Sunday, December 17, 2017

Matt Spall reviews Ne Obliviscaris

[The U.K.-based music writer Matt Spall decided to join the conversation on the Australian band. --MMB]
Artist: Ne Obliviscaris
Album Title: Urn
Label: Season Of Mist
Date Of Release: 27 October 2017
Many column inches have been filled with commentary about Ne Obliviscaris over the past year or so after the Australians announced a ‘patron crowd funding campaign’ to essentially fund them to be full-time musicians. The initiative was designed to raise enough money to pay the technical progressive death metal band a wage to allow them the time to write a new record and continue touring. The idea polarized opinion but despite the naysayers, the Melbourne-based band has seemingly succeeded with the venture because here we are with the quintet’s third album, ‘Urn’.
Personally, I am completely ambivalent to things like crowdfunding campaigns or the commercial decisions of bands full stop. The most important thing for me is the music. So, if a band wants to raise money to live with penguins in an effort to find the inspiration to write new music, that’s fine by me. So long as the final result is not a letdown of course.
As such, I don’t come to this review with an agenda or any negativity towards Ne Obliviscaris. Far from it; I rather respect their transparency and their desire to succeed. Heck, if I could earn some kind of living from this website, I’d probably jump at the opportunity.
Anyway, enough chewing the cud, allow me to turn to that which is most important: the music.
It is fair to say that ‘Urn’ does not have it easy. Any album asked to follow the exceptional ‘Citadel’ would find it tough, especially when you also add a thick layer of feverish anticipation and expectation from the loyal fan base.
But rather than be rushed, these five Australians have taken three years to write, shape, and perfect their next offering. And I’ll cut to the chase: the result is phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal.
And what’s unusual with this kind of multi-layered, technical and complex style of music, is that my love for this record was almost instantaneous. Love at first listen, you might say. The reason is that ‘Urn’ incorporates just about everything I like in my metal, let alone extreme metal. It has technicality so it demands your attention and concentration. It has variety by the truckload, so you’re never bored and you’re always kept on your toes. And it has some absolutely beautiful melodies and atmospheres weaved within it. ‘Urn’ simply gets better and better the more I listen too, as new things jump out at me seemingly with every spin.
But arguably, what I enjoy the most about Ne Obliviscaris and this record in particular, is the really sophisticated juxtaposition between the technical and the organic.
Take the violin of Tim Charles for the perfect example. A song may be merrily pummelling the listener to death with precise blast beats and complicated scything riffs but then, out of nowhere, in comes the violin and the dynamic of the track instantly alters. The focus is no longer on the precision and the clinical sheen although this still exists. Instead, you’re drawn to something much more organic-sounding and ‘from the heart’. The purity of the violin in the context of the surrounding maelstrom is striking and actually quite poignant. Occasionally however, the violin sounds a little dirty, strained or discordant, but there is no doubt that this is entirely deliberate, making the dichotomy even more pronounced in the process.
Then there’s the contrast between the gruff vocals of the enigmatically-named Xenoyr and the clean delivery of the disgustingly talented Tim Charles. The dual vocal attack is no longer a unique ingredient within the metal world but both share the microphone duties in a manner that helps to accentuate either the harder or softer sides of the music really well.
Speaking of the softer side to the Ne Obliviscaris material, I also marvel at the melodic sensibilities that this band displays. Technical progressive death metal can sometimes become an exercise in ability rather than listenability, but not so here. The technicality can be chaotic and extreme as you’d want and expect, but this is tempered expertly by some strong melodic interplay that stays with me long after the album has ended.
Allow me to get a bit more specific: ‘Urn’ begins with ‘Libera’, which in turn is split into two parts, ‘Saturnine Spheres’ and ‘Ascent of Burning Moths’ respectively.
‘Part I’ begins quietly and gently before exploding with blast beats from drummer Daniel Presland and fast-picked staccato riffs courtesy of guitarists Benjamin Baret and Matt Klavins. However, it is the clean voice of Charles that is the first to be heard. For my money he is much more prominent than on previous outings but based on his performance here, that can only be a good thing. Mind you, when Xenoyr enters the fray with his savage and uncompromising delivery, I can’t help but smile a sinister smile for Xenoyr owns a deliciously malevolent growl that fits the music perfectly throughout.
The song and indeed the album as a whole, is aided by an extremely strong production which allows each instrument to be heard however frenetic or involve things get. As such, even the bass is not lost, cutting through very nicely.
The folk-tinged mid-section is dominated by the violin and bass but is supported by acoustic guitars and relaxed, restrained drumming. Despite the more chilled vibe at this point, you can feel that the song is building and that this might just be the calm before the storm. And so it comes to pass, in dramatic style as the metaphorical roof is blown off.
The band returns to the intense blast beat-driven environs from earlier in the piece but they are joined by some truly rousing choral vocals that make one hell of an impact. Alongside the punishing music, they have the same kind of spine-tingling effect on me as when I’m at White Hart Lane, surrounded by the sound of several thousand fans singing songs of devotion towards our beloved football team. It’s like a force of nature and the resultant crescendo is electric and genuinely sends shivers cascading down my spine.
‘Part II – Ascent of Buring Moths’ by contrast is a calm outro piece purely acoustic guitar and violin in construction. After the intensity of ‘Part I’, this is the perfect counterpoint and is all the more impactful and enjoyable as a result.
From then on, it is almost impossible to pick out the best bits because these best bits are, essentially, the remaining four songs in their entirety. ‘Intra Venus’ is the shortest single composition but it packs a huge punch, containing some of the most memorable melodies on the album thanks largely to Charles’ clean vocal delivery that soars above the brutal tumult with elegant ease. The duelling solos between the violin and Benjamin Baret’s lead guitar are brilliant, as is the apparently effortless variation of light and shade as the seven-minute track develops.
If my life depended on it, I’d have to declare ‘Eyrie’ as my favourite track on ‘Urn’, but only just. It comes to life in glorious fashion thanks to an atmospheric ambient opening, where the violin is faint and haunting and the relatively simple melody is heart breaking in its purity. The layers build over the ensuing few minutes but it is not until the 4:30 mark that the song finally erupts. And even then, despite the technicality from all corners, the melodic sensibilities of the introduction remain. Again, Charles is devastating in his ability to sound impassioned whilst helping to deliver the memorable melodies.
The attention to detail is breath-taking too. Take for example the alternating ‘high’ and ‘low’ drum rolls courtesy of Daniel Presland. He is such a machine that every beat is precise and powerful regardless of how fast or intricately he is playing. The expressive lead guitar lines are a joy as is the soaring violin as the track nears its huge and strangely emotional bombastic crescendo. It’s not often I refer to technical progressive death metal as soul-enriching and moving, but with ‘Eyrie’ in particular, Ne Obliviscaris have managed this feat. This truly is a stunning composition, one of the stand-out songs of the entire year as far as I’m concerned
‘Urn’ is then brought to a close by the title track which, once again, is split into two parts, namely ‘And Within The Void We Are Breathless’ and ‘As Embers Dance In Our Eyes’. ‘Part I’ descends into near chaos at times but is kept in check by the immense skill of each of the musicians, pulling the track back from the brink of anarchy frequently. ‘Part II’ continues to deliver a certain amount of contained discord, primarily on the part of a shrieking violin, before bearing a fair amount of riff-heavy groove. The lead work of Klavins is superb but it is once again Tim Charles’ clean vocals that make the biggest impact, proffering more gorgeous and passionate melodies.
There is only one thing that prevents ‘Urn’ from achieving a perfect score: one more song. Whilst this album lasts for over 45 minutes, I really want one more track. This might sound greedy but when we’ve waited this long and the music is this good, I crave more.
Nevertheless, as it is, Ne Obliviscaris have put together a near-flawless masterpiece with ‘Urn’. It is the sound of the progressive death metal genre being ripped apart and reassembled in the most spectacular fashion. The bar has been set, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and only time will tell whether another will surpass this incredible record. ‘Urn’ is intelligent, ambitious and above all, magical. I love it and if you love heavy, technical music, you’ll love it too. Of that there is no doubt.
The Score Of Much Metal: 9.9

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