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While I'm not one to know if the while idea of putting a spoken story to music is a common occurrence in other genres of music, I can say for sure this is not something you'd find at all in metal. The Axis of Perdition return with another offering of urban decay, morbid obscenities, and a sound that can only be described as nightmarish in their latest album, Urfe. What's more, they add an original spin to it and put the whole thing as a story, narrating it in a way very reminiscent of 30's and 40's radio broadcasts, although it is safe to say Junior and family would rush to the living room to hear this story told by the warm fireplace.
Of equal importance to the narrated story (Which must end here due to possible spoilers. We wouldn't want that now, would we?) is the extremely dark ambient music always playing in the background. For those familiar with the Deleted Scenes album, the ambiance here will have the same feel; sounds that just can't help but get under your skin, eerie synths, and quite a number of other miscellaneous sound effects that add to the grand effect. For better or worse, at times this ambient music rises to a volume greater than the narrator at certain points, but not for very long. Enough to where one might strain to discern a few sentences; however, as one might also expect, this surge in volume often indicates the climactic parts of Urfe's story. Neither music nor narration really feel like they're competing for audible superiority; a fact of great importance as it makes for clear understanding of the narrator without losing focus on his voice while the background music registers in your head, and vise versa.
There are two complaints I have towards Urfe though, which was probably inevitable. The first being the choice of musical direction taken during the last half of the second disc. What appeal this album might have had for those less inclined towards metal is swept away as tracks II through IV of the second disc progress. The ambient music changes to a very violent and grating series of droning guitar riffs, placed at such a volume that, as the listener will inevitably have this album cranked to max, present a curious, and almost needless, state of unpleasantness, and successfully breaks the listener out of any state of enthrallment they might have been in . As one can imagine, the narration dies down in favor of shrieks reminiscent of the band's earlier albums. The story is lost for a time, at least for me; I couldn't make heads or tales of the vocals, and I don't imagine many other listeners could either. This isn't to say the music present is bad, on the contrary, it is very unnerving and fitting for the story's setting.
The second complaint, or rather warning, is there isn't much in the way of repeatability. Urfe is a story, hardly any different from a typical book. As such, I wouldn't expect this album to obtain multiple listens very often, especially since the whole effect is lost if interrupted, or started from anywhere but the beginning. Compare it to pulling a book of a shelf and flipping to a random page and reading; it doesn't make sense, does it? An hour and a half isn't a needlessly long time for an album, but given the circumstances in which it needs to be listened to, it could prove to be a daunting task.
When all is said and done, The Axis of Perdition still succeeds in delivering an amazing album. So long as one can get past the hyper-sensitivity of the subject matter, and any fan of these guys won't have a problem with that, the story is nothing but captivating and enthralling. I found myself bound to my area while the tracks of the first CD played, my mind racing to create this terrible world brought about by humankind that serves as the setting, and wondering how the story was going to end. Urfe presented a type of album completely new to me, and probably new to many listeners as well. I recommend this especially to fans of dark ambient, good stories, and anybody craving something new and different. Try not to let the above mentioned bit of disc two dissuade you, even when you reach it, because the story's conclusion more than makes up for the few minutes of discomfort. I promise.
Hats off to 'Axis' for what is probably the most intriguing album of 2009.