Ilium - Ageless decay 4/5

Reviewed: 11-20-09


1. Mothcaste
2. Hibernal thaw
3. Tar pit
4. Omnipaedia
5. Xerophyte
6. Nubia awakes
7. Ageless decay
8. Eocene dawning
9. Fragmented glory
10. The neo-mortician
11. The little witch of Madagascar
12. Idolatry

If the name Ilium doesn't ring a bell, you've been missing out on some top-notch European-styled traditional-minded metal. This Australian act is the brainchild of guitarists Jason Hodges and Adam Smith, and doesn't really sound like any of their well-known countrymen. Less progressive than Vanishing Point, more old-school than Black Majesty, more adventuresome than Black Steel, and not as speedy as Dungeon/Lord, Ilium have quietly been plying their trade for 4 full-length studio albums now. Unfortunately, they've never had a steady singer. For their last couple of CDs (2005's 'Permian dusk' and 2007's 'Vespertilion'), Hodges and Smith had borrowed their countryman Lord Tim of Dungeon/Lord fame to serve as guest lead vocalist on all tracks. On 'Ageless decay', the boys decided to go for broke. They brought famed Danish studio wizard Tommy Hansen on board to mix and master their CD. They hired noted painter Dimitar Nikolov not only to create striking cover art, but also to provide breathtaking booklet illustrations (many of them CD cover-worthy in their own right) to accompany each song. Finally, in the boldest stroke of all, Smith and Hodges somehow convinced golden-throated American vocal god Mike DiMeo (Riot, Masterplan) to provide lead vocals for the entire CD. Securing DiMeo's services was a real coup, because (a) unlike Michael Kiske and so on, the man isn't known for lending his voice out to guest appearances, (b) although not everyone loves him, fanboys like me regard DiMeo as one of the finest vocalists in the world of hard rock and heavy metal, and (c) DiMeo is known to favor the bluesier, rockish end of the spectrum, so the prospect of him singing over a full CD of blazing traditional/true metal is a dream come true for many.

Ilium's gamble paid off. Right out of the gate, this CD delivers a killing blow with "Mothcaste", featuring a superb guitar melody, a spine-tingling vocal performance, and haunting lyrics about a mysterious night creature drawn to the light even as it torments him. Anyone who walks on the dark side will be able to relate to this metaphor. But this is just the beginning: 'Ageless decay' is absolutely littered with highlights, from the speedy intensity of the title track to DiMeo's jaw-dropping vocals on "Hibernal thaw" to the thought-provoking lyrics of "Omnipedia" ("Many names they give to me / I am the great anomaly / I can relieve your misery / Possessor of all knowledge") to the epic closer "Idolatry". Every song has strong guitar work, well-crafted lyrics, a memorable chorus, and powerful sonic values. For comparison's sake, I think it's fair to say that Ilium follow in the footsteps of legends like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, without sounding like a clone of either. There's also a strong NWOBHM vibe to some of the guitar riffs. Simply put, the combination of DiMeo's soaring and distinctive vocals, Hodges' erudite lyrics, and the Hodges/Smith guitar team works extremely well.

With all the praise set forth above, one might question the 4/5 rating as being on the low side. 'Ageless decay' is one of those CDs that makes a reviewer curse any numerical rating system, and I struggled to arrive at an appropriate score. Ultimately, I could not bring myself to go above 4/5, notwithstanding this CD's many strengths, for a few reasons. For starters, my dislike of keyboards in traditional/true/power metal is well-documented, and unfortunately there are several tracks on 'Ageless decay' where the keys are too intrusive and carry the melody unnecessarily. Next, 12 songs and 68 minutes of music can simply become overwhelming and mind-numbing in the hands of any but the most skilled bands. While I applaud Ilium for being prolific and wanting to share their songwriting creations in their entirety (certainly there aren't any fillers or duds here), sometimes less is more, and I find myself fatigued before the end of this CD every time through. Last but not least, I wish Ilium's songwriting was a bit more straightforward and direct sometimes. They've got 6-minute songs with incredible choruses that are only repeated once or twice. Certainly, you don't have to go all 'Brave new world', bludgeoning the listener to death with repetition, but a truly splendid hook (which Ilium have written here in spades) shouldn't be discarded after one or 2 iterations. The result is that it takes more time and attention by the listener than it should for these great hooks to sink into the brain.

Quibbles aside, 'Ageless decay' is a triumph for Australian heavy metal. I will forever be grateful to Ilium for coaxing Mike DiMeo into singing on a pure metal CD and delivering one of the finest performances of his career this side of 'Inishmore'. Those who appreciate DiMeo's voice, excellent lyrics, and old-fashioned metal guitar riffs, all wrapped in a very professional production and mix, and with killer complementary visual artwork, should consider 'Ageless decay' nothing short of mandatory.




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