Promises Kept: How Oathbreaker Have Raised The Bar for Post-Black Metal

Today’s musical landscape moves and changes faster than ever before, aided largely by the internet and social media. As such, new genres of music evolve at a far more rapid pace than they ever did in the pre-internet Dark Times. Post-black metal is one such relatively young and nascent genre, and it’s already seen a significant amount of creative innovation and commercial success.

Bands such as Lantlos, Départe, Ghost Bath, Lotus Thief, Deafheaven, Vattnet Viskar, Alcest and Altar of Plagues have released multiple albums that resonated with fans of both traditional extreme metal and more atmospheric heavy music. None have been more commercially successful than Deafheaven, earning accolades from music publications and fans that don’t normally pay attention to black metal, shoegaze, or post-rock. Pitchfork unloaded its fair share of superlatives upon Deafheaven’s most recent effort New Bermuda, calling it “a brilliant collision of beauty and despair,” ranking it just slightly higher than their breakthrough hit Sunbather. Mainstream music rag Spin gave highlight to New Bermuda as an essential record from 2015 and The Guardian, of all places, praised the record as “cinematic mainstream-friendly metal.” Obviously, the appeal of this subgenre is wider than any of the individual styles that make it up, and the reasons are many, and have been touched upon many times by better writers than I.

Many have used this acclaim as a sign that this new wave of bands fusing black metal, shoegaze, and post-metal has appeal beyond these genres individually, and while there’s some truth to this, the songwriting of quite a few bands in this burgeoning genre, Deafheaven included, leaves quite a bit to be desired in the end, relying on simply rehashing shoegaze and post-rock tropes without sufficiently leaving their own stamp on the genre. Far too often, songs are inundated with shoegaze’s traditional introspective twinkling clean guitars that interrupt the flow previously established with the black metal sections as though they were dropped into the composition with little flow or attention paid to the building or releasing of tension.

However, one band specifically have recently released an album that, by all signs, deliver on Deafheaven’s — and the genre as a whole’s — unfulfilled potential for extreme metal to be successfully fused with shoegaze and post-rock. With this piece, we’ll be looking at Oathbreaker’s recent opus Rheia and talking about why it’s a perfect example of what this young genre is capable of.

The story of Oathbreaker is the story of how an obscure Belgian band have risen to critical acclaim by mixing black metal with post-hardcore, shoegaze, and post-rock to create what’s perhaps one of the defining albums of extreme music in the 21st century. While the band’s earlier output, consisting of debut album Maelstrom (2011) and the quite excellent follow up Eros/Anteros (2013), were perfectly fine black metal albums with touches of post-metal and shoegaze, Rheia sees the band coming into their own as a heavyweight in the genre.

With Rheia, the band have written the definitive post-black metal album, at least so far. Where so many bands are content to simply drop post-rock and shoegaze sections into their music without adequately integrating with the black metal elements, Rheia feels completely effortless, flowing from one genre and influence to another with masterful ease. The folksy acoustic guitar parts on tracks like “Second Son of R.” and “Stay Here” live harmoniously alongside the harsh yet wistful black metal riffs, and vocalist Caro Tenghe’s pained cleans feel right at home with whatever style of music they’re backed by. Some have scoffed at the use of clean vocals in this genre — or any genre tangentially related to black metal, for that matter — and while in some cases their use isn’t warranted or doesn’t fit the music, that is absolutely not the case here.

The majority of the songs on Rheia seem to be about some form of loss, whether that loss is physical (the death of a loved one on “Needles In My Skin”) or immaterial (loss of sensation on “Until I Feel Nothing” or the dissolution of some form of relationship on “Second Son of R.”) This theme isn’t new to black metal or post-black metal, but the way that Oathbreaker explore it, and vocalist Caro Tenghe vocalizes this pain and sorrow, feels both sincere and heartbreaking in ways bands in the genre have managed to achieve. Rheia is an album you’ll want to listen to with the lyrics in front of you. Having the words to every song on here really makes a difference and heightens the listening experience.

On mid-album track “Stay Here / Accroche-Moi,” Oathbreaker step back from the black metal formula with a heartrending acoustic track that features one of Tenghe’s most impressive vocal performances. Rather than feeling out of place on an album that uses black metal as its building blocks, the track comes off as an extension of the elements already utilized in previous songs. This is a perfect example of how Oathbreaker’s songwriting grows organically from their influences and feels more authentic and realized than many of their genre contemporaries, with little to no identifiable delineation between styles used in a track. This organic, natural flow continues through the rest of the album, and the band’s dynamic songwriting allows the music to breath, making Rheia somewhat more listenable and accessible than many black metal albums, without being any less harsh and emotionally destructive. Indeed, it’s the quiet moments on Rheia that cut the deepest, and they’re so well written rather than being an afterthought only heightens the dichotomy between the calm and the fury, one of the most important pillars of this young genre.

Oathbreaker’s shoegaze influences are more subtle than those of, say, Lantlos or Alcest, working more to inform their note choice and overall compositions than minute-to-minute details. Oathbreaker take the sonic elements laid down by previous bands in the genre, innovators and copycats, and execute them better than any band to date. The seamless blending of the disparate sounds that inform and inspire post-black metal is why Rheia is such a triumph. Oathbreaker have proven that they possess a keen understanding of what makes this style work and what doesn’t, and they’ve cut the fat out of the genre.  Of all the albums released under this genre label so far, Rheia is the absolute epitome of the elements listeners have come to expect from this relatively new style of metal. If you’ve been entranced by the dreamlike melodic stylings of bands like Alcest and Deafheaven and want to hear the genre taken to new heights, you’ll want to give Rheia a listen.