(TheMadIsraeli returns to our pages with this review of the new second album by Stealing Axion of Tacoma, Washington.)
Holiday break from academic slavery has arrived, so I suppose it’s time to get some writing done.
I praised Stealing Axion’s debut Moments to the high fucking heavens — it’s still an album I listen to often to this day. The perfect intersection between death metal brutality, progressive ambition, and syncopated grooves that defined the best aspects of the djent movement has had me hooked since I first heard it. I’ve been eagerly anticipating Aeons, and I’ve been watering at the mouth for a long time, considering that I knew from being in contact with the band that a lot of this music was already written at the time Moments came out. I even got to hear a clip or two (ones that didn’t make it onto the album) and couldn’t have been more excited. Aeons is a very different record from Moments in its approach. The music this time is slower, and much of it drags and pulls you under with the weight of the grooves. A lot of this album borders on being doomy, but with syncopation as a heavy component of the grooving.
The central elements are still there, though, and what the album sacrifices in driving energy compared to its predecessor it makes up for by bringing forth spine-crushing slow-mo beatdowns and lush atmosphere that drenches you like glowing plasma rain.
Evaluating whether this record is better or worse than Moments would be an errant task, as far as the objectively measurable elements are concerned. It feels different in its entirety, and the recognizable elements of their sound are the only things that tie the music together. The album leaves a lot of breathing room within itself, which allows Stealing Axion to do quite a bit of building on the foundations they lay at the beginning of a song. The music has a definitive sense of developing and evolving that Moments lacked. I very rarely hear metal that makes me feel like I’m experiencing such a progression.
The intro track “Transcendence” and the official opener “Lost Awakening” are about the closest to the music on Moments as you’ll get on the new album, with titanic-weight dissonant riffs, intensely intricate vocal harmonies, soaring melodies, and the band’s stupidly on-point sense of light/heavy contrast. The chorus of this song, the way the vocal melody and the harmonies wrap into each other and separate, is really something to hear. This band have their vocal game on lock for sure, just evidenced by the album’s beginning.
“Memories” immediately breaks the mood set by the opening and dives into the meat of what Aeons is about as a record. Droning harmonious feedback resonates and rises like the sun in the early morning and the drone of eight strings drops in like the first drop of plasma rain. It’s a celestial swelling, and when the surge from the distortion and the drums washes over you, like standing underneath a waterfall, there is a sense of release. This particular song finds its best moments in the soft and heavy contrast, with honestly the softer parts being the highlight. The amount of texture and attention to detail in the melodies and phrasing is perfection to me; you can feel your soul slowly levitating off the ground. When the heavy moments do come in, it’s like being slammed back onto the floor with immense G-force.
“Parallel Futures” is an industrial-strength cerebral function intensification chamber of a song. The machine-gun rhythms, electronic ambience, and cool breeze nature of the clean vocals really give it a mood all its own. The verse with a solitary machine-gun stop-start bass line, some Cynic airy vocal work, and a hypnotizing clean guitar melody is in itself a paradox. The combination of the intense and the mellow, forced to blend together, makes this song one of my favorites on the album. This song is also where the heavy aspects of Stealing Axion hit like a titanium truck. The vocals of all the members have only gotten better, and especially guitarist Daniel Forbrich’s death metal wails and howls have become much more primal and human in nature. They feel agonized, languishing, enraged. It fits with the albums depressive lyrical bent. The explosive finale of this song really hits home, too.
“Gravity’s Pull” feels the most in line with the album as a whole. Aeons in a lot of ways feels like a doom metal record in spirit written by djent guys. The lyrics express hopelessness, and the overall pacing of the songs on the album is pretty dragging. This song, though, seals the deal that this is a doom record in djent clothing. It slogs through itself, and it has one of the best choruses on the album. The central melody is hypnotizing, the impact of the low end on their 8 strings shatters your skeleton from the vibrations, and Daniel Forbrich loses his shit with probably the most intense harsh vocal moment on the album. It’s yet another instance on this record where the soft/heavy contrast is used to exceedingly powerful effect. I never thought I’d dig this dynamic of songwriting again, especially because Stealing Axion approach these transitions in extremely predictable ways. Yet the way they write those transitions is what makes this album great. It doesn’t matter that you know it’s coming; they set it up and build it up exactly the way it needs to be. I also really like the solo section on this song, as brief as it is. Their jazz fusion side rears its head for just a bit.
“Imprisoned” is something else, a dank, disheveled, malnourished alien craving any life or matter it can consume. Creeping, snaking riffs with clean guitars playing stabs of distorted twisted chords create a disturbing atmosphere. It’s one of the darkest, if not the darkest, songs on the album. The surprise comes when, halfway through, things turn to a distinctly pure jazz fusion note and the best solo on the album pops in. The outro is fantastic, gradually building heaviness using the solo’s melodic progression.
“Astral Revelations” is one of the most emotive songs on the album and is downright cool. Beautiful bell-like tones, strings, beautiful acoustic guitar layers, and a sense of utter surrender driven by the intro melody really paint a bleak yet melancholic picture. The layering of harsh and clean vocals in this song paints two different modes that coincide well with the song’s pretty dismal lyrics, the clean vocals representing a sense of surrender and the harsh vocals representing anger at the resignation. There’s also a pretty cool synth solo in this song that brings a different tonality to the music.
“Exiled” starts and stops, dying and reigniting like a rusted piston in a rotting mechanism. This song feels distinctly more like a really heavy prog-rock song, and the melodic climax at the end is absolute fucking heaven. The clean vocal work in this song is what’s most impressive, along with the outro. It’s a rich, insurmountable fortress of distorted guitars, acoustic guitars, synths, and clean vocal harmonies. “Dreams Reversed” is in this same vein. Its chorus is a rising chord progression with a forlorn melody that feels like it’s struggling with all its might to climb up a mountain. This is only met with descending at the end, falling back down to where it started. The syncopation in this song is quite a bit more intensive compared to “Exiled”.
“Skyline” starts out with a solitary, drifting-in-space acoustic drone. This song REALLY drags, and has this sensation of wandering, floating and lost. It gradually builds in intensity over its nearly 12-minute duration, and also showcases a bit of the band’s dissonant death metal end. There are moments in this song that feel like Gorguts, or Ulcerate in a more controlled, more precise environment. The chorus is a variation on the verse melody from “Lost Awakening”, and is broken into pieces by an absolutely devastating breakdown. This happens about halfway through the song, and then the song starts gradually building up in intensity, heaviness, and speed, with lots of fringe death metal elements, followed by a pretty emotive solo section. The guitars break down into licks with a looping nature, bouncing back and forth between that and breakdowns. A thick wall of ambience, chords, and double bass leads into the song’s outro, a piano piece that segues into the album’s last song, “Final Moments of a Dying Sun”.
The album’s closer slows down the pace even more, driven by sludgy low-end guitar and bass stabs, haunting distorted and clean melodies overhead, and a chorus that hits with full force. This song is like being pulled into a black hole while you desperately struggle to prevent it. It devolves from the sheer heaviness of its second chorus into lighter prog-rock territory. Its heaviness, in line with the song’s title, dies out over time, and all you are left with is the fading acoustic guitars once again repeating the melody of the verse of “Lost Awakening”. I like the double throwback with the two closing songs a lot.
Without a doubt in my mind, I believe Josh DeShazo, Daniel Forbrich, and Phil Willmarth are composing some of the most compelling metal in the modern age. You can shy away from it, because I know for some people anything in the djent tradition will just never be accepted. It would be absolutely foolish, though, to deny the talent of these guys. The obvious amount of time they devote to crafting the music they write and what they do to avoid the stale tropes of that style are worthy of respect. This does not feel like mass-produced trend-hopping music produced to grab attention. It is a genuine sonic expression of the soul.
The mix is perfect for what they wanted to accomplish. Yes, it is clean, even pristine, but it’s also thick and doesn’t feel neutered in the slightest despite its polished sheen. The bass and guitars are separated enough to hear them individually, enough that it creates that thick layer of strings that makes the low end moments in this style really have an impact. The guitar and bass tone have immense weight, but they also have that twang to them that gives the overall stringed instrument tone an alien, otherworldly quality. The band still doesn’t have a drummer. All I can say there is that they were composed very well for the music and were well-mixed as well.
I do think, though, after all I’ve said, that the ultimate highlight is the vocal interplay between the three members. Some of what goes on here is just too cool, especially the way that they’ll counterpoint off each other during their three-part clean harmonies. Yet the harsh vocals, and especially those from Daniel Forbrich, are some of the most emotionally charged and savage I’ve heard, especially in the context of this style.
If anyone asked me what album they must absolutely listen to for this year, I would definitely say that this is one of them. It is absolutely one of my top 3 albums of the year, one that I haven’t been able to stop listening to. If there were ever a band who I could confidently tell you to throw your money at, it’s Stealing Axion. Bands like Periphery and TesseracT are simply not needed while these guys exist.