Oathbreaker's third album is wonderful in terms of contrasting black metal fury with quieter moments, but the songwriting lags behind the atmosphere.
Oathbreaker’s third album finds them pushing the boundaries of what metal can be while, oddly, not bringing all that much new to the table. They aren’t exactly blazing a trail, but the path they’re on certainly isn’t a well-worn one. Rheia is often a study in contrasts. There are the obvious ones such as soft and loud, fierce and gentle, and screaming and singing. But there’s a deeper contrast that speaks to why the album is only partially effective: atmosphere against songwriting. This is Oathbreaker’s struggle for this record. They are excellent with the atmosphere, regardless of what the style and mood is for a particular piece. The sound is top-notch and very effective. But the songwriting often comes up short. Many of the songs have a hard time sticking with the listener when the album isn’t playing. Beyond creating a mood, these tracks are not particularly memorable on their own.
Lyrically, Rheia comes from a place of searing emotion, as lead vocalist Caro Tanghe recites first person accounts of emotional, and sometimes physical, damage. Opening track “10:56” is a description of a man falling and getting seriously injured, and Tanghe’s reaction. “Your skull merged with the surface / I mended your broken nose.” “Second Son of R.” seems to be about an abusive childhood with an alcoholic father. “Your shallow heart doesn’t soothe me / Your false heart won’t break me” and “I resided under your broken feathers for too long” are choice lines. The rest of the album is similarly harrowing from a lyrical standpoint. There is serious angst going on here, and Tanghe sells it as raw emotion.
What she and Oathbreaker don’t get across is decipherable lyrics. Those lines all come from reading the liner notes. This is par for the course when the band is playing screaming black metal, but even in the quieter moments of the record when Tanghe is singing, it’s difficult to make out actual words. There is nothing resembling a vocal chorus on the album and even very little in the way of repeated phrases, which is a perfectly reasonable musical choice but it doesn’t do any favors for listeners trying to hear the lyrics. Producer Jack Shirley doesn’t exactly bury Tanghe’s vocals in the mix, but he puts her voice on an even plane with the rest of the band. This, once again, has the effect of emphasizing the band’s skill for atmosphere over its songwriting.
Still, that atmosphere is gorgeous. “10:56” begins with Tanghe all alone, singing slowly and streeeeetching out her words before being joined, quietly, by guitarist Lennart Bossu. His equally long notes add to the dark hymn-like quality of the song. Then a couple of deliberately placed snare hits pull the whole band into an all-out black metal storm, with punishing blast beats, very effective screams from Tanghe, and locked-in sixteenth notes from the guitar and bass. At just under six minutes, “Second Son of R.” is the shortest of the album’s all-out metal tracks, and it is great. There are memorable riffs, excellent drum fills, and when Tanghe switches back to clean vocals it makes for a very effective contrast. And even though there is no vocal chorus, there are repeated instrumental stanzas that serve as musical touchpoints for the song.
Third track “Being Able to Feel Nothing” is anchored by a decent guitar arpeggio figure over the pounding drums and pulsing bass. Tanghe sings her way through almost all seven minutes. This gives the song a notable sonic change from “Second Son of R.”, and at times her floaty vocals fit in perfectly over the raging metal. At other times, though, her tendency to slow and elongate her words makes it sound like her singing was grafted onto “Being Able to Feel Nothing” from a different song. This is a place where the mix does her voice no favors, because while she is a solid singer, she isn’t strong enough vocally to rise above the guitars and drums when the production isn’t helping her out.
The album’s other heavy tracks showcase similar issues. “Needles in Your Skin” builds slowly from quiet into heavy, and Tanghe’s vocals follow along, aside from a refrain halfway through where she pleads (but quickly descends into whining) “How could you go without me?” This is one of those times when the song is effective in the moment but forgettable otherwise. “Immortals” tries something different, using a mid-tempo hard rock groove as an accompaniment to a vocal experiment that finds Tanghe’s voice multi-tracked into what sounds like a digitally assisted, unnatural four-or-five part harmony. It’s weird and a bit off-putting, to the point where it is a relief to hear Tanghe just start screaming her lungs out at certain points. The song grinds to a half just after the halfway point for Tanghe to sing unaccompanied except for the occasional pounding drum and slight guitar flourishes. And this is where the atmosphere takes over again, and it persists even when the band turns the amps back on for the song’s coda and Tanghe takes a break.
The acoustic “Stay Here / Accroche-Moi” drips with melancholy, mostly thanks to Bossu’s forlorn guitar strumming. Tanghe sounds melancholy, too, but since that is her default singing voice, it’s Bossu’s playing that sells the quiet sadness of the song. The quiet instrumental “I’m Sorry, This Is” is maybe the album’s most obvious Deafheaven analogue. I’ve tried to avoid using their name in this review due to the clear similarity in approaches (combining black metal with quieter, more melodic styles and soundscapes) the two bands have. But they share a producer in Jack Shirley, and “I’m Sorry, This Is” is essentially four minutes of slow, atmospheric drone with what sounds like field recordings of children playing underneath it. It is essentially the same as the instrumental interstitials “Please Remember” and “Windows” off of Deafheaven’s breakthrough record Sunbather.
“I’m Sorry, This Is” leads directly into Rheia’s final section, where “Where I Live” brings back the digitally harmonized vocals but pairs it with all-out epic metal. This change doesn’t make those vocals fit any better, however, and it’s once again a relief when Tanghe starts screaming. But “Where I Live” ends quietly, fading into “Where I Leave”, which takes its sweet time building back up. This once again highlights Oathbreaker’s mastery of atmosphere. Even when the music isn’t particularly memorable, the band knows when a quick burst from one extreme to the next is warranted, and they also know when a slow fade or build to a different style will work. And it works here, eventually concluding the trio of tracks with a gradual fadeout into Tanghe cooing a single note.
Which pushes into “Begeerte”, the album’s finale. Like the opener “10:56”, “Begeerte” begins with just Tanghe’s voice. But here it is a swirl of different sounds, as multiple tracks of her wordless singing form a haunted haze before Bossu’s simple guitar picking joins her. This works so much better than the digitally enhanced version of her voice that it’s surprising the band even tried the digital thing. “Begeerte” gets bigger in sound as it goes, but Oathbreaker makes the right call and keeps the heavy guitars and blast beats packed away. This restraint gives the album a fittingly subdued ending that leaves the listener remembering the band’s strong points even as we can’t quite remember what the individual songs sound like. Maybe the group’s mastery of atmosphere will give the quartet time to work on their songcraft for their next record.