“That sounds like a nasty infection.” Ladies and Gentlemen, the sage wisdom of Mr. H.N.Roll, imparted over a decaf macchiato in the AMG staff room when I mentioned that the next promo I was really looking forward to was Obsidian Tongue. Now, it’s six years since this Maine duo dropped their sophomore effort, A Nest of Ravens in the Throat of Time, a time when we still linked to Myspace pages in reviews. How time flies! A Nest of Ravens was a great record, atmospheric black metal, sprawling, blisteringly heavy in places with folky elements too. Their debut, Volume I: Subradiant Architecture, wasn’t too shabby either. That Obsidian Tongue mainman and multi-instrumentalist Brendan Hayter did a brief stint in the much-missed Woods of Ypres and currently mans the bass for metal-infused folksters Thrawsunblat maybe gives some sense of where Obsidian Tongue are coming from. Since A Nest of Ravens, however, original drummer Greg Murphy has departed to be replaced by Falls of Rauros’ Raymond Capizzo. Has it been worth the wait for this 50% new Obsidian Tongue and the intriguingly-titled Volume III or is a nasty infection indeed setting in?
Volume III is in no rush to pummel you straight out the gates. The nearly-15 minute “Anatkh,” which opens the album, eases into being with waves of synths and a lazy drum line, reminiscent of those intros Cult of Luna are so fond of. Over the top come deep, cleanly sung vocals and harsh whispers, which build and build toward a gorgeous, soaring riff. Just as you begin to wonder where Obsidian Tongue might be going with this, the hammer drops without any warning and a full-on black metal assault is launched. Hayter’s rasps and Capizzo’s blast beat frenzy behind the kit are like a huge release of pent up energy, and deeply satisfying after the slow-burn opening. Volume III as a whole is an exercise in balance, as Obsidian Tongue’s all out fury is tempered with atmo-black moodiness and sweeping, at times almost goth, passages. Hayter’s voice veers from clean baritone through oppressive whispers to growls, howls and rasps, showing even greater versatility than previously but the real step up from A Nest of Ravens lies in the addition of Capizzo behind the kit.
Throughout Volume III, he moves effortlessly from ominous, atmosphere-building through blast beat frenzies and back again, with a deftness of touch that I really enjoyed. His work, particularly on the cymbals, in the softer sections of “Return to the Fields of Violet,” imbues that song with a sense of delicacy that makes the crushingly fast and heavy parts hit ever harder. Indeed, it seems to me that he’s brought with him something of Falls of Rauros’ flare for composing bleak sonic landscapes, as Obsidian Tongue conjure a brooding and compelling tapestry that leaves you breathless by the end of Volume III, belying its relatively modest 43 minute runtime. They have largely abandoned the folkier, acoustic Agalloch-inspired passages found on Volume I: Subradiant Architecture, continuing the trajectory that Hayter began on A Nest of Ravens.
Personally, I rather miss those pure folk passages but there’s no denying that the songwriting on show on Volume III is stronger and more nuanced, as are the textured layers of isolation and melancholy that Obsidian Tongue weave. Volume III is not an album entirely free of issues though. The three-minute piano interlude “Coda – Child in Ice,” in no way flows from the end of “Anatkh,” nor really segues into the start of “Empath.” It feels out of place and like something of an afterthought. “Empath” itself sprawls across its 13 minutes, losing its way at the end, where the brief introduction of spoken-word female vocals snapped me completely out of the moment every time. The production is nothing to write home about either. It’s not terrible by any stretch but the guitar sound is muddy, as well as being slightly too low in the mix. The combination means you don’t catch nearly as much of the stellar riff work as you really should.
Volume III opens on a seriously strong note with the searing “Anatkh,” and the last two tracks – “Return to the Fields of Violet” in particular – are beautiful, pummeling atmo-black songs that I everything I hoped Obsidian Tongue would deliver on this record. But Volume III does lose some of its impact in the middle sections, with the unnecessary piano interlude and the at-times-unfocused “Empath.” The sheer raw and bleak emotion that bookend an admittedly weaker middle section is enough to put Volume III on a par with A Nest of Ravens and convince me I want a part of whatever infection Obsidian Tongue are peddling.