Metal means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Always has, and always will. In all of its inherent juxtapositions and contradictions, a key battle within the heart of the genre is the push and pull between innovation and tradition. The ways in which we classify, codify, and revere or revile certain bands or movements within the myriad scenes that comprise the metal universe are often directly linked to how one feels about what metal represents and is. I will not dive into this topic in depth here, but for myself a principal aspect of quality metal is a band’s allegiance to its own sonic and thematic vision, fuck off to the critics. If I had to pick a band in modern metal that embodied that spirit to a fault, it would be Minnesota’s melodic black metal project Obsequiae.
Such pleasant sounding music may seem an odd pick for such an accolade, but I can assure you it is more than justified. Two records into an already stellar career, Obsequiae have honed and perfected their own unique brand of melodic, folk-tinged black metal (or “castle metal”, as they are wont to call it) that could not give any fewer shits about how “Trve” the scene demands it to be. Rife with gently plucked, forlorn instrumental asides, melody-drenched black metal mayhem, and piercing vocal performances, Obsequiae peddle a brilliant blend of musical themes that references bands like Windir, Saor, and Winterfylleth while somehow managing to sound like nothing but themselves. There is no band quite like them in the metal world, and Obsequiae would not have it any other way. Their latest full-length record, The Palms of Sorrowed Kings, is a continuation of the sounds that made them the (in)famous entity that they now are, and is honestly one of the most compelling black metal records I have heard since, well, their last release.
On their third album, the songwriting techniques that band-master Tanner Anderson has been sharpening for years manifest themselves in their most precise and mature ways yet. Utilizing to perfection the skills of bandmates Vicente La Camera Mariño on medieval harp and Eoghan McCloskey on drums, The Palms of Sorrowed Kings amplifies the band’s penchant for heart-plucking melody and atmosphere without sacrificing its edge. Opener “L’autrier M’en Aloie” introduces the album with a harp solo that feels like something written by a medieval princess pining for a peasant lover she can never wed. The music throughout the record carries an emotional weight that is simultaneously wistful and pleasantly direct, making it impossible to not mentally wander the grassy plains of some far-off land during the 8th-Century. The Palms of Sorrowed Kings is littered with such instrumental interludes, which miraculously never once detract from the album’s overall ability to engage the listener. It’s a unified sonic journey that, strangely, is all the better for its frequent harp-based atmospheric diversions.
Love-sick instrumentals aside, the bulk of the record belongs to Anderson and McCloskey, who deliver the melodic black metal fireworks with an inspiring level of technical precision and emotion. “Ceres In Emerald Streams” contains a hooky riff that’s been stuck in my head for weeks, while “In the Garden of Hyacinths” showcases the band’s penchant for riding the razor’s edge between traditional black metal ferocity and Opeth-inspired Levels of grandeur, culminating in music that never ceases to be propulsive, anthemic, and emotionally engaging. The entire record follows this pattern, but finds its most clear and vital manifestation in “Emanations Before the Pythia”, which is in my mind without question the most thoroughly brilliant track the band has written to date. Including every element that makes the band the unique black metal firebrand they have steadily become, this track feels like the pinnacle of the band’s incremental evolution up to this point, and is one of my favorite black metal tracks of the year.
All of these disparate elements could sound like a right mess if it were not for some masterful hands behind the boards, and thankfully The Palms of Sorrowed Kings the best mix and production work of the band’s career, allowing each pluck of the harp, soft bubbling of a gentle stream, and enraged riff to ring out with crystalline clarity. It’s not an easy job making a record this gorgeous sound deliberately heavy, but damn if the deed is not accomplished in spades here. My hat is off to the entire production team.
In all, the only complaint one might be able to lodge against The Palms of Sorrowed Kings is (heralding back to my comments at the beginning of this review) its lack of innovation. Obsequiae know what they are good at, and stick to their guns with militant consistency throughout their latest release. But, to be frank, it is a quibble that I do not find particularly relevant here. No one in the metal world is making music quite like Obsequiae, and each new iteration of their sound brings small refinements that subtly enhance their music’s unique power. The band grow in confidence with each new release, burrowing even deeper into their melody-heavy sound by aiming to perfect it rather than transform it. It is hard to see any necessity at this juncture of their career to attempt to release some grand experimental statement. For music this perfect, there is little to be done other than bask in the glow, regardless of its innovative bent or lack thereof.
I have been racking my brain trying to think of a black metal record that I have genuinely enjoyed more than The Palms of Sorrowed Kings this year, and it has proved a futile endeavor. This is music to sink your head and heart into, providing just about everything one could ever want from a record of this ilk. It is masterfully written, expertly performed, and deeply memorable throughout its runtime, and I am happy to proclaim it one of my favorite records of 2019. If you have yet to succumb to the unique charms of Obsequiae, there is no better place to start than with The Palms of Sorrowed Kings. It is, without question, a masterful release.
The Palms of Sorrowed Kings is out now via 20 Buck Spin, and is available for purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.