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Not quite as brilliant as the debut. - 74%

ConorFynes, September 12th, 2015

Even if there were nothing else to praise about Obsequiae, I think their grip of style would be enough to sell the band on its own. There is little wonder why so many black metal musicians are drawn to the Middle Ages; and scarcely surprising that so many of amongst them have tried to incorporate that aesthetic into their own work somehow. The reason Obsequiae stand out is the sheer extent they've incorporated Western Medieval musical tradition into their music. Generally speaking, they really do sound like a chamber group, drawn from some castle hall a thousand years removed from our own world, and amplified a hundredfold with the excesses of modern sonic artillery.

Even with such a great formula in their hands, a unique style can quickly become a gimmick without the substance behind it. Obsequiae proved with Suspended in the Brume of Eos that they were far from a gimmick; rather, their songwriting inferred a powerful understanding of Medieval musical tropes going far beyond the surface level. If you've heard the name Obsequiae before, it's near-certain you've heard them spoken of with a certain reverence that's usually only reserved for longstanding legends. When all's said, Suspended in the Brume of Eos was the kind of album that wholly deserved that reaction. Obsequiae's style is too exact, specific and otherwise nichey for them to have any real competitors, so all that was left was to see where they would be going thereafter.

As the Medieval chamber ensemble Vox Vulgaris lovingly mocked in the title of their own debut The Shape of Medieval Music to Come, historically-bound styles don't tend to evolve much over time, so the fact that Aria of Vernal Tombs draws from many of the same tricks isn't surprising. The way Obsequiae use those tricks may have shifted slightly, but the fact stands that their second album conjures much of the same atmosphere and experience as its predecessor. Again, I'm impressed by how deeply the band are able to induct themselves into their source material. Unlike so many would-be folk-black metal projects, Obsequiae cannot possibly be distinguished from their extracurricular inspirations. Aria of Vernal Tombs doesn't shine quite so brightly as its predecessor, but nonetheless this album has an easy time standing out amidst its contemporaries. This is Medieval black metal done right, and nothing more or less than that.

A second album is always doomed to contend with its predecessor somehow; in most cases, the expectation's that a band is going to find a way to improve upon the formula they first came out with. While it obviously lacks the refreshing shock of the debut, I think Aria of Vernal Tombs has taken further lengths towards consolidating the Medieval aspect into their sound. Where Suspended in the Brume of Eos played around with different song structures a little more, Aria of Vernal Tombs hinges on jaunting grooves, the likes of which are indelibly associated to the style and period. Tanner Anderson's wind-laden howls may see fit to place Obsequiae within a black metal canon, but the genre-tag otherwise doesn't seem to fit, now more than ever. The guitar tone on Aria of Vernal Tombs is one of the cleanest I've heard fuelling a metal album- let a lone a black metal album- and the purely consonant lilt to their melodies has an indisputably uplifting tone. While I've tried to distance Obsequiae's sound at least partly from what I already know of Medieval music, the arrangements here could easily be adapted to fit a bona fide chamber ensemble. The fusion of genres here is so evenly split and integral that looking at Arial of Vernal Tombs primarily as a metal album feels like it would be missing part of the point.

Structurally, the album is characterized by its juggling between full-bodied tracks and a series of harp interludes. This isn't unlike the way Agalloch interspersed The Serpent & The Sphere with a host of classical guitar pieces. Given the way the songwriting here is more homogeneously upbeat and groove-oriented than the debut, it was a stroke of brilliance to make breaks to highlighted the underrated half of their sound. Much the way I felt with The Serpent & The Sphere, I would have been happy to hear an entire album full of these interludes. Vicente La Camera MariƱo performs with a haunting authenticity; the recording is appropriately plain, but the resonance makes it sound like the performance was captured in the bowels of a monastery.

The 'interludes' are possibly Aria of Vernal Tombs' brightest artistic choice. In truth, were it not for the harp segments, I could see Obsequiae's metal traits growing too familiar sooner than they should. Ultimately, this is the sort of second album where the band has distilled their best elements and ideas down to a more refined essence; in going without their secondary dynamics and 'unnecessary' elements however, Aria of Vernal Tombs gets to sounding pretty samey. Most of the album is fixed on the same Medieval troubadour groove, the same use of mid-paced lead guitar, the same quasi-ambient vocals buried halfway into the mix. In terms of sheer execution, I think this new lineup has harnessed the style with even greater precision. If Obsequiae have generally improved as a band, I don't think it's translated into a better album overall. I don't find myself quite as enthralled as I was with Suspended in the Brume of Eos. It's not a matter of style here-- quite the opposite, in fact. Obsequiae have amplified their niche to the point where the songwriting hinges upon it. For a band and sound as distinctive as this, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's certainly not the formula for an album that's going to trump a brilliant predecessor.

To put it shortly, I don't think Aria of Vernal Tombs offers the same boldness and excitement as the debut. Obsequiae have become ensnared by their greatest strengths, and they've let those strengths dictate where their sound will go. If it's a step in the right direction for this band, it hasn't come without its setbacks. While the set of new priorities has meant the difference between an album that's very good, and one that might have stuck in my head for months to come, I cannot ultimately hold Obsequiae at fault for anything they've produced here. Aria of Vernal Tombs may have been confronted with the highest expectations, and it managed to match most of them. A few months from now, this will still stand among the year's brighter achievements in black metal, folk metal, and, certainly not least of all, the Medieval niche these guys have come close to monopolizing.

Originally written for Heathen Harvest Periodical.