(Here, Andy Synn reviews two EPs by Australia’s Ne Obliviscaris that were distributed as limited-edition rewards for participation in the band’s successful crowd-funding campaign for financing of international tours.)
As much as I acknowledge that Citadel by Ne Obliviscaris is a fine-fettered beast of an album, one which rightly appeared on a lot of end-of-year lists, my personal feelings towards it are a bit more muted than some.
Oh, the instrumentation is certainly as flawless and inventive as anything you might care to mention, and the compositions impressively complex and creative, but to me the whole somehow seems less than the sum of its parts.
For one thing it’s clearly written to be almost self-consciously “progressive” in nature and this, combined with a few other things (the fact that there’s only three proper “songs”, the seeming disconnect between the clean vocals of Tim Charles and the rest of the material), means that it just doesn’t work for me in the same way their debut did.
And apparently I’m not alone in feeling that way.
I’ve seen a growing trend of people stating (quite matter of factly and without malice) that the band’s debut was overall a better album, with some even going further and saying that “their demo was the best thing they’ve ever done”. And while I wouldn’t exactly call this a “backlash” – Citadel did wonders for the band’s growing profile, and was hailed as a Prog-Metal masterpiece in numerous circles, so I think it can survive a few less robust opinions about it, don’t you? – there’s definitely a cohort of fans who aren’t as blown away by it as others.
I don’t think it’s anything as boorish as a knee-jerk response to the rapid increase in the band’s popularity either, or a symptom of “debut album elitism” (you’re all aware of that one, I’m sure… claiming point-blank that a band’s early, more underground, albums are the only good ones, and anything since they were “discovered” is just sub-par). I think it’s just an honest assessment from a (largely disparate) group of fans whose tastes simply weren’t as stimulated by the band’s sophomore album.
But, with the recording of both Hiraeth and Sarabande to Nihil, the band have (perhaps unintentionally) extended an olive branch to these fans, as these two EPs of material written in the 2004-2005 period understandably skew closer to the sound found on their debut.
The first of the two EPs is marginally the heavier of the pair (though, ultimately, there’s very little in it), kicking off with the twelve-and-a-half minute exotic metal odyssey that is “Within the Chamber of Stars”.
The initial cavalcade of strident riffs, rippling drum work, and majestic violin-led melodies eventually gives way to a focussed torrent of blasting ferocity and raging screams, buoyed up by the looping, undulating undercurrent of Brendan Brown’s ever-present, ever-intriguing bass-lines.
Over the course of the song the band switch from outright aggression to shimmering melody to contemplative calm – and back again – with impressive aplomb, never allowing the near-perfect balance they’ve crafted between their instruments and influences to falter or shift out of alignment.
As good as the song is though (and it is very, very good… particularly the dramatic increase in intensity experienced in its closing minutes), it’s arguable that the two shorter tracks, “Filo de Se” (6:58) and “Beyond the Hourglass” (8:29), have a much greater impact than their more epic predecessor, sending the EP off with a nice one-two punch of both style and substance.
The former is a fiery piece of classically-influenced blackened Prog Metal which errs a little more towards the extreme side of the band’s repertoire, delivering an absolute blizzard of tremolo’d, blast-laden fury and rapid-fire, needle-sharp melodeath riffs, all seamlessly accented by touches of fantastically nimble bass-work, mournful violin, and snarling vocals hooks, building to a subtly progressive instrumental interlude and a scintillatingly melodic, scathingly metallic finale.
The latter, by way of contrast, opts for a more mid-paced gallop, at least at first. Its swinging rhythms and lithe bass work set the stage for Xenoyr’s gnarled, blackened vocals and the weeping violin melodies of Tim Charles, and overall the song just seems a bit of a looser and more fluid display of the band’s effervescent progressive tendencies.
It also makes great use of the soulful clean vocals of Tim Charles (whose almost overly-smooth and poppy delivery on Citadel remains one of the album’s sticking points for me) in a nicely understated, but incredibly expressive manner, his emotional tones perfectly accentuating the track’s moody and melancholy atmosphere.
SARABANDE TO NIHIL
The second of the two EPs skews a bit closer to the sound found on Portal of I (I’m afraid I can’t tell you if the material itself was written any closer to the album than the songs on Hiraeth, but feel free to speculate), opening with the rather fantastic “Upon the Tongue of Eloquence”.
For just over nine-and-a-half minutes it twists and turns, cavorts and contorts, blasts and blazes and burns through an electrifying series of quicksilver riffs and gleaming melodies, flowing bass-lines, snarling vocals, and pulse-pounding drum work, diverging here and there into moments of unexpected calm or savage intensity, all the while layering hook on top of hook on top of hook.
Strongly reminiscent of Norwegian Prog-Metal maestros In Vain in places, it’s an absolutely captivating track with near-infinite replay value, as every single instrument and element seems to exist in perfect harmony with one another.
“When the Black Hands Dance” continues this odd resemblance to the Norwegian proggers (once you’ve heard it I doubt you’ll be able to unhear it) with its majestic tremolo lines and grandiose, growling vocal patterns, and sombre, clean-sung melodies — though it quickly moves to distinguish itself from the competition, not least through the clever touches of chillingly effective violin and wandering bass-work that flicker around the edges of the track, coming more and more into focus as the song spreads its proggy wings.
“All the Scarlet Tears”, as the shortest song on either EP (by some margin), wastes little time getting into the real meat and marrow of things, its ebb and flow of fluid guitar-lines and supple bass counterpoints providing a rich tapestry of sound beneath the song’s give-and-take mixture of clean and harsh vocals.
Despite being the shortest track on offer, it’s also overall the slowest, and most humble, fingers dancing carefully across fretboards and drums shifting pace and rhythm as it patiently builds towards its ultimate finale.
Although they acts as a brilliant showcase for the band’s ability to write incredibly catchy, compelling tunes, without sacrificing an iota of their progressive ambition or technical know-how, at the moment both these EPs are reserved exclusively (or as exclusively as anything can be in today’s digital age) for those who contributed the requisite amount to the band’s recent Kickstarter campaign. However, I can’t imagine that at some point they won’t be put out in a collected format.
In the meantime, though, I think it’s time to go back and give Portal of I and Citadel another listen!