one dropped note, missed mark, or empty phrase. The magnitude of work that must have gone into this is impressive, because Persefone has clearly done what they set out to do. For that alone the album deserves a few listens, but I think it’s also doing some real work in helping to grow the borders of the music.