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"Fine dining and breathing..." - 65%

MutantClannfear, June 26th, 2016
Written based on this version: 2015, CD, 20 Buck Spin (Digipak)

Aria of Vernal Tombs is metal's response to Squilliam Fancysun. To my recollection, there are two episodes in SpongeBob Squarepants's pre-movie run where Squidward attempts to one-up his old rival by passing himself off as more successful and having done more with his life than become a cashier at a greasy spoon. One of these attempts actually works well, in "Band Geeks", but Obsequiae's modus operandi reminds me more of SpongeBob in "Squilliam Returns", where Squidward tries in vain to pass off the Krusty Krab as his own five-star restaurant. SpongeBob is hypnotized into the perfect waiter, obsequiously (heh) catering to customers' needs with unseen finesse, but falls flat on his face with more practical matters like remembering his name. I think that sums up this particular album quite well.

This album is certainly unique, and nobody in their right mind would ever attempt to deny the band that descriptor. The best word that comes to mind for the entire sound is "gilded": the guitars are carved out, thin and cloaked in beautiful hazy reverb, gold-leafed. Look, don't touch. With this highbred tone they construct delicate medieval-tinged melodies that spin and twirl with inconceivable grace, seamlessly merging an ancient aesthetic with decidedly modern music in a way that few other bands playing similar music can muster. This, unlike practically anything else in metal, feels like a sincere translation of an antiquated mood to modern times and informed with the modern techniques needed to captivate listeners. In other words, I'm fairly sure my grandparents could get some mileage out of this disc.

Normally when bands carve out their guitars, they fill the space with bass, but the low end in Aria is quite unassuming. It seems to be avoiding possibly imposing on the emphasis given to the gleaming chords, romantic harmonized leads and guitar solos that nearly constantly bound on the firmanent of the album's sound. The space seems to have instead been filled by the vocals, a monotonous but potent hoarse howl, full of air, like the death rattle of a corpse carried on the wind. The harp interludes are all beautiful as well, sounding like separated movements of a single improvisational piece and providing some (sometimes well-needed) breaks from the black metal material.

To be sure, it's interesting work, and it commands commendation on that basis alone. In principle, this is the breath of fresh air that black metal needs rather than the Human Centipede-like trail of Finnish riff fellators that hogs so much attention. While I wholly acknowledge that Obsequiae are onto something brilliant here, I don't feel that the album as a whole derives the maximum potential out of this sound. It feels a bit intentionally restricted at times, to the band's detriment. It's like the band have typified themselves into a corner, so to speak - "no, we can't add that riff/that beat/that idea, it's not Obsequiae enough" - and Aria of Vernal Tombs feels rather incestuous at times as a result. Put simply, the songs sound too similar to one another. The album stays at a pretty consistent mid-tempo, occasionally breaking into blast speed but rarely ever when it's actually needed to break up the monotony of the pacing. A lone exception might be "Wilweorthunga", the only black metal song on the album that doesn't breach the five-minute mark (in fact, it's around half the length of all the others), which acknowledges that its brevity justifies a more immediate sense of dynamics and urgency. All the other metal tracks are good, but nearly indistinguishable.

Another major problem arises in the nature of the riffs themselves. Obsequiae are actually a quite technical band by black metal standards, and if you were to arrange the genre as a whole in a percentile ranking, these guys would be the black metal analog of Brain Drill. That's fine by me, but Brain Drill have a secondary purpose, that being to simply overwhelm the listener, and it works for them because they're a death metal outfit. Obsequiae don't have that going for them, so you're more easily reminded that the hundreds of harmonized licks that populate this album simply aren't very memorable. They all seem like permutations of the same single base riff, stretched out and turned into half an hour's worth of material. It's comparable to Wintersun in a way in that one gets the feeling there are no real outliers of speed (or lack thereof), majesty, or aggression anywhere on the album, which objectively isn't true, but the music itself is homogeneous enough to give that impression.

Is Aria a beautiful album? Hell yes, it is - it's downright gorgeous. But it's all atmosphere and has little to show for actual moments. Like an excavated ancient church with no worshipers remaining in it, it's been hollowed out and is quite impressive upon first glance, and if you make a noise inside of it it'll sound pretty, but nothing is actively occurring inside that would give you a reason to stand inside of it for 44 minutes straight. This could have been improved either by releasing it as a three-song EP or by adding catchier riffs, a larger sense of dynamics, more blast beats and so on. Either of those would've preserved the sacred Song-to-Idea Ratio which guarantees a listener's continued interest in your music throughout its duration. In its current state, it's a brainwashed SpongeBob: emptied of anything that doesn't have to do with fine dining and breathing, forgetting its own name in the process.