Album Review: OBSCURA Arkóasis
As soon as Germany’s Obscura signed on Relapse’s dotted line back in the late 2000’s, the future seemed so bright that those of us sitting in the cheap seats not only had to wear HDPolarized Oakley’s, but found ourselves applying thick globs of 3000 SPF sunblock and making moves to enjoy the band’s rocket-like ascent from beneath the shade of the most willowy of willow trees. In Obscura, you had a band of technical wizards who knew the value of trying to offset their virtuosic leanings with heavy handed strands of traditional song writing and a sublime sense of cohesion when it came to how the entire band played to the robust elements of a riff or melody.
Never you mind that there were more than enough parallels between them and the last half of Death’s career as Obscura has never existed without exhibiting their own sense of flair and panache, they weren’t afraid to eat shit on the road, guitarist/vocalist Steffan Kummerer is one of the few Germans with an appreciable sense of humour and the band was on a very short list of those that would use vocoders without an air of wink-wink irony. Add to that a couple of raging albums in the form of Cosmogenesis and Omnivium and success was at the mark and simply waiting for the green light of the drag racing christmas tree starter to illuminate. The last few years didn't see things go according to plan: ex-guitarist Christian Münzner contracted focal dystonia which limited the sphere of his guitar playing; they found themselves financially fucked after being screwed by U.S. government desk jockeys during the visa application for the Summer Slaughter tour; and the revolving door of membership ended up spinning a bit faster with drummer Hannes Grossmann and bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling being two of the more significant casualties.
With a mostly new line-up behind him, Kummerer is leading the newest phase of Obscura with Arkóasis being flown aloft like Union and Confederate armies waving their flags back in the days when gun violence in American was at its historical peak. Here’s a hint when it comes to experiencing Arkóasis: listen to it on a decent pair of headphones. When I first received my copy of the band’s fourth full-length, I was on tour and my listening options were the shitty speakers on my laptop and the shittier ear buds that come with Apple products. Those first few listens, I gotta tell ya, were disappointing as everything sounded like a blast beating blur with various tonalities of growling battling guitar rhythms and root notes for supremacy. It wasn’t until I got home and was able to spin the album with my ears engulfed by cans and without a van engine whirring in the background that the sumptuous layers of fretless bass and fretless guitar could be heard pointedly swimming around the foreground and background. This added a host of new age/jazz/fusion textures which served to transform many of the songs/parts from mounds of unshaped clay into sculpted prog-death artistry.
This experience was rather time-consuming, but rewarding in that it was akin to sitting in on the various phases of the creative process and hearing songs built from the ground up over time. It’s almost like I initially heard the equivalent of the rough bed tracks then, a couple weeks later, the entire finished product assaulted my earholes. Take, for instance, “Sermon of the Seven Sons.” The customary tech-death distortion and semi-clean, modern jazz clang are tiered to sound like part complementary guitar duel, part counterpoint face off. The bass work of Linus Klausenitzer rises up into the upper echelons of the atmosphere without flying too far into unreachable space and there are enough flavours and awesomely frenetic lead work with a solid chorus locking everything down. That it’s different enough from the band’s “hit,” Cosmogensis’ “The Anticosmic Overload,” makes it a worthy addition to the Obscura canon which fans of tech-death that rallies around discernible melody and song writing. There’s as positive a feeling/result that follows the sublimity of the similarly mapped out title track and the erudite structures and bob-and-weave bass work of “The Fractal Dimension.”
The trouble comes when they take their foot of the gas. Parts of “The Monist” make excursions towards a mid-paced metallic chug which sees the song’s efficacy and flow taking a hit as the sound and style of what constitutes Obscura at its finest doesn’t translate to riffs from the doomier side of the spectrum. Bristling mid-range guitar and warm aquatic bass don’t possess the sludgy sustain required to make the more slow-motion movements quake with menace and malice; it’s a deficit you can hear when the skittish Watchtower-like riff emerges from behind it’s less dramatic cousins. “Ode to the Sun” has it moments, but it also has moments that sound like an orchestra tuning behind a Wagner-ian mess and the ten minute closer “Weltseele” will likely be seen as a triumph by those prog heads who like their compositions lengthy and meandering, but for a band this chameleonic, you can image how much they could drop on your doorstep given that amount of time. Much of the riffing at various points rule, as do the solos, though it’s cause for pause to know that lead guitarist Tom Geldschläger is already out of the band, having left after the recording of the album. There’s no doubt inhuman amounts of skill have come to find a home in this band, but when their focus finds itself shooting off in multiple directions – as in some of the album’s back end material – it sounds like songs firing into nowhere and the band hanging on to themselves for dear life.
Speed is Obscura’s strength; always has, always will be, apparently. A definite showing of this is exhibited in how even the rocket-paced tracks are calcified and given depth and density, yet remain listenable and even toe-tapping. It’s in those moments when they attempt prolonged spells of looseness and space that you feel and hear the album drag. And why feel the drag when you don't have to?