Review Summary: Son of Aurelius returns from their unofficial hiatus with a more progressive, mature sound
Just a few months ago, I was wondering what the hell had happened to Son of Aurelius. After a great debut in 2010's The Farthest Reaches and a few tours to promote it, they pretty much disappeared from the scene. After years of inactivity, my prayers were answered as Son of Aurelius announced the release of their second full-length, Under a Western Sun, in early May. With such a long gap between releases, you naturally become skeptical about what the quality of the music will be, but Son of Aurelius put those fears to bed with a challenging and consistently gripping album that showcases their immense talent as a band.
Let me start off by saying that Under a Western Sun is a massive change in sound for Son of Aurelius. Those looking for another round of progressive technical death metal inspired by Greek mythology are going to be sorely disappointed with Under a Western Sun. Save for a couple of slabs of straight death metal ("A Great Liberation, "The Prison Walls"), Son of Aurelius is now primarily a progressive metal act with some melodic death metal undertones. While the change in sound is sure to agitate some extreme metal purists, it should also win them a ton of new fans.
Easily the most drastic change for Son of Aurelius on Under a Western Sun is the presence of new vocalist Riley McShane. Where previous vocalist Josh Miller exclusively screamed, McShane does mostly clean vocals with only periodic harsh vocal parts. McShane's high-pitched, almost operatic vocals (think of him as Mike Lessard from Last Chance to Reason and The Contortionist with a higher voice) takes some time to get adjusted to, but they ultimately work well for the band's new style. As the album progresses, McShane's performance gets more impressive. McShane especially shines on the last two non-instrumental tracks on the record,"Long Ago" and "Under a Western Sun". These tracks are able to showcase his powerful vocal range that allows him to hit incredibly high notes with ease. McShane's cleans are his main weapon, but he's got some pretty impressive screams as well. Harsh vocals don't make too many appearances on the first eight tracks of the album, but once "A Great Liberation" rolls around his screams start entering the fold more, and the album really starts to fire on all cylinders. His screams are a welcome contrast to his singing and have a similar bite that Miller's had on The Farthest Reaches. While McShane's cleans are more than solid on their own, the tracks where he divides time between singing and screaming are without a doubt the most enjoyable on the record.
Just like The Farthest Reaches, where Under a Western Sun really shines is with the instrumentation. The band somehow manages to improve on the technical wizardry they displayed on The Farthest Reaches with smoother tempo shifts, more blistering guitarwork and better crafted progressive sections. The band takes advantage of their improved songwriting and musicianship by placing instrumental tracks throughout the album. Guitarist Carey Greare sets the tone for the entire record with the haunting yet heavy opener "Return to Arms" while bassist Max Zigman solidifies his place as one of the best in modern metal with his jaw-dropping bass lines on "Submerge & Surface". These instrumental tracks aren't just an excuse for Son of Aurelius to showcase their instrumental proficiency, they also make the album flow a lot better and bring some variance to help break up the 72-minute runtime. It doesn't matter if it's a death metal chunk riff or a beautiful melodic passage, Son of Aurelius plays it to perfection.
Under a Western Sun successfully ushers in a new era for Son of Aurelius. The strides they've made on this record with their musical compositions are staggering and it's slightly hard to believe that this is the same act that released The Farthest Reaches. With a record that's as long and dense as Under a Western Sun, it will take numerous listens to fully appreciate all the nuances of the music and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if my rating improved upon subsequent listens. Hopefully it won't take another four years for these guys to release their next record.