You probably thought we were finished with our mini-series on long songs — but no, we’re not finished. We have one more. Well, maybe two more, if we ever get around to the second one in between reviewing the flood of stunning new albums that were released the last couple of weeks. But at least one more, today.
In our previous installments of this series, we reviewed long songs by Hull, Agalloch, Akelei, and Radiance. Today, we’re writing about the longest song yet in this series: It’s an album-length song released last year by a black-metal band called Obitus. The album is divided into seven tracks, but that’s merely to facilitate jumping to favorite passages; Obitus intended the album to be heard as a single, seamless work, more than 47 minutes in length.
Now, in today’s frenetically-paced, attention-deficit-afflicted world, asking music fans to sit still for an entire album’s worth of non-stop listening is like trying to stop a surging river in its course with kind words. But in our heart-of-hearts, we know that unless we slow down and focus, at least every now and then, we will miss out on some valuable experiences. And so it is with the second full-length album from Obitus — The March of the Drones.
Obitus was formed in May 2000 by a couple of Swedes, Anders Ahlbäck (who plays all the instruments) and Johan Huldtgren (vocals and lyrics). Since then, they’ve produced a demo, a split, an EP, a debut full-length that was never released, and The March of the Drones. They took some risks creating an album-length song, testing the patience of a mostly impatient population of metalhead fans. But they clearly poured their hearts and souls into this work — and don’t be misled by the title: It refers to the album’s lyrical themes. Musically, The March of the Drones is a full-body immersion into a surging torrent of dark fire. (more after the jump . . . including a sample of the music)
At a high level, the song is primal black metal, relying on dense, repeating tremolo chords and a relentless drum attack, punctuated by swirling guitar leads that give the song its melodic core and execute the shifts in mood. The pace is an almost unrelenting charge from start to finish, with just enough tempo pauses and comparatively quiet interludes to let you catch your breath.
Although the stylistic shape of the song is old-school black metal, accented by Johan Huldtgren’s classically caustic vocals, the production isn’t given over to the typical muddiness of the music’s Nordic antecedents. Instead, the sound is sharp as a honed cleaver, crisp and clear, with the drums forward in the mix. Ahlbäck’s distorted guitars are dominant and dense, but you can hear what he’s doing. Only the bass is muffled in the background, more felt than heard for the most part, except for judiciously timed occasions when its thrumming steps forward to create variety.
A further word about the vocals: Huldtgren’s range from traditional Nordic throat-scraping shrieks to lower-register wolfish howls, but they’re almost entirely intelligible. He enunciates the bleak lyrics, which condemn the mindless, unquestioning, herd-like mentality of much of society (the “drones” of the album title) and the wasted lives consumed by drugs and violence. The point is driven home by spoken-word samples that mimic newscasts about fatalities of one sort or another.
The album-song is split into three parts, Summer (the first three tracks), Fall (the next two tracks), and Winter (the final two). But this really is one song — with slight variations in a unifying melodic theme
The first song segment (“Summer”) begins with an extended instrumental intro that consists of muffled guitar strumming that swells and ebbs in volume and that establishes a bleak atmosphere. It’s followed by an eruption of violent sound — Huldtgren begins to howl, a serrated guitar begins to riff, tremolo-picked chords begin to grind, and the drum attack launches in earnest. As the segment proceeds into the second “track”, the maelstrom of sound subsides, returning to the muffled guitar chords of the intro, and that attacking-and-subsiding trade-off continues over the balance of the segment.
The first of the two “tracks” in the “Fall” segment (“Hypothesis”) is a purely instrumental passage filled with electronic pulses, flashes of drum-driven gunfire, and slow, reverberating guitar chords. Eventually, the drums begin to roll, transitioning the music into the second, long track (“Inconsequential”). Huldtgren’s raw vocals begin again, the blast beats erupt, and Ahlbäck’s guitar begins to saw through bone. Eventually, the pace slows, and the guitar chords peal in a variation of the melody that threaded its way through the “Summer” segment. Ahlbäck picks out an infectious arpeggio — the guitar echoing, rising, falling. The tempo slows and accelerates and slows again, with the lead guitar periodically bursting through the dense rhythm riffs to flash streamers of minor-key melody.
The sound fades, signaling the transition to the “Winter” segment, which begins with an electronic ambience that brings to mind a cold wind. A pulsing bit of electronica alternates with brief eruptions of vocals, guitar, and drums, and then the full sonic assault renews with unpent fury — headbanging riffs, flaring leads, a martial drum beat, and the bass stepping forward to ring like an anvil being struck.
A slight break in the pace marks the transition to the final “track” in the song, “The Drone Marches On”. There’s more icy shrieking, a new guitar riff exploring still more variations on the song’s dominant melodic theme, and dense waves of tremolo buzzing. After a near-stop pause and a period of soft guitar strumming and more news-cast samples, the lead guitar begins to blaze again in an extended instrumental passage — ringing melodic chords backed by methodical repeating drum fills and another moment of full-forward bass rhythms. And in the final minutes, the most melodic guitar lead on the album carried us away on a rising tide of emotion.
In the end, this very long song hangs together as a coherent whole. It’s a completely immersive experience, a creative leavening of brutality with melody that is both atmospheric and cathartic. It should appeal to black-metal devotees who are willing to invest the time required to absorb the full sweep of its design.
Cutting out any one of these tracks for you to hear is inconsistent with the band’s blueprint for the album, but we can’t resist doing it anyway. Here’s the closing “track” (9:11 in length) from The March of the Drones:
For more info, visit the Obitus MySpace page here, or the band’s official web page. The album can be acquired in Europe via the New Sun Order web shop, in the U.S. from Forever Plagued Records or Red Stream Inc, and in Canada from Hypnotic Dirge. If you live in the U.S., you can also e-mail Johan Huldtgren at email@example.com and he’ll tell you how to order a CD from the band via PayPal, which he can send from the U.S., where he is currently working.
And finally, you can also download portions of the Obitus discography for free, including three excerpts from March of the Drones as a single mp3 file, at this location.