Reverse engineering is the deconstruction of an object to reveal the components, patterns, or essence of it. It is the process of analyzing an aircraft piece when there is no documentation available to make out the chemical and physical structure of it, or tracing back to the source code of a software when it was lost using the bits of the machine code sent to the processor, or breaking down Hellenic black metal to extract the pure epic heavy metal essence of it.
In a previous article, I already mentioned how Greek black metal artists found their unique and characteristic sound in the early 90s by building their brand of extreme metal on top of a foundation of 80s traditional heavy metal – with a pinch of folk elements thrown in for good measure. If they were to take away the black metal from the mix gradually over time, what would that leave us with? Just the initial heavy metal inspirations or something entirely new? The answer is found withThe Eternalist, perhaps the most unique and elegant mix of heavy and black metal to ever have been written.
The Eternalist is the end result of a very long journey,with songs on the album in the works since late 90s. So first let’s get back to early 90s, where the story of two brothers began. The Hellenic black metal movement had some prominent members who pioneered the sound in 90s with their bands. Eskarth the Dark One and Archon Vorskaath are two figures in this movement, their bands being Agatus and Zemial, respectively. During the early years, Zemial released the cult EP, Sleeping Under Tartarus, and then the debut full-length For the Glory of UR. They had a thrashy approach to Hellenic black metal sound that is reminiscent of early Bathory. Meanwhile, the first offerings of Agatus were two demos followed by the debut album, Dawn of Martyrdom. The sound of Agatus was much more synth heavy and the synths were used as a layer of atmosphere on top of the fast black metal base. The brothers helped with each other’s bands from the beginning by contributing on the albums with various instruments or vocals.
Over time it became obvious that black metal bands from Greece loved one thing: adding new elements into their sound or even completely moving away from the initial Hellenic black metal approach to discover new areas. These new areas to discover for Agatus and Zemial were mainly epic heavy metal and 70s progressive rock. The brothers would form the side-project Alpha Centauri in 1998 to play these styles, but instead of officially releasing Alpha Centauri material, they would end up infusing their epic heavy metal and progressive rock tendencies in the works of their primary bands. Agatus took the path of dark and epic heavy metal while the brothers’ love for progressive rock showed itself mostly in the sound of Zemial.
The journey that led to The Eternalist can be traced step by step after the debut. Keep in mind that this journey was not a quick one, there were a lot of gaps and quiet years between each release. During those quiet years, Eskarth has always been working on the Agatus material, changing and perfecting things. The first signs of the direction he would take came with the second full-length, The Weaving Fates, in 2002. This album is not only the blueprint of The Eternalist but also still stands as their best mix of black/heavy metal if you like it more on the black metal side. It showed the first examples of epic heavy metal infused riffing style Agatus would heavily use later on. After a nine-year silence, they released an EP which consists of two songs from The Weaving Fates, rearranged and remixed, getting us even closer to the sound of THE album. 2012 saw another EP with the first incarnation of the song, “Gilgamesh”, which would later find its place in the full-length as well as another track, “Tatra Vulgu”s, which was entirely in the style of later-era Agatus musically, but with harsh vocals aside from the spoken passages. After all these experimentations and another four years of silence, they finally delivered their epic heavy masterpiece,The Eternalist, in late 2016 on Hells Headbangers Records.
The album begins with the title track and right from the opening riff, it hits you with the classy epic heavy metal sound of Agatus. The vocals that start as the harsh vocals used in the middle-era of the band quickly turns into raspy clean vocals of Eskarth and his passionate, unique sounding cleans remain as the prominent style throughout the rest of the album. There are tasteful acoustic or atmospheric touches that contribute to what the album wants to achieve: oneiric dark heavy metal. Synths and keys are present but compared to the early Agatus, they are not here to steal the show. Front seat is clearly designed for the warm, dark, smooth, melodic guitar leads and the solos. The album continues without any kind of interludes and instead consists of nice consistently high quality songs that tell the tales of the soul, dreams, and consciousness. The outro, “To Last”, wraps up the dark, epic journey throughout the album with its calming, quiet melodies.
Hellenic black metal bands added layers of black metal on top of the initial heavy metal inspirations. Some of these layers were the frantic drum machines, harsh vocals, Greek folk touches, or tremolo picked black metal riffs. After a while, Agatus started peeling of these layers of black metal one by one to find out what’s left beneath is not just 80s heavy metal that inspired them in the first place but something entirely unique. While many 90s Hellenic black metal albums are already well-respected classics in the black/heavy metal micro-genre, a modern album from 2016, The Eternalist, is one of the best examples of the Greek take on dark heavy metal.
If you want to see the fascination of the brothers with epic heavy metal in an even more direct way than their outputs with their main bands, their side-project Alpha Centauri is where to go. They have been writing material for their pure epic heavy metal project since 1998. Alpha Centauri songs have been floating around online for years and even at that point, the songs were old. Over time they also wrote other material for this project that ended up on later Zemial albums instead. Finally in 2019, two Alpha Centauri songs saw the official release as Return of the Herakleids EP with the digital format which will be followed by a 7”. I can only hope that this decision to put out an official release after many years means that the brothers have more plans for this project in future. Whether it is going to be more Alpha Centauri, Zemial, or Agatus material, I am definitely looking forward to hearing more from them and whatever it is that will come in the future is bound to be of the highest quality if history gives us any indication.
Album Rating: 95/100
Favorite track: The Oath (Of Magic And Fire)
Christian Hashbrown · April 10, 2019 at 2:04 pm
Awesome review man! Huge fan of this album and I think you did a great job of describing how all the different influences here come together into something thats more than the sum of its parts. I really like the background info you give before diving into the album itself, its really cool to see how this unique sound was formed over the years. Hopefully either band will have some new stuff for you to review soon!