Ne Obliviscaris have proven one of the more controversial bands that I’ve reviewed during my
incarceration tenure at AngryMetalGuy.com. My review of Citadel split the crowd with AMG Himself, an outspoken critic of the Aussies’ modern aesthetic. I, on the other hand, love their dynamic duality of blasting black and death metal, with softer, classically-influenced progressive tendencies. My youthful inexperience with imparting opinions on controversial matters ensured I lingered on the dissenting commentary provided by others and did, in fact, give it some consideration. Nonetheless, others’ doubts were set aside by the end of the year as I happily awarded the record my coveted Album of the Year. Three years passed, my skin thickened and now they’ve written their third full-length: Urn. The hype machine began rolling months ago when a new record was announced and I received my review copy over two months ago at the time of writing. I’ve had an uncommon length of time to allow my views to crystallize and truly gauge Urn’s mettle.
For those who are newcomers, I’ll attempt to briefly capture the essence of NeO. Their heavier “half” comprises furious blasting which mostly draws from black metal but helps itself to death influences too, most obviously through Xenoyr’s excellent growls. Such blasting, if not carrying the primary melody, usually underpins the frilly, melodic stuff too so they assuredly fall further along towards extreme on the metal spectrum. The other ‘half’ is oriented around Tim Charles’s violin and clean singing, with an acoustic guitar arising too. Classical and progressive rock influences feed in through these tools, rendering a couple of lengthy tracks — though fewer than on previous records. It’s a sweet smorgasbord of sounds which neatly assimilates my favorite genres of metal and progressive rock.
As far as developments in the core music this time, the very capable Robin Zielhorst (ex-Cynic) fills in for Brendan Brown who was fired following certain unpleasant allegations. His bass guitar is similarly expressive though arguably less obvious in the mix. Otherwise, the violin is utilized slightly differently, undertaking less prettiness and more frenzied heavy parts. It’s the most brutal violin you’ll hear this year, screeching atop the mix when wanting to overwhelm. This isn’t to say it isn’t called upon for classical interludes too (hear “Libera II: Ascent of Burning Moths”1) but it does more heavy lifting.
The greatest differentiator to NeO’s remaining discography is slicker songwriting. Only two tracks approach or reach over 10 minutes this time, with three tracks around the seven-minute mark. “Intra Venus”2 is the closest to a ‘standard’ verse-chorus song they’ve written with a cleanly sung chorus which will knock around your head for hours after listening. Even though “Libera I: Saturnine Spheres” and “Eyrie” are the long tracks they both progress through satisfying structures with great climaxes, boasting epic choral chants on the former and an exquisite chord progression which reprises on the latter. Indeed, “Eyrie” makes the second strong case in as many reviews for Song of the Year (the first being Hällas’s “Star Rider”). Its violin and vocal melodies are incredibly emotive with a heroic guitar transition towards its conclusion.
At the negative end, while “Urn I: And Within the Void We Are Breathless”3 is the most similar to Citadel, I’d argue it sounds more like an offcut which was rejigged for the new record. It’s still decent but definitely the most generic track. “Urn II: As Embers Dance in Our Eyes”4 recovers the album’s ending with a pleasing build and nifty solo but its epic climax is undermined by the largest problem present: the master. While the mix does a decent job of clarifying the busy compositions such that no instrument is buried or overly dominant, which is commendable considering the many sounds present here, Urn is a brick-walled. It is simply criminal that such dynamic music and song-writing is denied a correspondingly dynamic master. The crashing chords and rocking riff concluding “Urn II” just don’t have the impact they should due to the limited dynamic range. My tolerance for the Loudness War has diminished of late so I’m less inclined to be forgiving in 2017 than I was in 2014.
Each NeO record excels in different ways. Portal of I boasts its novelty and flowing expansiveness which truly captured my imagination five years ago. Citadel has the strongest contrasts of their light and heavy characteristics and is thematically strongest. But Urn has its slicker song-writing and feels the most accessible. I’m struggling to pin exactly how it compares with Portal of I and Citadel in total quality as they all have distinct advantages. What’s less difficult to argue is that NeO actively hampers themselves by refusing to utilize a dynamic master. For that, this time, I shall mark down from a 4.5. But make no mistake that this is still high-quality music. Former fans are sure to enjoy this release while the unconverted may appreciate the more direct hooks this time around. You’ll be reading about this one again come list season despite my earlier warnings over dynamics.