Perhaps at the risk of embarrassing myself once again (which, ah. Whoops), Downfall is kind of an odd album in the Solitude Aeturnus discography. It has the band’s signature touch, certainly – the evocative, stone-heavy riffage and harmonies; Robert Lowe’s consistently impeccable vocal delivery, and that sweet, sweet over the top melancholia underpinning everything. All that said, Downfall has a pretty distinctly different vibe in that it’s the least “epic” thing the band ever did, least to my ears anyway. Perhaps it’s the aesthetic of the album that has me crossed up or such, which is a possibility certainly.
Still though, I’ve also never really been able to shake the idea that this record takes a slightly different tack toward the writing from the band’s usual fare. Again, you can certainly tell it’s a Solitude Aeturnus album, even from the first few discord notes of the opener’s piano intro, but the writing here feels distinctly less focused on scope than before, and more on the direct movement between individual riffs/passages and less on trying to create something more grandiose and sprawling. Of all of Solitude Aeturnus’s six albums, this is the second shortest one after Beyond the Crimson Horizon, and consequently the band feels distinctly more interested in writing more concise, punchier tunes than any of the other records (especially the final two, which are about 18 and 15 mins longer than this record, respectively).
It’s kind of an odd pivot, if not an entirely unexpected one given some of the material on the preceding record, but Solitude Aeturnus are, if nothing else, exceptional songwriters when they’re fully on. Barring a couple of tracks in the middle of the record, the band are in fine form here. From the moment the main riff of “Phantoms” kicks in, the band dish out memorable riff after memorable riff, with the dry, leaden tone of the guitars punctuating them and the lead melodies throughout. The band’s constant air of crushing pessimism is omnipresent, as always, but “Phantoms” also prizes pacing and urgency, less lumbering around and more cruising at a consistent mid-tempo, with their instincts for melodic interplay between Lowe’s powerful vocals and the guitars still distinct and intact. The chorus, in particular – that one is an earworm, almost without even really trying to be such. “What are we now/hands in the air/like rats on a sinking shiiiiiip” is absolutely impeccable in its delivery. You can also surely relate it to the sort of year we’ve all been having and surviving in if you so desire to do so.
Again, not to harp on it too much but part of what makes this album work is that the general emphasis on pacing and movement throughout the album allows the band to avoid falling into a rut and having their writing drag out too unnecessarily. Obviously, I do not have an issue with doom metal that decides to be slow and endlessly expansive for the sake of proving a mood or point – hell, it’s even something this band does pretty brilliant – but the relative snappiness of the writing on here gives even their most doleful moments a certain punchiness that allows the songs to keep moving. “Only This (And Nothing More)” showcases it really well – the chorus is classic Solitude Aeturnus; Lowe’s voice wafting over the din of melodic, low-slung guitars that paint a stark mood, only for the band to suddenly shift into an infectious stomping riff right after. It’s one of the most memorable passages of the record, the contrast between the two reflecting the band’s skill at being able to consistent shift mood without coming off as needlessly disjoint or incoherent. Even when the band shifts from the dirgy verses of “Midnight Dreams” into its chorus, the band pulls off the soft/loud dichotomy without it being as rote or redundant as a lot of other 90s metal bands had done around the same time. Lowe sounds like he’s bursting out of a fuckin trace or something along those lines and it rules a lot.
For as much as this album gets right, it’s not quite the band’s most consistent set of songs either. I’ve never really gotten what “Elysium” is trying to portray; a descent into madness with the guitars mainly doing noise/feedback or something along those lines? It’s never really clicked for me even as an interlude-type track. The Christian Death cover puts me in an odder spot – “Deathwish” is a great fuckin song, the original merging punk rock insouciance with the creeping decadent feeling of the American stripe of deathrock. Solitude Aeturnus’s cover of it is by no means bad, it’s just kind of a weird decision for a doom band to cover it and it feels mildly out of place on here. It’s hardly an album wrecker though, since it’s barely over two minutes long to start with so it’s hardly the most unpleasant thing to sit through.
Still though, despite that, the other seven songs are quite excellent, and the best cuts here are tracks that most self-respecting metal bands (forget subgenre for a second) would cut a limb off to write half as well. Special mention in particular should go out to the album closer in “Concern” – its main riff is absolutely one of the best things the band has ever written, a chunky figure that instantly conveys the song’s mood of sinking, dismal apathy – and the way Lowe’s voice floats in, mirroring the mood while also almost seemingly disconnected at first, is genuinely incredible and evocative. The band snaps it back into focus for the chorus, wherein he gets a chance to cut loose and soar in the typically stellar Lowe manner. The give and take between the two is the main thing that drives the song forward without feeling rote or robotic once; rather it’s a song portraying an attempt to find some sort of purpose or point in an attempt to stave off hopelessness, while also acknowledging it with the band’s always present melancholy inform its oppressive mood. Well something like that, I probably got that wrong, but that’s what I’ve always gotten off it. Both of the solos are brilliant, incidentally – flashy yet distinctly melodic without overplaying or being wanky for its own. The outro solo, over the song’s acoustic coda, is one of my favorite moments of the band’s, and really in most doom in general. It’s a reminder that, if Candlemass had an equal in their field, these guys were just about the closest thing to it (and really the gap ain’t exactly huge at their respective peaks, perhaps just a crack).
Downfall seems like it’s mentioned as being the band’s weakest album, at least from my relative perspective online. I’ve said it a fair bit myself – mistakenly so, as I’ve thought more on it, I’m not really sure that it is the case. It’s true that the production isn’t the greatest, certainly – it does render things in kind of a dry, clacky manner, especially the guitars and drums – but it’s hardly unlistenable by any means, and the songs on here really are true growers if you give them the opportunity to do so. I’ve certainly found myself humming many a riff or vocal line that, just so happens, to be from this particular album. It’s not their best album, but neither is it weak by any means either. Solitude Aeturnus have an astoundingly consistent discography, all things considered; none of their six albums are anything worse than “very good” as a whole. And that holds true for Downfall. It is a fine album that is worthy of a spot in anybody’s collection. Go give it a listen, you might come away quite pleasantly surprised with it.
Favorite Track: Concern