Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Ghost of Albums Past #1: Altered Aeon - Dispiritism (2004)

The purpose of "The Ghost of Albums Past" is to shed some light on albums released in years gone by that somehow escaped notice by the masses, yet either offer something really worth hearing by today's extreme metal musicians, or somehow influenced current artists but never achieved recognition beyond the fine print of CD liner notes or vague one-line mentions in magazines.  These aren't really "reviews" in the traditional sense - I don't assign scores or ratings - but if it's mentioned in this section, consider it something that any fan of extreme metal should make a point of checking out.

Altered Aeon - Dispiritism (2004 Black Lotus Records)

In the modern age of music, it's more or less taken for granted that instant aural gratification is just a click or two away, that the Internet will lead listeners of any genre to an oasis of musical bliss, and that anything worth hearing is sure to be front-and-center as though it was always in the spotlight.  Alas, when it comes to an already under-represented genre such as metal, bands that remain unsigned or are signed to smaller labels often go unnoticed.  Not unlike Hollywood actors, the metal world is full of musicians who are perhaps known for "starring roles" in one band, but played in other bands that were just as good (if not better) but were overlooked by the media and - as is too often the case - by listeners.  Altered Aeon is one of those bands, and Dispiritism is their lone full-length offering.  If not for the fact that my own band was on the same label as Altered Aeon (the now-defunct Greek label Black Lotus Records) I admittedly might never have heard of them, but as luck would have it, I did . . . and found what would become one of my favorite metal albums.

If you haven't heard of Altered Aeon, you might be familiar with two other bands that can serve as bookends for this Swedish gem: Theory in Practice and Scar Symmetry.  Numerous permanent and session members of tech-metal legends Theory in Practice made their way through Altered Aeon's ranks, and Altered Aeon members have since gone on to join Scar Symmetry, specifically drummer Henrik Ohlsson and guitarist Per Nilsson.  These two, joined by vocalist Kjell Andersson, bassist Anders Hedlund and guitarist Niklas Rehn, crafted what I consider to be an exemplary slab of technical thrash.  Dispiritism benefits from the use of more traditional song structures than what was typical of Theory in Practice, making it easier to latch onto, but the production (courtesy of Scar Symmetry axeman Jonas Kjellgren) is perfectly clear without being glossed over.  Altered Aeon makes immediately apparent with opener "Dispirited Chambers" that there is room for crushing riffs, epic solos and underlying groove and melody without losing an ounce of raw aggression.  "The Resonance of Form in Transition" follows, proving that the first song was no fluke.  From there on, it's one roller-coaster ride after another, never sacrificing clarity or heaviness during even the most pummeling rounds of palm-muted rhythms or soaring, painstakingly crafted guitar solos.  The interplay between guitarists Rehn and Nilsson is worthy of any and all praise, because there isn't a boring note on the entire album.  Just when you think they might phone it in with a generic chug-chug breakdown, the song will head off on some tangent that while unexpected, never loses the listener.  Although the bass guitar isn't as prominent as in other albums of this caliber, Anders Hedlund gels perfectly with the guitars in the mix, not stomping all over them but also not getting bogged down in root-note mud.  Ohlsson's drums are all punch, not a mess of trigger clicks or fizzy cymbals, and could serve as a blueprint for any metal drummer. 

Of particular surprise is Kjell Andersson's voice.  He barks and snarls without ever fulling entering death metal territory, and quite frequently heads toward higher registers for some fantastically executed melodic passages.  The lyrics call to mind a 21st-century H.P. Lovecraft retelling, possession by demon or alien or both.  When the exquisite "Transcendence Duology" grinds out its last breath, there is still fuel in the tank for the instrumental bonus track "Cellular Disorganization," which points in a Scar Symmetry direction more than any other song on the album.  The only odd choice here is a second bonus track, a cover of King Diamond's "Welcome Home" that - while sonically on par with the rest of the album, seems out of place.  As my CD player announces the end of the album, I can't help but think that there are about a hundred other songs that I'd rather hear Altered Aeon cover.  (Nothing against King Diamond, or against the band for their choice, but I found myself wondering how some Testament or Slayer would sound with the Swedish treatment.)

When all is said and done, Dispiritism strikes me as an album that should rightfully earn its place among - or atop - a dozen other Swedish metal masterpieces.  Although I consider it to be technical thrash above all else, it could easily hang with the death metal crowd if not for the (excellent) clean vocals.  Likewise, while not cut from the same cloth as other Swedish bands, there's no reason fans of Dismember and Soilwork alike couldn't find something to love about Altered Aeon.  Unfortunately, whether due to label collapse or lineup changes in the wake of Dispiritism's release, Altered Aeon never went on to take the metal world by storm.  For all of my friends who consider themselves metal fans, not one of them had heard of Altered Aeon over the years, and that's a shame.

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