Don’t let the (seemingly unpronounceable) name scare you. Ironically, I can never remember it,* let alone pronounce it.
On a whim some years back, as I was walking through my favourite record store, Ne Obliviscarius’s previous album, “Citadel,” caught my eye with its cover art. Often I’ll let my intuition pick out an album and this has led to some interesting results, let me tell you (but not now). “Citadel” blew me away. It defied my expectations (go check it out for yourself if you’re unfamiliar). See, I’m a sucker for violins in metal (I blame My Dying Bride for that) and Ne Ob utilize the violin in a very profound way. What truly made me a fan of Ne Ob, was catching them play live and witnessing that their live presentation was equal if not better than what they had recorded.
This appreciation leads to their newest release, “Urn.” Ne Ob defies the usual categorization that we metalheads like to do but they would be in good company with older Opeth. “Urn” opens with a good indication of what’s instore for the listener. On “Libera – Part I: Saturnine Spheres,” the clean vocals of the violin player, Tim Charles, rise up to greet the ears. Charles’ voice is a closer in sound to Anathema’s Daniel Cavanagh. Xenoyr’s harsh vocals enter into the song to offer a degree of menace to the song. Half way through the song, the violin makes its appearance and it dances over the acoustic guitars and bass before the distorted maelstrom returns. Charles then seems to be singing a duet with his violin, rather that contrasting against Xenoyr’s rasping roars. As “Libera (Part I)” finishes Charles and Xenoyr manage to parallel their vocals, one acting ethereal and the other guttural. “Libera (Part II) – Ascent of Burning Moths” is a short, mournful composition which highlights an introspective violin (if that’s possible) over acoustic guitars.
“Intra Venus” starts off quietly enough before the distorted crashes of the guitars assail the ears. The bass line ripples along in the wall of sound. Xenoyr’s vocals kick in as the bass and blast beats guide us along the song’s format. Charles’ clean vocals enter briefly before Xenoyr’s urgent bark takes over again. In the tumult, the vocals give way to guitar and violin solos before dropping to a hesitant tranquil moment. The violin’s return heralds a constrained guitar, bass, and drums that are beckoning to be unleashed. The final moments of “Intra Venus” are the realization of that unleashed fury. Xenoyr’s vocals are lower in the mix allowing Charles’ clean singing to guide us out of the instrumental tumult.
By this point, I’m detecting a sonic theme. Like the previous track, “Eyrie” starts off quiet, almost acoustic manner not unlike an Anathema composition. It is quite beautiful. Yet, from experience, these efforts at beauty are quickly dispatched by brutality and aggression. I mean, isn’t that the appeal of most metal songs of this caliber? However, “Eyrie” continues to maintain that beauty in a restrained, precise manner. It is not unlike watching a wild predator stalking back and forth at a zoo, you know if the cage was not there, you’d be its meal. This is the same sense I get with “Eyrie.” Ne Ob know they could obliterate the listener sonically but are displaying more power by exercising the discipline to not to do so.
The title track is a two part epic piece. “Urn (Pt. I) – And Within the Void We Are Breathless,” begins as a lumbering wall of discordant sound before becoming focused and precise. Charles’ voice soars above the blastbeats and buzzsawing guitars, with Xenoyr growls acting as a counterweight to the clarity. The bass ripple steps forward in the mix to introduce a shift in the assault. The violin jumps in, urgently discordant, and is soon joined by Xenoyr’s menacing voice. “Urn (Pt. II) – As Embers Dance in Our Eyes” proceeds to pick up where Pt. I left off with greater urgency and discordancy before solidifying its rhythm. The pacing of this song is much more aligned with thrash until Charles’ voice joins the mix. The cleaner vocals have effect of almost pacifying the overall song.
What is really striking to me and truly engaged my ears was that the violin is included as a main instrument rather than an atmospheric flourish to accent or emphasize the guitar pieces. Yet, we are not talking Kansas-style fiddle work here, there is a more avant garde classical element to its role in Ne Ob’s music. It may sound odd but the way the violin is used is as if it is a third vocalist, rather than a supporting component to the rhythms. In my opinion, the use of the violin in Ne Ob’s music that makes them stand out amongst their peers.
So, how does “Urn” measure up to its predecessor? Ne Obliviscaris are fine metal craftsmen. They know how to compose engaging slices of progdeathmayhem. “Urn” is very similar to “Citadel” as the songs would flow seamlessly with one another live, I imagine. Yet, the power of “Citadel” was its truly unique and, paradoxically, its relaxed and dramatic use of time and stylistic changes. “Urn” does not seem to capitalize on this as much. As I reflect on the album, the songs seem to have a similar framework (quiet – loud – quiet – loud – fade or not). Perhaps I need to listen to it as a whole as opposed to each song broken up, individually to get the full effect. All in all, it is an excellent album, well fashioned, and will please the fans and be most excellent live but, in my humble opinion, it does not surpass its predecessor.
*Ne Obliviscaris, in Latin, means “Never Forget.”