(Andy Synn reviews the new album by Poland’s Obscure Sphinx.)
In my November 2015 edition of The Synn Report, I wrote about how Obscure Sphinx had been mostly “underrated and underappreciated by the metal-loving public at large.” Despite having two fantastic albums to their name (particularly 2013’s nigh-untouchable Void Mother) the Polish quintet have spent the majority of their career thus far flying under the radar of most metalheads, with only a small, but dedicated, cadre of disciples (hi Brett!) scattered across the globe who truly appreciated the band for their talents and uniqueness.
I have no idea whether their third release, Epitaphs (complete with suitably esoteric Mario Duplantier cover art), will do much to change that, but I have to hope so. Because OS are exactly the type of band – distinct, complex, captivating — that the Metal world needs more of.
Photo by Ewelina Eliasz
For my own sake, perhaps what I love most about Obscure Sphinx is how instantly recognisable their music is. Despite throwing around a few different comparisons as a sort of general guideline for the uninitiated – a little bit Cult of Luna, a little bit Tool… maybe some Deftones and Triptykon… – I really do feel like the Polish five-piece have developed a sound all their own, one that’s part doomy melancholia, part proggy synaesthesia, all wrapped up in a gloomy, slow-burning Post Metal shroud.
Of course the compelling, cathartic vocals of frontwoman Wielebna are just as much a part of the band’s unique appeal as their peculiar hybrid of metallic elements. Her oddly (occasionally even uncomfortably) intimate delivery, sometimes whispered, sometimes crooning, sometimes shrieking like the teeth of a whirlwind, can be as soothing as it is punishing, switching from a subtle caress to a razorblade kiss without warning.
And, what’s more, her particular quirks and eccentricities never feel like an affectation. Unlike several of her potential contemporaries whom I could name, her inimitable idiosyncrasies never feel forced or pretentious. They’re simply a reflection of her personality and her character, warts and all, blood and sweat, flesh and bone.
As for how the specifics of Epitaphs hold up when measured against the magnificence of Void Mother? Well, wisely enough, the band haven’t tried to simply repeat themselves, as the album’s first two tracks are indicative of a greater focus on drawn-out, suffocating atmospherics and sublimely textured ambience over densely-packed, gravity-distorting riffage.
Opener “Nothing Left”, for example — despite possessing a solid core of chunky, churning distortion straight from the Stephen Carpenter school of low-and-slow, molasses-thick groove — takes its time to fully show its hand, opting for a steady, ambient burn over an explosive eruption, while follow-up “Memories of Falling Down” goes all-in with its simmering blend of Tool-esque moody melodicism and rippling, hypnotic drum patterns, eventually building to a cleverly contrasting second half of brooding, booming guitar work and raging, soaring vocals that feels more “weighty” than stereotypically “heavy”.
In a similar, though even more minimalist, fashion, “Memorare” is eight and a half minutes of gloomy pseudo-metallic ambience which washes over the listener in waves of bleak dissonance and drifting, tidal currents of doomy elegance. It’s certainly an intriguing piece of work, and one which takes more than a few listens to come to grips with, but also quite probably the weakest of the album’s six tracks, its broadly ominous and oppressive atmosphere never quite coalescing into a truly compelling composition.
Far more impressive and imposing are those numbers which continue to blend the three pillars of ambience, angst, and artistry upon which the band’s sound is founded, particularly the poignant-yet-pulverising Post/Prog Metal malevolence of “Nieprawota”, which juxtaposes some of the album’s most bone-grindingly heavy and punishingly intense passages with some of its softest, most elegantly melodic moments in an absolute tour de force of light-and-shade dynamics.
Similarly, the more Cult of Luna-esque “Sepulchre” is without doubt one of the band’s finest moments, brimming with darkly evocative energies and enigmatic artistic touches, all densely layered, divergent dimensions and thickly-coiled riffs interwoven and intertwined with substantial style, leading into the record’s grandiose, Progressive/Depressive finale “At The Mouth of the Sounding Sea”, which channels the lambent ghost of Ænima and reincarnates it in a body composed primarily of gigantic, down-tuned, riffs and frail, gossamer melodies.
As good as it is, though, in the final reckoning I can’t quite put Epitaphs on the same level as Void Mother. It’s close. Oh so close. And there are unquestionably a handful of moments when the band come within a hair’s breadth of matching the monolithic intensity and power of (what remains) their magnum opus. But ultimately it doesn’t quite maintain the same sense of energy and urgency that made tracks like “Lunar Caustic”, “Nasciturus” or “The Presence of Goddess” such visceral and vital experiences.
By the same token, however, the band were definitely smart to take their third album in a slightly different direction, as although Epitaphs might not so consistently reach the same grandiose heights as its predecessor, that’s not for want of trying, as much of the record’s run-time finds the quintet plumbing new depths to their sound, putting a greater focus on atmosphere and ambience while also opening up intriguing new avenues for future exploration, to the extent where I can’t imagine that any of the band’s fans, new or old, are going to be disappointed.