Catalonian prog-rock quintet Obsidian Kingdom caught my ear with Mantiis, an ambitious and cinematic debut that I’ve come back to often since its 2012 release. The album bordered many genres, but its kaleidoscopic diversity was more than a gimmick; Mantiis felt like a truly complete experience, complete with groovy death riffs, Floydian ambience, acidic snarls, and heartfelt synth-piano ballads. As the band like to say, it’s “hard-to-classify,” and just when I got my hopes up for more of the same, A Year with No Summer comes along to cleverly sidestep them.
The sophomore effort sees Obsidian Kingdom paring down their music; while far less extreme, A Year with No Summer presents a more unified front. The band haven’t quite added new sounds to their repertoire, but have simply streamlined their music into what most closely resembles a black metal-loving Riverside1, something that I’m sure rings a Pavlovian bell for AMG. Though the approach here is far less rooted in extreme metal than on Mantiis, Summer isn’t a typical prog rock album at all, constructed of melodic snippets as well as post-punk dirges and heaving, doomy black metal. “The Kandinsky Group” confirms the band’s metal cred with a guest appearance by none other than Mayhem‘s Atilla Cishar, and though his only contribution is a rumbling whisper, the song lives up to the intensity required for such company. Like the album’s other lengthy tracks, “The Kandinsky Group” relies on minimalist grooves and slow crescendos, but even its funky guitar noodling and organs can’t undermine the foggy-eyed foreboding of the song.
Shorter and more melodic songs intersperse the drones of “The Kandinsky Group,””Darkness,” and “Away/Absent.” “The Polyarnik” is a beautiful instrumental that plays with the timing of a simple melody, and the title track sets the album’s mood quite well with a minimalist ostenato. Garm’s guest performance on “April 10th” is also of note – mostly for its chuckle-and-eye-roll-inducing wordplay2 – but the song’s obvious Perdition City influence makes for an appropriate pairing. In fact industrial and electronic influences are more prevalent across songs here than Mantiis would have you guess, and they play well into the briskly uncomfortable atmosphere of the album.
It’s that difficult to place feeling of unrest in A Year with No Summer that makes the music successful. The regular trappings of extreme metal are almost entirely removed; though massively distorted guitars rear their heads on “The Kandinsky Group” and other songs, they don’t play riffs but instead manufacture Sunn O)))-like blocks of noise. Drummer Ojete Mordaza rarely makes use of blast beats or double bass, but pulls tracks along with energetic punk-influenced drumming and is matched beat for beat by the bass. Yet the guitars seem almost reluctant to follow, as if they’re skating over thin ice. “Away Absent” might be the most metal song here in terms of technique, yet it still feels veiled, as if under a few feet of sun-dappled water.
My one complaint about A Year with No Summer is in fact not one of mastering or production; the album sounds great and feels spacious when the band strips down to just drums and bass. Rather, it’s the singing; harsh vocals are almost entirely gone, and while the growls and screams of Mantiis were top-notch, the crooning vocals in “Darkness” and “Black Swan” sound like a tipsy Peter Gabriel. While this caterwauling really works at times, in other spots it comes off as strained and amateurish. A couple of sour notes shouldn’t ruin this album for anyone, but they can take some time to get used to.
A Year with No Summer calls to mind both the drawn-out jams of Wish You Were Here and the directional shift of Leprous‘ Coal. Like Coal, it’s less riffy, strange, and immediate than its predecessor, but every time I listen to it I like it more. Each song here is unique and memorable – just like the fourteen (!) that made up Mantiis, but the album is cohesive. Its long songs make the most of their droning and gradual buildup, and the shorter cuts help reinforce the band’s diverse writing. I can’t say if it’s year end material, but as one of the first albums of 2016 that I truly anticipated, A Year with No Summer does not disappoint. It’s a smoldering conceptual journey through a world that’s just beyond real, so close that you can feel the chill on your skin. Though not the unqualified triumph of the band’s debut, this is a great follow up from a band that fans of any of the aforementioned acts (save perhaps Mayhem) are almost sure to enjoy.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Season of Mist
Websites: obsidiankingdom.com | facebook.com/obsidiankingdom | obsidiankingdom.bandcamp.com
Releases Worldwide: March 11th, 2016