Technical death metal, in the past few years, has started to become rather saturated. How one of the more niche genres got to this point is perhaps worth discussing on its own, but as a result of this paradigm, it has started to become more and more important for each band to carve their own niche and solidify their own sound. One of the most distinguishable sounds in tech death is that of Germany’s Obscura. With their cosmic imagery and lyrical themes, melodic-yet-alien riffing, oldschool Cynic-influenced jazzy breaks and calm-yet-powerful approach, they’ve become one of the biggest names in the genre with their past two albums Cosmogenesis and Omnivium. After losing several of the most talented musicians in metal from their roster, they’ve come back with a new lineup for their fourth album Akroasis. Usually a huge shake-up in a band is dangerous, especially when the members who left, Christian Muenzner and Hannes Grossmann (Alkaloid, their own respective solo projects and much more) were known to contribute to the writing process of the band. Clearly, founding member and frontman Steffen Kummerer has within him enough of the DNA that not only can he preserve what made Obscura great in the past, but even take the band to the next level, as Akroasis is nothing short of fascinating.
Cosmogenesis and Omnivium are undoubtedly some of the best albums in tech death. Cosmogenesis‘s usage of fretless bass and counterpoint and its jazz influences can be seen in many modern bands in the genre, and its follow-up Omnivium was an incredible achievement. However, it’s fair to say that Omnivium lacked in variety, and by Steffen’s own admission, this was one of the key problems he and his new crew wanted to tackle. As a result, Akroasis is the band’s most diverse album yet, in several ways. Part of this is due to the temporary inclusion of Tom “Fountainhead” Geldschlager, whose lead work with fretless guitar adds a new level of complexity to sound of the band, and the closing track of the album, the 15-minute opus “Welteseele” he co-arranged with German composer Matthias Preisinger contains strings as well. While he ultimately ended up parting ways with the band, he was part of the writing crew along with Steffen, bassist Linus Klausenitzer (Alkaloid, Noneuclid) and drummer Sebastian Lanser (Panzerballett). Linus’s approach to bass is different from previous Obscura bassists, and Sebastian drums differently compared to Hannes, and with Steffen both developing as a songwriter and holding onto the core Obscura sound, the album is fresher than the band have ever been. In addition to the aforementioned strings, the metal section of the band explores territories that they haven’t delved into before. Paring back the tempo of the playing ever so slightly, they give more room for themselves to express more dynamic sounds, be it big choruses, fusion interludes or ambient guitar arpeggios, which are used more on this album than before. The band have taken the core aspects of their sound, the trademark riffs that have come to define them, and broken them down into their essential components, then rebuilt them from the ground up. The end result is songs are improved both in a micro and a macro scale – the individual riffs are all very deliberate and memorable, and the songs as a whole flow a lot better through a more diverse group of riffs. This is the hallmark of a band furthering themselves.
More specifically, what makes Akroasis tick? It’s an ephemeral quality, as it works not just as a sum of musical components but as a whole package. The imagery, the highly philosophical and cosmic-themed concept lyrics, and of course, the sound itself. There’s an addictive quality to the listening experience on this album, as there’s a constant drive towards the next section, the next riff, the next vocal line, the next lead. The “progressive” tick box is checked by the band as they masterfully navigate through their song structures. There are what can be called the progressive death metal equivalent of choruses, and those memorable sections create a base for the rest of the songs to revolve around, and the way they’re used never feels repetitive. Verses have fast, powerful riffs that create tension, and choruses provide the perfect release to that. The instrumental breaks provide both technical marvels and breathing room, and everything else that’s thrown in there, like the vocoder use and slight, melancholic arpeggios on a lightly overdriven guitar that add atmosphere just take the songs to the next level. The vocal delivery and lyrics aren’t an afterthought like a lot of death metal either, which also helps the band have a more professional and well-realized quality to their sound. To top it all off, the production makes every instrument stand out just the way they should, not doing disservice to any band member and letting every note shine through. The analog sound to the guitars, the acoustic drums and the real synths definitely would have cost the band more money and time to produce properly, especially in such complex music, but they’ve gone the extra mile and it shows, as the music sounds exquisite because of it.
In the end, Akroasis is an incredible album. Obscura are a top notch band and they’re firing on all cylinders. Creative fretless guitar work, a crushing rhythm section, thought-provoking lyrics all wrapped up in a maelstrom of technicality, this is some of the best stuff that death metal has to offer..