Expectation can be a curious beast. From a band’s perspective it can drive the wheels of excitement accompanying the build-up to a new release, pushing them to new heights and allowing them to reach wider audiences. Yet, it can also hang over them like a pestilence, crippling them with fear and restraining them from pushing new boundaries. From a fan’s perspective it is met with the hope that those expectations can be fulfilled or even surpassed, the conscious part of our minds desperately keeping our doubts at bay. Can they do it again? Am I setting myself up for disappointment?
Ne Obliviscaris are a band intimately aware of such expectations, with Portal of I’s remarkably positive reception earning them a core of rabid fans hungry for more. They fought off the sophomore slump with ease, shifting to a distinctly more death metal sound on 2014’s progressive masterpiece Citadel. The production was immaculate, the black metal riffs less pronounced, and the band seemed to have found a core sound with riff-master Benjamin Baret firmly at the helm, finally able to bring his songwriting talents to a full record. Now here we are in 2017, and questions abound. Will they continue to take risks and expand their sound? Can they create three acclaimed albums in succession? Thankfully, the answer to those questions is a resounding yes.
As we have come to expect, the band continue to immerse themselves with dualities. The interplay between delightful clean vocals, thunderous roars and rasping shrieks remains a central component alongside duelling lead guitar and violin. The light and shade of their beautiful melodies and crushing riffs remain ever-present, the band continuing to shift effortlessly from one extreme of their sound to another. It is this word, extreme, which signifies a change in the band’s sound since Citadel. They have simultaneously taken their sound to new extremes whilst producing their most accessible record to date. Paradoxical as that may be, we have already established that this is a band which thrives on duality.
First, let’s look at the extremities of their sound. Closing song “Urn” embodies their aggressive side, with Part 1 the track most closely resembling Citadel. Founded on some of their strongest riffs to date, the track’s mid-section shows them at their furiously fast best. Yet, it is Part 2, the closing track, which pushes them into new territories. Undoubtedly the darkest they’ve sounded, the track rumbles in with a sense of foreboding amidst cavernous toms and dissonant, atonal leads. Yet, for all the eerie and unsettling depths they explore here, we see the band pushing themselves to new extremes on the opposite end of the spectrum with “Eyrie”. Tim Charles has clearly been honing his skills in the intervening years since Citadel, for this marks his finest hour on vocals. His voice is silky smooth as he effortlessly soothes the listener with wondrous melodies that will remain ingrained for days. Not since “Forget Not” have they sounded so beautiful, the song remarkably uplifting and powerful, the band diving headfirst into new extremes at both ends of the musical spectrum.
Whilst the band has continued to expand the boundaries of their sound, “Urn” certainly feels more refined and accessible than their previous releases. Whilst Citadel was dense and full of swirling genres and shifts in sound, demanding the listener’s full concentration at all times, Urn seems more comfortable to stay in the same gear for longer stretches of time. For those who felt Ne Obliviscaris was a bit too much to take in, or a band which sounded better in theory than in practice, Urn may prove to be the gateway they were looking for. However, for those yearning to be constantly challenged, they may miss the more progressive aspects which featured on preceding releases. Perhaps for this reason Urn can be somewhat of a slow burner, requiring several listens for the subtleties to come to the fore and allow the listener to fully appreciate it. Additionally, a change in production aesthetic can take some acquainting with. Whilst still polished, they opted for a much more natural sound on the drums which can take time to reconcile with. Thus, whilst this record requires more patience than fans may be used to, the rewards are well worth it.
Robin Zielhorst’s (OneGodLess, ex-Cynic, ex-Exivious) session bass slots in seamlessly, particularly shining on the intro and bridge to “Intra Venus”. The rest of the band deliver what we have come to expect alongside some new twists, such as the added emphasis on flamenco and gipsy-jazz inspired classical guitar-work. The record maintains their uncanny ability to make the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up, with “Libera’s” crushing crescendo and the brilliant guitar transition towards the end of “Eyrie” particular highlights. However, despite these moments of brilliance, they never quite reach the mesmerising heights of the bass tapping on “Devour Me, Colossus”, the cathartic crescendo of “Pyrrhic”, or the flamboyance and mayhem of “And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope”. Further, not all of the risks and advances into new territories pay off, with Charles’ falsetto and melodies on “Urn – Part 1” and the synths which close out the record seeming decidedly out of place. Still, for the most part, this is an exceptional record and one which will surely feature prominently amongst many end-of-year lists.
After two landmark releases and a year full of ups and downs, Ne Obliviscaris have returned with a stellar third album. It is as dark as it is warm, pushing new boundaries in extremity and simultaneously opening new doors with its accessibility. They’ve introduced new elements whilst maintaining their core sound, and delivered on the enormous expectations which follow their every move. Debate will rage about how this compares to their previous records; however, one thing is certain: Ne Obliviscaris are back and 2017 is all the better for it.
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Urn will be released October 27th, and is available for pre-order through the band’s Bandcamp page.