Oathbreaker: Rheia

Oathbreaker's third album is wonderful in terms of contrasting black metal fury with quieter moments, but the songwriting lags behind the atmosphere.



Label: Deathwish Inc.
US Release Date: 2016-09-30
UK Release Date: 2016-09-30

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.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.