Move aside, Behemoth. I don’t mean that in a you-guys-are-no-longer-awesome kind of rude way, but it’s just that other lesser-known blackened death metal acts deserve a little of the spotlight every now and then. I mean, who would have thought that the Spanish would offer to us something else solid other than Real Madrid and Barcelona?
While the almighty Polish Satanists, Behemoth, might still be dominating stages and stereos worldwide—especially since Nergal has received a lot of media hype lately with his recent recovery from leukemia and his membership in the panel of judges for the Polish rendition of the mainstream singing talent show, “The Voice”—and is coming back stronger than ever, they are one of those granddaddies of extreme metal who are definitely good at what they are continuing to do, but no longer coming up with fresh musical ideas. Noctem, however, have managed to accomplish that in their stead. Not many bands are able to combine the dark ferocity of blackened death metal with the pristine sound of symphonic slickness, and while Behemoth have explored a little of this on songs such as “Demigod” (which features an introduction of patriotic-sounding brass fanfare), they never really saw it as an element important to their composing style and prefer to mostly stick with the guitars and drums. Still, Noctem have not overdone it to the point of sounding easy on the ears and overly polished, like what Dimmu Borgir had done on Abrahadabra.
Graced with the symphonic touches of guests Christos Antoniou (of Septicflesh and Chaostar) and Leal (ex-Forever Slave) on their 2009 debut full-length effort, Divinity, one would expect this sophomore follow-up to continue their hard-hitting brand of nefarious aural blasphemy set against a backdrop of symphonic evilness, and that expectation is met with flying and dark, grim, occultic, dull, bleak, whatever-other-adjective-associated-with-all-things-bad-for-innocent-minds colors. Throw in a byzantine piece of artwork by Marcelo Vasco, a Brazilian designer who had also worked with Noctem on “Divinity” as well as with seminal hordes such as Dimmu Borgir, Dark Funeral, Satyricon, Belphegor, and Gorgoroth, and the visual appeal marks are there too.
Listening to this album is like witnessing Behemoth and Melechesh jamming and recording demos in a studio together (I wish), with Dimmu Borgir peeking in occasionally, trying to inject some epic orchestral sounds here and there before being kicked out of the studio room and asked to go back to watching and studying Queen Amidala’s dressing style for winter. The exotic and Sumerian likeness to Melechesh can be seen from track titles like “Popol Vuh”, “Sons of Hun – Vucub”, “Q’Uma’Rka’Aaj”, “A Borning Winged Snake”, and heard from Middle-Eastern-inspired tunes in tracks such as “Abnegation and Brutality” and “A Borning Winged Snake”. The spirit of Behemoth is the most dominant one here, with the crushing riffs, 200 BPM drumming, and high-pitched guitar shredding during solos being the evidence. The surreal orchestral element pops up first in the foreboding and majestic instrumental introduction, “Popol Vuh”, and later makes its infrequent appearances on tracks such as “Unredemption” and “Q’Uma’Rka’Aaj”, lending them a creepy and dark ambience with choir singing done by male and female voices in harmony, and the epicness of resounding timpani drum beats that reverberate through your skull and end their vibrating journeys with your teeth chattering and the aftershock swelling up in your chest (imagine if 200 BPM were accomplished with timpanis… hmm…), threatening to burst your ribcage open like a healthy Alien chestburster would.
The only thing I cannot comprehend and stand on this record is the final track, “Oblivion”. It starts off normal enough, mysterious and indistinct muttering plus riffs and blast beats and all, but from 4:31 onwards until 9:15, the lengthy 13 minutes and 10 seconds-long finale dabbles in drone doom, which is not as head-splitting and torturous as stoning to SunnO))) would be, but annoying enough to make me skip straight to the part where all the sonic fury starts again. I’ve never really gotten this trend of bands ending with some weird over-10-minutes-long outro that has a long pause in the middle, especially from those who typically play fast music. Unless you are dabbling in goth, doom, or noise, these pauses are really not very “artistic” or appealing to the everyday metalhead and his wallet. Other than this, all of the other tracks are of non-filler quality, but if you want to take Metal Blade’s recommendation, “Invictus” and “Universal Disorder” are two tracks worth checking out more than once.
Being part two of a planned trilogy, Oblivion is an excellent record that proves that incorporating the excitingly foreign quality of Middle Eastern pentatonic scales and the restrained usage of symphonic accompaniment into the conventional style of blackened death metal is not impossible and can actually be done in a musically coherent manner. It will be interesting to see how the trilogy will eventually turn out. Here’s hoping that the legacy left behind by Divinity and Oblivion will not be destroyed by a lackluster and unclear closure.