[17 April 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Although the foundation for technical death metal has always consisted of complex riffs, complex drum patterns, complex basslines, complex song structures, complex everything, it’s easy for a supremely skilled band to become so wrapped up in showing off how much technical skill they possess that they lose track of something so ironically simple: the notion of crafting a cohesive, coherent song. A band can make music complicated enough to baffle music theorists and mathematicians alike, but without that one single element, songwriting skill, it can all quickly devolve into a completely pointless exercise. Consequently, bands within the genre find themselves continually walking a razor-thin line between intricacy and listenability. Some contemporary acts, such as Cephalic Carnage, Neuraxis, and Ulcerate, have an uncanny knack for it and have pulled it off with remarkable consistency, but conversely, highly regarded Atheist, one of the subgenre’s progenitors, made a much-ballyhooed return in 2010 with an album that did everything but remember to be catchy in the process.
Of all the tech death metal bands today, nobody has shown more potential in so little time than German foursome Obscura. Fittingly named after the seminal 1999 album by Quebec masters Gorguts, the Munich band turned heads and dropped jaws in 2009 with their second album, and first for Relapse Records, Cosmogenesis. Loaded with sly melodic flourishes, from guitars to jazzy bass to even the lead vocals every so often, here was a record by a band that knew how to make such dense, impenetrable music so surprisingly memorable. They had technical skill up the wazoo, yet at the same time they actually exercised enough self-restraint to make it palatable for anyone who doesn’t read Guitar World or Sick Drummer. Not surprisingly, Cosmogenesis was embraced by death metal fans and critics alike, but while a very strong album, there was enough on it to hint that there was potential for something even better.
With Omnivium, Obscura makes the jump from a group of daring new phenoms to one of the sound’s new masters. Neuraxis’s 2005 album Trilateral Progression ranks as a high water mark when it comes to combining ultra-complicated tech death and accessible melodies, but one might be inclined to argue that Omnivium is superior. Sure, all the trappings are there that one would expect, but the melodies on this album are at times enormous, which is an extraordinary feat. It helps greatly that guitarists Steffen Kummerer and Christien Muenzner, bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling, and drummer Hannes Grossman know how to create a sense of flow with this form of music. Tinkering with dynamics is a very difficult, borderline impossible thing to do in technical death metal, but the nine songs on Omnivium know exactly when to apply the brakes, just a touch enough to not make the musicianship dull the senses. As a result, we get songs like “Septuagint”, “Prismal Dawn”, “Celestial Spheres”, and the surprisingly affecting “A Transcendental Serenade”, which all prove to be every bit as accessible as they are complex, Kummerer even tossing in some excellent clean vocals as a well-timed respite from the usual death growls.
For all of Kummerer’s growling, he does a superb job of actually making himself understandable, a good thing considering his lyrics prove to be a lot weightier than the usual boring apocalyptic shtick we constantly hear from death metal bands. Based on the obscure book Clara, or On Nature’s Connection to the Spirit World by German philosopher Friedrich Schelling, each song on Omnivium offers a well-written, lucid paraphrasing of the book’s themes. Writing about death in death metal is beyond cliché these days, but the way Kummerer muses about the soul’s connection to both the natural and spirit worlds gives listeners a lot more to think about than the usual misanthropy and graphic descriptions of violence. Gorgeously packaged with a combination matte/glossy CD booklet featuring lavish, otherworldly artwork by Orion Landau, it’s an album best enjoyed as a physical product. Hearing Omnivium via iTunes is a rewarding experience, but as a proper music-artwork-lyrics experience, it quickly becomes extraordinary. Either way, it’s mandatory metal listening for 2011.