Review: Tarot by Æther Realm
This is the story of how a folk metal album almost killed me.
I discovered Æther Realm while sulkily browsing a lineup announcement for a music festival that was too far away to feasibly attend. “NC folk metal,” it said under the logo. Wait a minute, I thought. I glanced out of my window and saw a homophobic politician eating a plate of amazing barbecue. I live in North Carolina! Like a good Tarheel patriot, I looked them up. The next thing I knew I was breathlessly texting my metal homie. CULLEN, I tapped in all caps, erasing and retyping each word four times as my sausage-like thumbs darted across the screen, CODE RED METAL EMERGENCY! LOCAL BAND SOUNDS LIKE EARLY ENSIFERUM! THIS IS NOT A DRILL! He swiftly leapt into action, responding to my message three days later. I sent him a link and waited for him to listen. His succinct reply told me all I needed to know: fuck.
After a solid debut, a whirlwind tour with Alestorm, and a successful crowdfunding campaign (full disclosure – I was a backer), Æther Realm was poised for an ambitious sophomore album. I sat on the link to hear Tarot for about a week, waiting for the right frame of mind. A thick “trees and shit” gloom had settled over me, rendering me incapable of enjoying anything even approaching fun.
Eventually, though, the murk lifted. I was preparing to embark on my journey home from work, a 30-minute walk at midnight. I cued up the first tune, “The Fool,” as I packed my bag to leave. The track begins with lonely, reverb-soaked guitar, which is given ample time to breathe before a wave of melancholy heaviness bursts into the mix. That was not what I was expecting, nor was I expecting an orchestral interlude complete with swelling violins and black metal vocals laying out exposition. I checked to make sure another app in my phone hadn’t cued up Carach Angren. Nope. This was still the eight-minute opener.
I stepped outside as the next track, “Tarot” began. It was raining. Hard. I looked back into my workplace. Shit. Everyone went home while I was listening to that long-ass first song. I paused, weighing my options. The title track slowly seeped into me as I stood in the doorway, accelerating my heartbeat with tales of riding over barren wastelands, conquering by axe and sword. Something in the galloping drums nudged me, and I grabbed my umbrella and headed outside.
The lead singer and songwriter, Vincent Jones, has an appealingly dry growl, pushing triumphant dual-guitar harmonies forward with theatricality and a sense of constant upward motion. His lyrics are surprisingly emotional and personal at times, infusing the buoyant violence of blastbeats and Celtic war melodies with a sense of weight. The clean voices, both choral and crooning, are crisp and stirring. Christopher Bowes from Alestorm also stops by to contribute vocals on “King of Cups.” Can you guess what King of Cups is about? I’ll give you a clue: it rhymes with “drinking alcohol.”
During the first few bars of “Death,” light lit up the sky and a rumble of thunder shook my feet. Oh no. Lighting. I took cover beneath the awning of a shuttered restaurant while a policeman rolled slowly by, eyeing me with suspicion. I should definitely go back, or at least call someone and wake them up to come get me. Common sense beckoned, but the adrenaline of danger was intermingling with the adrenaline of heavy metal and it was producing a high. “Faced with the dark I must choose wisely” snarled Æther Realm. Fuck it. I stepped back onto the road and continued on. A web of electricity filled the horizon, going off like a cannon that shook my bones. Animal fear took over and I darted beneath some trees. Wait, is this what I’m supposed to do? I can’t remember! Should I lay down? The lyrics weighed in again “If this is really death than it’s not so bad.”
Tarot is astonishingly well produced for an unsigned band. I can say, without hyperbole, that it’s mixed better than albums with a thousand times the budget it had. It boils down to an extreme attention to detail and an obsession with perfection that, if his social media posts are to be believed, turned Vincent Jones into an insane metal-hermit who went over each track and tweaked them for months. The range of musical styles and instrumentation on display is staggering, especially during the second half of the album. Folk-metal is the through line, but hints of power metal, melodeath, and speed metal weave in and out of the record effortlessly. Tarot’s instrumentation is what is either going to alienate or endear listeners. Orchestral sounds, dungeon synth like medieval keyboard, beautiful acoustic noodling, and even 8-bit chiptune can all be found co-existing in a single track.
Nowhere is this anything-goes ethic represented better than my favorite track on the album: “The Devil.” A gothic and slightly cheesy violin synth leads into a symphonic death metal beatdown that is immediately evocative of Fleshgod Apocalypse. Savage drums and tumbling guitar trills race by at blinding speed, undercut with a broad bassline and stabs of orchestration. Clean vocals trade with growls in a somber chorus, followed by a neck-snapping left turn into Latin lounge music, which turns very briefly into a ballad, which plunges violently into melodeath. There’s a tiny bit of djenting, a piano interlude, and a return to metal that uses the piano melody to create a wall of atmosphere and lead the tune out. Tarot is not a focused album, but it charges into that lack of focus head-first with such enthusiasm and charisma that you can’t help but follow it.
I was taking an extremely circuitous route home as the storm grew in intensity, effectively tripling my commute time. I fled between areas of cover as lightning cracked and sheets of water rushed over my feet. Eventually I made it to the bottom of the hill. I forgot about the goddamned hill. It was ten minutes of steep, barren concrete slope, bordered only by asphalt and vehicular hostility. As I gazed my up my path, the track “Strength” faded in with a stoic acoustic arpeggio. The storm’s fury came fully to bear on this incline, cutting my vision short and pounding down on my umbrella like fists. There was no shelter here. As I took my first nervous steps, the lyrics once again narrated my irresponsible trek. “I let the water carry me away.”
As my climb began, all hell broke loose. The world was tearing itself apart with strike after strike, closer and closer to my little sidewalk. The howling wind pulled at my umbrella. Shit. I’m carrying a metal pole. I collapsed it and held it by my side. The downpour soaked me to the skin in moments, and with a clear view of the sky I was able to fully see the latticework of electric death above. I broke into a frantic, terrified sprint, growing heavier as water filled my shoes. “Strength” is an incredible tune, and it drove me upward and forward into the black night, the hammering drums mingling with thunder blasts as Vincent sang of mortality and the interplay of light and darkness. “This is not the way I’m meant to go!” Are these lyrics fucking with me? “I feel the weight of the water bearing down on me!”
Halfway through my ascent, my garbage-can of a body began to give up, and I slowed to a desperate lope. The second to last track, “Temperance” begins with delicate harmonics and a plea to the gods. My apartment complex is near a lakeside power plant. Rubbing droplets from my eyelashes, I scanned the other side of the road. Through the tempest I saw the glittering of the plant’s lights. The lightning around the lake was spine-chillingly volatile. I’m almost there.
Around the 3:30 mark, Temperance breaks the tension of its acoustic intro with a return to heavy guitars, maintaining its soaring theme and cyclical prayer. I could see the entrance to my apartment complex, and the cover of a thick treeline. Thank god. My wife would be so mad if I got electrocuted to death because I’m an idiot. Then reality lit on fire. A massive bolt struck a tree twenty feet away from me, flecking me with bark. It was blinding, and the thunderclap overwhelmed my headphones as a shock-wave pummeled my innards. I stood, frozen. My hearing and the music gradually returned. “If my strength should fail, give me force of will.” Then, as if by instinct, I reached up and pulled my hair tie out. Right there, wild-eyed, water pouring down my shoulders and panic coursing through my veins, I headbanged in the rain.
Tarot is an elaborate concept album that sets a high bar for itself and meets it. It’s accessible and immensely listenable without sacrificing creative song structures, sporting multiple eight-minute tracks and one that clocks in at just under twenty. I’ve since given it many non-thunderstorm spins and it’s just as compelling without the aid of mortal terror. What could have been a mishmash of colliding ideas has a satisfying flow and a real sense of pathos in the final tracks. Don’t miss Tarot, and don’t walk in a thunderstorm.