For many black metal fans, Aquilus is to Australia what Weakling is to the United States. With 2011's Griseus, the one-man-band released what many consider to be the finest offering of symphonic black metal to grace the 2010s… followed by a decade of deafening silence. Rather than fade into obscurity, Aquilus' first full-length stands the test of time. Sole member Horace "Waldorf" Rosenqvist has a terribly high bar to reach with subsequent material. Perhaps that's why it took so long for Bellum I to drop—to successfully craft a followup to a masterful debut.
Look no further than "The Night Winds of Avila" to understand the next-level proficiency Waldorf brings to Aquilus' song. His spiraling piano arpeggios reveal his formidable classical chops, while the track's string arrangements set a beautifully dynamic atmosphere. Of course, the tricky part is convincingly incorporating these elements into an extreme metal context. To that effect, "Into Wooded Hollows" solidifies Aquilus return to symphonic metal prestige. Waldorf's sense of bombast and scope is matched only by his ear for memorable leads—this time with heavier production to beef up the riffs. This beefs up the metallic side of the album, while
"What does music mean to you?" "I don't know. It is full of emotion, but it is not happy"… With this exchange begins the 13-minute odyssey "Eternal Unrest." Indeed, this simple appraisal of musical expression holds true within its many twists and turns. Whether he's shredding on acoustic or electric guitars, Waldorf imbues Aquilus with astounding dexterity. He fills every crevice of his soundscapes with layered keyboard ambiance or a harmonious vocal choral, methodically manifesting his grand vision without losing sight of the raw essentials. The shrieking vocals, double kick drumming and dissonant guitar strains would work just as well without the augmented instrumentation, and honestly, vice versa.
Perhaps the most compelling element of Aquilus is the fact Waldorf doesn't try too hard to push his stylistic amalgamation. "Embered Waters" does not simply check the "mood-setting interlude" box, becoming a deep, haunting palette cleanser of droning ritualism before "Lucille's Gate" deals its scorching blast beats. It says a lot about Aquilus' controlled delivery that this is the one of two on Bellum I with any blast beats at all. It's the best example on the album of the lines blurring between classical and extreme metal, as it incorporates some of its most punishing riff changes into what's essentially the heaviest chamber ensemble of the year.
Make no mistake, a cut like "The Silent Passing" brings plenty to headbang to, considering it starts with what would be a proggy thrash riff, if it wasn't played on acoustic guitar. The full instrumentation brings an angular, technical approach that might even recall the likes of Opeth before Aquilus' previous leanings toward older Emperor or Satyricon (due in large part to percussive assistance from Zebadee Scott), but it quickly returns to its elegiac melody and expansive arrangements. More than ever, Aquilus sounds like Waldorf seeing how often he can avoid playing metal, or at least playing metal like a metal musician.
Aquilus features many instances of Waldorf flexing his classical chops during heavier songs, both as a player and a composer, but really, almost 18 minutes of Bellum I comprise pure neoclassical music. "Moon Isabelline" is way too long to fall under the interlude umbrella, and too authentic to write off as a genre-blending gimmick. The song highlights Waldorf's piano skills to a stunning effect. Far the minimalist repetition of his dungeon synth neighbors, he commands emotion as well as sweeping modulations.
Closing track "Empyreal Nightsky" leans farther toward ambient music, but this use of space allows Bellum I's production to set Aquilus apart from its contemporaries. Having separate engineers to respectively flesh out the drums and piano certainly helps, but Waldorf also got assistance from Hayley Anderson and Troy Schafer on violin, operatic vocals from Sasha Chaply and Sara Orani on flute. The real kicker? It's not overly obvious when keyboard patches end and real instruments begin. The number ebbs and flows like a fully-realized entity, dispensing with linear structure in favor of free-flowing ideas and and multi-instrumental motifs.
Aquilus makes up for time spent away by hitting harder when it counts most, and doubling down on its eccentricities. Rather than try to one-up his debut, Waldorf has chosen to explore sonic rabbit holes left untouched by its predecessor. It's no small feat, but then again, neither is Bellum I. Is it a neoclassical album with metal influence, or vice versa? Categorization stops mattering when the sum of this album's parts remains as engaging as it is diverse. In a genre where it's easy to overblow things, Aquilus remains a bastion of genuine artistry.