I, like most people who heard Obscura‘s 2009 release Cosmogensis, hailed it as the spiritual successor to Necrophagist and crowned the band the Kings o’ Noodly Death Metal. They have, in my estimation, never lived up to these expectations. Both Omnivium and Akróasis fell flat,1 and both suffered from similar weaknesses: ballooning song and album-lengths, often at the cost of musical focus and coherence. Many do not agree on this point and, while I don’t read other writers’ reviews of albums I’m reviewing, I’ve been having a back-and-forth about Diluvium with No Clean Singing‘s Andy Synn. In our chat, a miscommunication led right into an interesting question that’s relevant to Diluvium‘s strengths: “What does it mean to be ‘progressive’ in metal?”
We use the word progressive often.2 Sometimes we interchange it with ‘technical’—used synonymously or together, like the moniker ‘technical/progressive death metal.’ I suggest that ‘progressive’ most often refers to the comparison between a band’s musical choices and the norms of a genre. The term was first used for art rock bands in the ’70s, but we also use the term for modern bands like Opeth or Haken who write—or have written—expansive songs that challenge prevailing norms. ‘Technical,’ on the other hand, is used almost exclusively in metal. I surmise that the concept is derived from the ‘technical skill’ of the players and bands’ complex compositions. Put differently, tech bands compose songs which push the boundaries of what other musicians are capable of, but they aren’t necessarily progressive.3
What does this have to do with Diluvium? Obscura has been both more-or-less technical and progressive throughout its history, having added more of the latter over time. Cosmogensis was techy—but relatively straightforward—while both Omnivium and Akróasis were far more progressive. Seen like this, the last two albums suffered from their progressive tendencies. Diluvium, in contrast, pulls back from the progressive ledge. It leans toward Cosmogenesis‘ feel, but retains enough of the progressive touch to make it more dynamic. Put differently, Diluvium succeeds at being a techy, progressive, melodic death metal album.
“Melodic death metal?” you gasp, offended! When dissected, tracks like “Clandestine Stars,” “Convergence” and “Conjuration” all have hyper-speed Björriffs in straight time signatures. The songs are largely slightly modified ABA—verse-chorus-verse—eschewing adventurous or linear composition, instead constructing solid hooks and ridiculous solos. Things that feel techy or off-time, like glitchy riffs on the title track “Diluvium” or “Mortification of the Vulgar Sun,” are often straight time signatures with an off-time feel. Such riffs use listeners’ expectations of accented beats to evoke an off-kilter sound that seems more complex than it is. This is successful because it keeps the songs hitting hard and fast while meeting our expectations of techiness. It’s fun, heavy and intellectually satisfying.
There are moments that push boundaries, like “Ethereal Skies,” which will create awkward headbanging moments for fans. There is also some non-linearity in the songwriting. Closer “An Epilogue to Infinity,” Diluvium‘s best song, sees the band marrying its different impulses into a sprawling 6-minute epic that ends on a crescendo. “An Epilogue to Infinity” is an exception, however, and works so well because it’s the closer. Where Obscura has continued to feel progressive is in the music’s dynamics. Diluvium is not a monotone, one-speed death metal album. While it is packed to the brim with excellent riffs and gripping groove (“Mortification of the Vulgar Sun” and “Conjuration”), these are offset with vocoded Cynic cleans and mellow, moody guitar solos litter the album. Retreats into clean tones create unexpected variation, displaying some of Diluvium‘s most impressive musical moments. They highlight the virtuosity of both Steffen Kummerer and Rafael Trujillo—not just as players but as writers, able to seamlessly merge these different sounds—while allowing Linus Klausenitzer’s fretless bass to shine; swooping and popping in the right spots, such a key to Obscura’s sound.
Diluvium may be my favorite Obscura record yet. It’s performed by truly gifted players—Trujillo is 23 and incredible—who composed 53 minutes of music that nailed the sweet spot between techy and hooky. While there’s no mistaking Obscura for anything other than they have become—a techy, and occasionally proggy, death metal band—Diluvium is a significantly more focused and tighter album than its predecessors. The band wastes no space, writing tight songs that max out at just past six minutes. Every song sports skips, jumps, and flares that catch your attention and leave a lot to come back to. And when the album draws to its close, you are left wanting more. So while it took almost a decade to arrive, I’m thrilled to see Obscura make an album as good as Diluvium. Between this and Alkaloid, it’s like all the potential from Cosmogenesis and Omnivium has coalesced into two different—but excellent—visions for making outstanding death metal.
- Though, I initially reviewed Omnivium very positively, I should definitely correct the record on what I think of this album publicly. ↩
- Too much, actually. It’s become a bit of a catch-all term for ponderous, uninteresting songwriting. ↩
- This is made even more difficult by introducing genre norms for “progressive music.” Is a band that writes music that sounds just like Dream Theater playing progressive rock? That question might just help you reach nirvana. ↩