When a record feels right — truly right — you just know. No ramp-up is required. Nothing is asked of you but your admiration. Satisfaction is born in full, a sensation that mirrors the wholly filling quality of a spin free from reservations. Oubliette — a Tennessee meloblack outfit headed by married duo Emily and Mike Low, the latter of Inferi (a band readers should be familiar with), comes dangerously close to that feeling with their second offering. The Passage will sate the glutton’s broad appetite with its spread of atmospheric delicacies and meticulous environs, to be sure. But it is the avarice of the completionist who wants everything on one platter that will remain untended.
“A Pale Innocence” and “The Curse” seem a declaration of intent. The late autumn breeze of the former foreshadows an evil in the forest shadows, a promise “The Curse” fulfills. Intelligent and amorphous in the development of their proud and vicious riffing, Mike Low leads new guitarists Todd Harris (Battle Path) and Andrew Wampler (Ophiuchus) in the song’s gradual evolution from cautious triumph to turncoat betrayal. The Riff rarely allows itself to be viewed all at once, content to kaleidoscope rather than lock in approach or mood. Its occasional technicality battles an atmospheric touch that cannot be understated. You read me right before, that guitar assault is tri-pronged and suitably detailed. They work within a fantastic production to craft music that tumbles into place with such satisfying certitude and ease that you can almost hear everything click. To find such an enjoyable balance from the start is rare, which makes it all the more frustrating as Oubliette spend most of the record distancing themselves from it.
The atmosphere cannot be considered the culprit here, not truly. When the Riff is merely decent, as it is on “Solitude,” the spaces in between pick up the slack. Emily Low’s standout vocal performance is a constant shepherd, deepening the labyrinth in which Oubliette roam with presence and malice. Likewise, the driver’s seat drums and touches of violin and piano elevate “Emptiness” and the open of “The Raven’s Lullaby” into the same wispy, organic feel that labelmates Amiensus ply. “Elegy” cranks this up one notch by adding Agallochian acoustics to a meanness too brief to be anything but a tease. As delightfully complex as this may be, this approach undercuts the potential of the album. This stance bears many similarities to Netherbird’s most recent release, not least in that it would be doubly effective if used to boost a climactic riff comet past terminal velocity as it impacts your feeble eardrums. ”Elegy” does some, but not enough, and the still-strong “The Raven’s Lullaby” and “Barren” expand the chasm between sides even wider. It isn’t until the titular finale before we revisit anything half as balanced as the opening passages. The construction needs to rev the engine more often, especially with that hemi under the hood.
It’s important then that the present construction stands on its own, even knowing that the grass could and should be browner with a frosty winter kiss. And it does, despite lacking in engagement in places, as tracks rarely descend to watch-checking territory. Equal parts beautiful and haunting, the intelligent dichotomy of burgeoning triumph and inevitable downfall craft songs that alone are some of the strongest I’ve heard this side of Amiensus. But like my core criticism of Amiensus, atmosphere plays too big a role, leaving the very good just short of great. With a more even approach, one that unleashed the horror prowling the forest’s edges, the stretch of “Elegy” through “Barren” could be the best of the year. The production plays its part dutifully, surpassing trve boi standards by permitting James Turk’s (Enfold Darkness) gorgeous bass into the mix regularly. This also propels Greg Vance’s (Enfold Darkness) excellent drum performance into the spotlight and aids the backing rhythms in putting some shine into the atmosphere no matter the situation.
Oubliette‘s atmospheric ethos and ability are exemplary, make no mistake. The Passage is well-edited and presents itself with a replayability that ensures a lone spin is not nearly enough. But knowing what they can do, to have the Riff offered then stolen, eats at me some spins. After “The Curse” rips out my heart and hoists it high for the world to see, the rest of the spin can feel like an antithetical black-and-switch. The Passage satisfies, oh does it satisfy, but it leaves a niggling gap that I can’t help but ponder over. I admit that this is perhaps too critical a take for both the score at the bottom and for a performance that I’ve enjoyed more than most this year. But Oubliette have a shot at greatness and with a perfect fit next time around, they may just achieve it.