Ophiuchi – Shibboleth Review

I know it’s because I’m a picky, grumpy old man (in spirit, if not in age) that I rarely find things I like. Be that movies, music, television shows, or people. Even if I 4.0ldeneye an album, it’s not like I’m real proud of it. I mean, it’s only a 4.0/5.0. It could be better. I also rarely listen to an album after submitting the review. I push on—another day, another album. More times than not, I listen to something olde if I want to listen to anything at all. That’s not to say I don’t stand behind my year-end picks. But, let’s be honest, those eleven picks are pretty much all I cared to listen to that year. Then I push on—another year, another list. But some albums break into my hate-filled heart and stay. One such album is Ophiuchi’s 2017 debut record, Bifurcaria Bifurcata. 

Originally a mystery to all, this South African-moved-to-the-Netherlands one-man outfit has begun discussing his music. For one, I wouldn’t have guessed that the topics of the band’s doomy black nightmares revolved around Greek mythology. But they do. While the abduction of Persephone inspired Bifurcaria Bifurcata, this year’s Shibboleth is inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. If you’ve heard the music, you know it’s deeper than just a concept album. Like the music, the lyrics are waves on the ocean. Metamorphesizing in color and shape, gathering secrets as they move to shore—patiently waiting their turn to smash you into the rocks. It’s been four years, and I still don’t know Bifurcaria Bifurcata’s secrets. And Shibboleth proves once again that Ophiuchi is as mysterious to me as it was in 2017.

With parallels to Cobalt, Tool, and The Ocean, Ophiuchi is a complexity of exhausting time changes, double-digit runtimes, vocal variations, and teasing builds. Every couple of minutes, Shibboleth is like a growing wave that can somehow recede into the ocean. Then it reappears again closer to shore and even larger than before. Every new riff, atmosphere, or vocal arrangement that appears in the song snowballs in the final push. Case in point, closer “Decipulum.” If Ophiuchi has one great skill, it’s writing amazing closing tracks. Like the rest of the album, it begins slow but wastes no time ascending. Distant clean vocals collide with The Ocean-esque riffs as the song builds. Each build teasing you like a Christmas present before falling away when you realize it’s only July. Even the introduction of a headbangable riff doesn’t promise an end is near. When that gorgeous bass work finally smashes headlong into the black atmosphere, the wave arrives at the shore. And the impact is devastating.

Like the closer, the title track is also a rollercoaster ride to Hell. Teasing and stopping, teasing some more and then stopping again. It turns out this will be the most painful orgasm you’ve ever had. The difference between the two songs is that “Shibboleth” is too early in the album to give you that satisfying release. What it does do is introduce vocal diversity that wasn’t on Bifurcaria Bifurcata. While the vocals on the debut are predominately rasps and shrieks, those don’t arrive in “Shibboleth” for a good five minutes. What you get instead is whispering cleans and hypnotizing bass lines. The bass work, in particular, is even more impressive than it was on the debut. And follow-up track, “Katabasis,” proves that. With a little more straightforward doominess, this track starts with a haunting quiet that reminds me of Via Vengeance. Then it gets out of hand. The bass never relinquishes control as the song completely flies off the rails. It’s a mish-mash of timing changes that feel like a drunk finding his footing. It’s exhausting as hell, and when you think it’s over, it takes a drastic turn for the last couple of minutes. With each spin, I still find more to the song. It’s not satisfying like “Decipulum,” but it’s a unique journey.

Like Bifurcaria Bifurcata, Shibboleth delivers the goods. From refreshing dynamics to compelling songwriting, this disc is great for repeat listens. But, unlike the debut record, this new album didn’t hit me right away. It took a couple of spins to get into it, and with only four songs, even the smallest issue can affect the whole thing. Not that “Katabasis” is an issue. It’s actually a beautifully crafted mess. The issue is that it kind of derails what “Mercurial” and “Shibboleth” were trying to achieve, and “Decipulum” has to pull it all back together. In the end, I still prefer Bifurcaria Bifurcata. But it’s hard to ignore the heft behind Shibboleth.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 12 | Format Reviewed: 320 kb/s mp3
Label: Self Release
Websites: ophiuchi.bandcamp.com | ophiuchiband.com
Releases Worldwide: April 30th, 2021

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