Band: Ne Obliviscaris
Label: Season of Mist
Genre: Progressive Extreme Metal
Release Date: March 24th, 2023
For Fans Of: Between the Buried and Me, Opeth, Enslaved
Grab a dictionary and light some candles because after a long break that was exacerbated by COVID lockdowns and lineup changes, Ne Obliviscaris is back with more long form, high-concept progressive extreme metal, ornamented with harmonic violin and ominously Middle English song titles. NeO, with their fourth record, have come to a crossroads—they aren’t the new kids on the block anymore, but they also aren’t yet part of the old guard, established veterans like Opeth and Between the Buried and Me. This is the period when a band must either advance their sound (while avoiding a betrayal of what has made them beloved so far) or risk falling into formula. It’s a delicate tightrope to walk, but any stumbles are usually assuaged by the right amount of talent: enter Exul, the next step on the high wire for one of prog metal’s premiere bands.
From their formation, Ne Obliviscaris felt like a super group. Emerging from Australia with a roster of top-tier talent at every position, the band didn’t hesitate in putting together a debut work that enchanted prog fans. Portal of I seemed to have everything: technical guitar passages, high-intensity drumming, tremendous growls, dramatic clean vocals, fiery bass lines, and even expertly performed violin, all woven together in extended compositions featuring stylistic wanderings and sensitive use of dynamic range. Thematically, it shared the cerebral nature of its musical approach. Few releases check so many different boxes so well, and the album was received splendidly by an admittedly niche community. The bar was set, from the beginning, very high. Since then, Ne Obliviscaris have succeeded in crafting each release with an entirely distinct and clear identity. Portal of I was black and monolithic, a relentless barrage of songs, each seeming enormous and individual. The follow-up, Citadel, was smaller, more focused, and more melodic, leaning further on natural minor to create a dreamlike, chambered sensation over three ambitiously epic observations. Urn was sinister and baroque, with darker harmonic minor structures and aggressive, driving dissonance encircling the usual melodious architecture. Exul takes its own shape and color as well, although that specific color is eerily similar to what a blend of the previous three would produce, like blue, green, and orange melding into warm grey.
Where does a band go that has already accomplished so much in such a short time, and explored so many musical ideas? The outstanding departures here from previous stylings are twofold: a generally darker, meaner approach that echoes the central themes of exile and isolation; and a markedly increased usage of the musical statement that is the metal riff. This would make it seem like the new record is more “traditional.” It is not. Exul has everything that is now part of the trademark NeO sound, but where washy chords and tremolo guitars would have filled out the body of a passage before, angrily chugging notes now take their place. These passages, however, are familiar. Xenoyr’s enormous bellows echo through thundering verses as the drums fire like artillery, relentless and violent. Tim Charles sings soaring lines over guitar and bass arpeggios, and piercing violin washes over the songs like rainwater spilling into a fast-moving river. But these tracks are also more cinematic than past ones, and the melodies are simple shapes that create complexity with layering, as opposed to the intricate, tightly defined ones from previous releases. The result is a series of songs that sound more tonal than eventful, like NeO put their process in a blender and made a pudding, using all the same ingredients, that is experienced in reduced, smoother textures. We hear more things simultaneously, with fewer individual moments of distinction. As far as puddings go, it’s quite delicious.
The floor of quality for a band of this talent is extremely high—and Ne Obliviscaris further benefits from the only things in music more valuable than talent: discipline, skill, and effort. The chops are on full display, but not in an academic sense or one of exercise. Like the professionals they are, every note is calculated, measured, and applied seriously. The bass guitar parts stand out immensely, further proving that no part of the composition should be wasted, but in the band’s insistence to provide balance, the guitars occasionally find themselves lacking body. This is an attribute that has slightly improved since previous releases, when chordal passages seemed to suck away some of the punch that an extreme metal experience should deliver. But the group’s newfound embrace of heavy riffs has filled that hollow and each song pounds along with authority. When fully enveloped in NeO’s archetypical emotional grandeur, complete with the haughtiest, most esoteric of lyrics (and song titles), it would be easy for all of this melodrama to fall dangerously close to camp or even self-parody, but the performance is simply too good to not take seriously.
What’s lacking is the clear creative distinction across the different songs themselves. Each piece is sufficiently epic, with the shortest, “Misericorde I – As the Flesh Falls,” (not a sequel to “As Icicles Fall” from Portal of I) coming in at just over seven and a half minutes, and even that track is part of a 17-minute two-part epic. (The final track is a textural outro movement, and is primarily atmospheric.) The band has seasoned every song with bits of the new album’s overall flavor; uniformity and homogeny lurk dangerously close. Add that this release, so far, is the least distinct overall of the expanding Ne Obliviscaris discography and you land closer to that floor of quality than one would hope after six years. That said, this is not the same album as Urn. There are enough new ideas that Exul does not feel routine or even expected, but there is also little that is dashing or surprising. It is another fine observation from one of the best bands in the genre, and a satisfactory addition to their canon.
Ne Obliviscaris fans will be eager to hear respectable new content from a unique and exceptional group for the first time in several years. New listeners will probably be impressed by the band’s abilities and creative voice. Those who do not feel fatigued by the imposing and grandiose opulence of the long, dramatic buildups and powerful climactic crescendos will soak up the excellence of this record. Those waiting for a dramatic turn towards the undiscovered will have to be satisfied with Ne Obliviscaris’ body of work as a whole, as they will not find excessive new ground in Exul. This band knows what they do well and are attempting to grow without turning away from it. After seeing so many other musicians try and fail, maybe that’s something to be grateful for.
- Equus (12:13)
- Misericorde I – As the Flesh Falls (7:33)
- Misericorde II – Anatomy of Quiescence (9:22)
- Suspyre (10:09)
- Graal (8:53)
- Anhedonia (3:43)
Total Playing Time: 51:53
Connor loves puppies and death metal but prefers death metal. He has degrees in Commercial Music and Art & Design, both from Utah Valley University.