As Fenriz (of Darkthrone/now political fame) once said, the line between black and crust was inevitably erased with the release of His Hero Is Gone‘s monumental album Monuments To Thieves. At first this blurring of genres was subtle as artists found success in one another’s respective scenes. Then, as artists like Fall Of Efrafra and Nux Vomica began to emerge with the turn of the century what was once truly a line in the sand was fully erased. Black metal bands swarmed to crust stylings in force and vica-versa. Soon a whole new generation of artists had emerged and it became standard that no black metal album was complete with out a d-beat and no crust album without a black metal riff. It was during these years that West Flander’s/Belgium’s Oathbreaker began to find their footing with an abrasive, but often heavily melodic, blend of post hardcore, hardcore, and black metal. Like many of their peers at the time they leaned heavily into the more crust/hardcore oriented territory of their sound, but with Rheia Oathbreaker finally breaks free of this constraint, bringing their influences full circle to create an intoxicating, dynamic album.
Take, for example, the emotionally charged two-part-opener of “10:56” into “Second Son Of R”. With “10:56”, Oathbreaker displays a new emphasis on vocalist’s Caro Tanghe’s clean vocals, stripping away almost all instrumentation save for a whimpering ambient guitar. Over this Tanghe sings gentle swells with her voice offering a captivating foreground element that entrances the listener before bursting into the far more black metal leaning “Second Son Of R”. It is a sudden and impactful hit and perfectly helps to highlight the elements of emotional trauma following a seeming suicide mentioned in the lyrics. When Tanghe finally gets to her signature black metal shriek (and she has some chops in this area) it feels as if it a natural continuation of the narrative, a sort of anger towards and rejection of the emotional toll inflicted by losing a loved one.
However it is not just a stellar vocal performance that drives the tracks, but an upped instrumental game as well. Under the newly expanded sections of clean vocals are a group of instrumentals who are more than capable of creating emotional tension on their own. For every shriek there is a harsh blackened riff and flurry of blast beats. Every clean vocal is accented with more melodically leaning, gentle licks and sparse drumming that allows it to breathe, giving it space to grow and flourish. The two play off each other in the most epic ways possible making sure that every impact is not only crushing and frantic, but sure to send goosebumps down the listener’s spine.
Where Oathbreaker truly finds their strength on Rheia is not in the frantic moments, but in the calm that fills them. As previously stated, the crushing impacts and epic moments of “Second Son Of R” would simply not be possible without the calmer “10:56” preceding it. Similarly, there are the companion tracks of “I’m Sorry This Is”, “Where I Live”, and “Where I Leave”. While, truthfully, “Where I Live” is a stand out track on its own from the album, the beautiful gentle percussion and flowing guitar work of “I’m Sorry This Is” are where it finds its power. The transition between the two songs provides “Where I Live” with a sort of background context, showing the gentler side of the emotional distress before pulling the listener into the emotional disarray. By the time the trilogy concludes with the roaring post metal appeal of “Where I Leave”, it is hard not to be swept up in the Maelstrom (Oathbreaker pun) of emotions that the band has so effortlessly interwoven into the song. All of the space is so perfectly accented by the roar, and the roar by the space, that all of the music retains a refreshingly roar, organic feel. There is exploration of depression and suicide without relying on the tropes and cliches of DSBM or the angst of hardcore, making the whole experience more genuine.
All of this is refreshing as a long time Oathbreaker fan as, despite Eros|Anteros having an enormous amount of potential, it fell flat to fully convey many of its most exciting ideas. With Rheia, Oathbreaker finally moves past that awkward, ugly duckling phase, beginning to more fully present their post and black metal influences in a more coherent blend with their always apparent hardcore and crust influences. Perhaps this is due to time spent by guitarist Gilles Demolder in ambient black metal outfit Wiegedood, or perhaps it is just growth as musicians, but Rheia comes off as a far more mature, powerful release. With Rheia, Oathbreaker cement themselves as a force in extreme music to be reckoned with. Only time will tell if they can continue on this path, but as for now they seem to have hit exactly what Fenriz claimed Monument To Thieves to be, a perfect meeting place between crust and black metal.
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Rheia is out September 30th through Deathwish Recordings. You can purchase the album here.