Obscura - Akroasis [Relapse Records - 2016]There was a time in which technical death metal was my bread and butter, and though that time has been over for a good 5 years, and the genre's heydey as well, I have none-the-less continued to follow a number of quality bands, one of which being the German band Obscura. Though named after the famously dissonant and unwelcoming album by Gorguts, Obscura's music is deeply classically inspired and intricately harmonized, with strong chord structures that tend towards the mournfully tuneful, in a similar way to many Scandinavian and black metal bands. 'Progressive' arpeggiated sweeps and quick climbs up and down scalar shapes are also commonplace in their clearly theory-informed songs.
"Akroasis" is their 3rd album since becoming known in 2009 with "Cosmogenesis", an album noted for its balance of complexity with a songwriting oriented approach, with memorable choruses and elegant, symmetrical leads. 2011's "Omnivium" was an improvement in my book, and my favorite of their work, the most ferociously dark music the band has yet created, reminding me often of Emperor's "Prometheus". Where "Omnivium" tended further towards metal, "Akroasis" is the most 'progressive' album the band has created yet, with reams upons reams of strangely illogical permutations, never shying from erratic barrages of notes.
The deeply melodic, classically derived sound has not disappeared, rather it has been taken to one of its known extremes, a form of music almost unbearably focused on finding unadulterated gravitas. In circumventing typical and mundane forms, the music eventually completely loses the hook which allows the listener to retain some memory of the song. Is this bad? It's hard to say, and indeed, this may be a through composed masterpiece, but it's undoubtedly a blur after the first listen. Between the Buried and Me has attempted similar things with their last few records, and seem a closer comparison here than in the past.
The musicianship on display here, as with past records, is astounding. The fretless bass solos of "Ten Sepiroth" are stridently beautiful, a 'popping' tone perfectly balanced between harmonic smoothness and aggressive pluck. The BTBAM comparisons continue here, as that band is also fond of scalar sweeps, agile fretless bass solos, and weary feeling jazz fusion interludes. The guitar work, while extremely fast, is largely notable for its melodic creativity, a labyrinth of voice leading and harmony that becomes more fascinating the more it is picked apart.
BTBAM tends to throw in blatantly simple sections here and there just to give the audience something to sing along to, something this album does on occasion as well, such as near the end of "Ode to the Sun", with a 4/4 church choir section, or the pastoral folk interlude in the final piece. I'm not against this, as I think this kind of thing serves as a sort of emotional punctuation to the initially incomprehensible heavier chugging passages, and enhances the epic feeling of the album. The 'epic', almost cinematic or operatic sound is also increased by the use of string synths and generally ethereal feeling 'echo chamber' production.
The melodic vocoder which appeared throughout previous albums appears here as well, though its presence does not seem to matter as much. Even if the idea was rather tastelessly taken from Cynic, I've always approved of these vocals on Obscura's albums, as the metallic, smoothly resonant tone of the voice blended perfectly with the rest of the sound. Now, with fewer chorus hooks than in the past, the vocoder's primary function is largely absent. Only "Perpetual Infinity" returns to the classic AB rhyme scheme and predictable rhythmic cadence of the choruses on "Cosmogenesis".
"Akroasis" is a more ambitious album than "Omnivium", but I still prefer the band's previous effort. I feel "Omnivium" had more in the way of concise, well-considered riffs. However, I certainly wouldn't claim "Akroasis" lacking in soul or direction, as some technical music seems to be. "Akroasis" is something born of a restless spirit looking to create a truly unique work of art, and to synthesize all musical ideas into one cohesive style. For that, I applaud this band. In an ironic sort of way, this music is the truest spiritual successor of early 20th century symphonists like Shostakovich and Mahler. Ultimately, I can't criticize the band for inaccessibility, and they remain one of the most interesting bands in the scene.Josh Landry