I wasn’t sure what I was jumping into with Skepticism 1998 album Lead and Aether.
I knew it was in a subgenre called “funeral doom.” I understood it was supposed to be slower than doom metal. But damn, is it slow, and damn, is it heavy.
If you think doom metal is slow, then you haven’t heard “funeral metal,” which Skepticism is dubbed by many. Seriously, move over Sleep and St. Vitus, Skepticism moves at an agonizingly slow pace … but I mean that in a positive way. It transmits what the band wants the listener to feel and despite the snail’s speed, it’s utterly fascinating.
Skepticism hails from Finland and their music matches the cold and wet climate many outsiders envision to be dominant there. Of course, before someone tells me I’m full of shit, I know that Finland often has delightful and pleasant weather.
Lead and Aether is not heavy in the sonic sense. You’re not going to get hit by hammering guitar chords or run over by galloping bass drums. Instead, it’s mournfully droning guitars, echoing drums and deep vocals hit deeper than that, grabbing you at a spiritual level instead of a physical.
Handling vocals on Lead and Aether is Matti Tilaeus, whose deep vocals are very much an instrument, being co-equal with the rest of the instruments in creating the overall atmosphere. I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I don’t think what he’s saying is as important as he sounds. His vocals are very low, sounding like a lonely god overseeing a funeral procession.
Lasse Pelkonen is on drums, another co-equal instrument. They’re very slow and very deep, creating an atmosphere like you’re walking through a village hit by the plague.
Jani Kearainen plays guitars. He isn’t a lead guitar, instead, he’s another key component of the overall whole,lending melodies when needed and droning chords elsewhere. He strikes are far between and he engages in melody only when necessary. A great example of restraint instead of taking the lead, which is what guitarists are usually expected to do to drive a song forward.
Rounding things out is Eero Pöyry whose keyboards add atmosphere. Yes, they’re usually the sounds of an organ, but they sound organic, not synthesized. Really bad sounding keyboards were a plague on metal in the 1990s, but here, they’re used well, setting the tone.
Altogether, you have something that operates more like a classical quartet instead of a band. Every instrument working toward the greater whole to a great effect.
Considering they produce a sound that’s so dark and gloomy, it’s kind of a surprise that this band must be a rather happy place to be. The lineup has remained largely the same since 1993 until they brought on Timo Sitomaniemi to handle guitars for live performances in 2015. So, unlike many bands in the same time frame, they didn’t lose any, but actually added a member. Amazing.
Lead and Aether is only composed of six tracks. While usually, that would mean it’s an EP, at just more than 47 minutes it’s longer than man albums with twice that number of songs. It makes kind of makes picking standout tracks kind of unnecessary because you can talk about all the tracks and still have a regular length review.
Upon listening to the first song on Lead and Aether, “The Organium,” I thought “holy crap, those are some deep drums!” The deep beat drives the slow pace of the song, which feels kind of like a funeral procession.
Skepticism is all about creating an atmosphere on Lead and Aether. In that way, funeral doom is much like ambient music. What you feel from the music is just as important as what you hear. A mental picture is painted for you through the sounds and sparse vocals, never telling, just showing. While you may see a band like Skepticism on the Top 40 or hear them on the radio, they’ve got that quality that will keep you coming back for more, unlike the more overt hitmakers you see quickly rise and fall.
Everything here is slow and sparse, save the drums, which along with Tilaeus’ vocals really drive the album forward, offering sort of a glue to keep it together. The drums are the constant, never diverging, just marching ahead through the rain-soaked wasteland which Skepticism takes our procession.
Speaking of marches, the second track, “The March and the Stream,” is probably my favorite on the album. It’s slow guitar melody sticks with the listener and at the same time is fascinating enough to make this 10-plus minute song just fly by. Partnered with the keyboard, the guitar helps give the song a hypnotic quality and definitely worth a listen.
“The March and the Stream” sort of bleeds into the next fall “The Falls,” which begins with just keyboard and guitar before the drums kick in, slow as ever. In some ways, “The Falls” is like a song from Cathedral’s Forest of Equilibrium, but knocked down to half the speed. It’s a very tonal number, with the keyboard moving to the forefront.
“Forge” is another track that stands above the others. It’s very tonal and shows the band come together in what is reminiscent of early black metal recordings, except slowed way down. It’s a great track and definitely recommended for those who want to dip their toes instead of listen to the entire album. “Edges” follows a similar route, sounding in a lot of ways similar to its predecessor.
“Aether” is the rather epic closing track. It trudges forward, the keyboard keeping the tone and Matti providing the atmosphere. It’s probably the most atmospheric track on the album. There’s a lot to like about it and most importantly, it provides that suitable ending, one of emptiness and futility.
Lead and Aether isn’t for everyone. It’s for a particular type of person who enjoys turning off all the lights, putting on their head phones and becoming totally immersed in the music. The album provokes very visual thoughts, which Skepticism indulges in, dressing much like funeral directors during their live performances.
If you’re not familiar with the funeral doom, I’ll say give Lead and Aether a try. It gives you a good taste of what the genre is like and whether you want to go deeper … maybe six feet deeper.
The entire album is on Youtube. Check it out.