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Somnus Aeternus : Exulansis

A heavier and more progressive approach to Death/Doom sees Somnus Aeternus's sophomore treading interesting new ground.

Like me, you'd probably struggle to list many Czech Doom bands: Et Moriemur, R.E.T. and Mistress Of The Dead being the most well-known to spring to mind. And, having produced that (short)list - or even with a bit more research via Metal Archives' advanced search - what might strike you is that not only are they genuinely few in number, but completely disparate in style: there simply isn't a consistent 'Czech sound' to point towards. Instead, there's a tendency to experiment with mixing up styles and genres, often with unusual but interesting results.

I mention this, as Somnus Aeternus rather personify that sense of experimentalism: their 2012 debut 'On The Shores Of Oblivion' receiving a somewhat quizzical review on these pages. Whilst I sympathised with my colleague Dominik's difficulty in classifying it, and agreed with his assessment in terms of the band's potential, I'd have to say that I also rated the album a lot more highly in its own right - and I've been curious about what a sophomore follow-up might sound like ever since. And, finally, here is 'Exulansis' to answer that question.

There have been some changes in the intervening years, with only two of the 'On The Shores...' line-up - guitarist Wohma and vocalist Insomnic, between them also representing most of the lyrical input of that album - remaining. Now slimmed down from a six- to a five-piece outfit, the instrumental spread is the same, as new member Čed doubles up on bass and keyboard duties, though there is less prominent use of the latter on this release. They have also switched labels, from Solitude to the more esoteric Epidemie Records - the Czech label responsible for releases by acts like Aarni, Umbra Nihil and Gallileous, which may be a bit of a hint...

Having also taken the route of longer, somewhat heavier compositions, and dropped most of the melodic/Gothic sound that characterised the debut, what emerges is actually something like the off-kilter, unpredictable and somewhat chaotic Prog/Death/Doom of Phlebotomized (or, to a lesser extent, Yearning), seasoned with Black Metal shrieking and uptempo sections, plus a little Post-Metal guitarwork. And much like the Dutch band's works, that doesn't make 'Exulansis' a particularly accessible, or easy to absorb, album. Indeed, first or casual impressions may well be of an undisciplined sprawl, lacking much in the way of continuity. Which is actually both true and untrue - there are discontinuities, but deliberate ones, in which the oxymoron 'organised chaos' may well be correct.

Fortunately, the comprehensive lyrics (included physically or electronically with all versions, and all written by Insomnic) and the additional booklet elaborating on the back story (collector's edition only) do explain what is going on. The word exulansis is an invented one, created by US artist John Koenig for his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows project, meaning: 'the tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it'. Which is at the core of the life and death of the album's protagonist 'S.', driven to achieve exceptionality only so that he can end it with a grand and glorious suicide, in order to honour his dead love's memory. It is a thoughtful construction, more so than a quick precis can convey, and S.'s internal struggles with reason, understanding and acceptance carry a lot of depth apposite to the turbulence of the music. Conceptually, it actually quite reminds me of The Pretty Things' similarly challenging (for the time) 'S.F. Sorrow'.

So 'Exulansis' kicks off with the furiously howling 'Zen And The Demise' - covering S.'s suicide in the void of space - and then throttles back to pick up the earlier story. Initially it returns to before his wife's death, with the mellower 'Insecure Pawn', then steers through 'Frostbound''s funereal tragi-comedy, in which he tries to come to terms with her passing. The second half of the album covers two long tracks and a brief instrumental outro: the semi-blackened, stomping 'Path Through Oblivion' traces S.'s descent into grief, years of waiting, then randomly walking until exhausted, and - finally - with the eerie textures of 'Reaching The Anatta', resolving to qualify for the first manned Mars voyage in order to make his grand gesture and finish the story.

There's a lot going on in each of the tracks, very little of it repetitive - don't look to find much in the way of established riffs or rhythms. The instruments concentrate on progressive explorations, each track unfolding through multiple sections, each one changing pace and aggressiveness: echoed by the vocals that range from deep and clean through growls and into violent shrieking. Just as you would expect from the heavily-narrative concept, the music has to trace the entire, complicated story arc, and does so by splitting each of the five larger pieces into a series of developing vignettes. It rewards concentration, essentially: lose track of the story and the very changeability of the album can lead it to become a shapeless swirl of unresolved elements; pay attention, and it takes on an unfolding and fascinating nature.

It also establishes a less ambiguous Doom presence for the band than the debut: the story is certainly doomy enough, the pace generally is, and there's a fair amount of depressingly crushing heaviness involved, even if the underlying technical nature of the compositions instinctively seem like they could just as easily belong to the likes of Opeth's Prog/Death or Negura Bunget's Prog/Black schools as with the aforementioned more Doom-oriented bands. That's simply an observation, though; I don't have any criticism of the style and direction of the album - indeed, the only minor complaint I'd muster would be that I'm not always that taken with the deeper Death-growl vocals: though mostly comprehensible, which is a bonus, they can also be somewhat invariant and a little uninvolving compared to the colour in the other vocal styles.

Overall, there has been a commendable amount of evolution and experimentation gone into the making of 'Exulansis', and wherever you want to pigeonhole the actual result, it's still an intelligent, complete and deep concept realised with considerable skill and dedication. I will say I'm glad that I opted to buy the collector's edition - having the full story to peruse certainly enhances the experience - but the lavish and beautifully-packaged standard version still gives enough information for it all to make sense. Being completely honest, I'm not sure whether it's going to find massive general appeal: it's perhaps too complex, individual and difficult for that, but if you're after music that doesn't offer up its secrets as an easy reward, Somnus Aeternus come highly recommended.

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Reviewer's rating: 8.5/10


Tracklist :
1. Zen And The Demise
2. Insecure Pawn
3. Frostbound
4. Path Through Oblivion
5. Reaching The Anatta
6. VI

Duration : Approx. 53 minutes

Visit the Somnus Aeternus bandpage.

Reviewed on 2016-04-24 by Mike Liassides
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