Back in the 90s,
I was in a very famous TV show I was all about hardcore and early metalcore. As a matter of fact, I was straight edge, though not for the same reasons as other practitioners of that ethos. I was a good Christian boy who happened to like aggressive music, and the rise of Tooth and Nail Records and their sub-imprint Solid State meant I could have my cake and eat it too (that’s not to say I didn’t have dalliances with “secular” labels like Victory or Revelation). I left -core behind many years ago, as tends to happen as one ages, but last year I found myself drawn to a few newer bands with hardcore influences, and that got me nostalgic. This, for better or worse, led me to choose Paradise, the debut album by Oslo, Norway’s Oberst as my first proper review of 2020.
Oberst claim influences ranging from hardcore to post metal, progressive metal and rock, and it’s all pretty evident on first listen. This is best described as Baroness meets At the Drive-In with straight up turn-of-the-millennium metalcore vocals.1 It’s busy music that takes time to mentally unpack, as it leans heavily into hyperactive, proggy post-hardcore without the usual breakdowns expected in -core influenced music. Even when it indulges in post metal atmospheric breaks from the normal flow of a song, which it does often, a propulsive momentum is somehow maintained. The riffs, which are often quite good, can take some time to register as the listener gets used to all the moving parts, not least of which is Tarjei Kristoffersen’s esophagus wrecking screams, which sit high in the mix.
I have to admit, I was initially thrown by the odd way Oberst mixes their influences, but Paradise grew on me with each listen. Third track “Fiends” especially was the narrow end of the wedge that helped me get leverage, thanks to some indulgent guitar work. While already spinning a few plates, “Fiends” throws in some good ol’ weedly weedly, with a noodling lead guitar line that repeats later in the song and soloing that surprises considering the band’s hardcore influence. It highlights Oberst‘s main strength, which is impressive musical dexterity. Guitarist Dennis Estensen and Kristofferson, who also handles guitar, clearly have chops, while drummer Johan Fredrik Bolli keeps things buoyant, even in the calmer moments. There are sneaky good riffs subtly woven throughout Paradise, especially on “In the Embers,” “Snakes” and “Goddess.”
Considerably less subtle is the vocal delivery. Regardless of how the music ebbs or flows, there is no rest for the veins on Kristofferson’s neck and forehead. He sustains his apoplectic fit through every song, which would be fitting for a 25 minute hardcore album, but over 46 minutes of subtly shifting song structures, it’s a lot to handle. It fits best on more frenetic numbers like “Snakes” and “Goddess,” and his layered, near singing choruses (“In the Embers”) work as well, but on more subdued cuts like “Dreambeast” or “Parting,” it’s jarring enough to be disastrous. Even as someone who has built up immunity to the more damaging effects of -core vocals, I can’t listen to Paradise without thinking at multiple points throughout that the vocals are mismatched to the music, sometimes badly. Although the songwriting here is clearly smart, there are few songs that can transcend this issue.
There’s a lot of promise in Oberst‘s first full-length. These Oslo boys are clearly talented musicians, but there’s also a lot of room for refinement. Vocal issues aside, there’s something missing from the instrumentation, good as it is. In the midst of their busy—maybe overly precious—compositions, they fail to do one thing the aforementioned At the Drive-In was really good at: take an occasional break from the cerebral to walk up and smack the listener in the mouth with the basic. They’re different enough to attract some fans as they are, but with their talent, I believe they can do better.