Album Title: A Valediction
Label: Nuclear Blast
Date of Release: 19 November 2021
It really is true what they say: the more you learn, the less you know. Or, the more you learn, the more you realise that you need to learn. This is particularly accurate when it comes to music. There is just so much out there, so many different styles and genres. It’s impossible to be across it all, even if your name is the Man Of Much Metal!
This is a very neat way of trying to justify to myself and others that it’s ok to have missed a few bands along the way, bands that should never have escaped my notice. Today, I have to admit that the latest slippery eel is Obscura, a German technical, slightly progressive death metal band. And, had I not been undertaking one of my fairly frequent trawls through my emails to see what I might have missed, I may never have even seen this record nestling in my inbox. But that’s the point of these trawls, and I’m delighted it came up trumps yet again.
For my own benefit as much as anything, Obscura have been around for nearly twenty years, releasing no fewer than five full-length albums along the way. As with many bands these days, the line-up has not always been the most stable, but the quartet persevere. In 2021, Obscura is comprised of founding member, vocalist, and guitarist Steffen Kummerer, alongside guitarist Christian Münzner, bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling, and drummer David Diepold. Those more familiar with Obscura will know that Christian and Jeroen were with Obscura previously and have now returned to the fold.
According to the press release courtesy of their new label, Nuclear Blast, ‘A Valediction’ is the first album in a new trilogy. This isn’t a new phenomenon in the world of Obscura however, as they’ve previously experimented with a tetralogy, a four-album concept. Lyrically, the album is a rather raw, personal affair, with Kummerer exploring his own personal pain openly, albeit lacing his words with just a hint of positivity. In that sense, the lyrics fit the music very well, as the bulk of the material is aggressive and harsh, with bursts of warmth throughout.
It isn’t just across albums that Obscura want to evolve and try new things. Based on the content of ‘A Valediction’, the musicians are very open to experimentation within songs and from track to track. It makes my job a lot harder, but it is fair to say that ‘A Valediction’ is an impressively varied affair, with a lot to digest within it. But that’s part of the charm of this album, and what makes it, as a listener, very interesting indeed. There may be some that might mistake the experimentation and multi-faceted approach for a lack of focus, cohesiveness, or direction. However, I disagree; what it shows to me is that Obscura are not happy deploying their extensive talents within a rigid framework. The music on ‘A Valediction’ is all, without doubt extreme metal, with a bias towards techdeath. But they take that framework as far as they can in a number of different directions, making for a dynamic and exciting listening experience.
Take ‘When Stars Collide’ and ‘Devoured Usurper’ as prime examples of the extremes to be heard on this album. The latter is a mid-tempo full-on dirty, groovy death metal composition that channels Obscura’s inner Morbid Angel. Kummerer’s low guttural growls are so deep that they shake the foundations, whilst the rhythmic barrage is tight and precise. And the riffs within are thick, muscular, and brutal. There are moments when the pace is increased, especially when Kummerer and Münzner unleash their solo skills, but for the most part, it’s a groovy slab of death metal pure and simple. I’d forgotten how much I can enjoy this kind of thing too.
In stark contrast, the former features the unmistakeable vocal talents of Soilwork’s Björn ‘Speed’ Strid and it is a markedly different song than ‘Devoured Usurper’. For a start, it rattles along at a hefty pace from the beginning, featuring plenty of neoclassical-sounding guitar solos, licks, and embellishments. Then, at the midway point, it becomes momentarily incredibly melodic, with Strid’s clean vocals highly impactful within the catchy segment. After a more melodic and nuanced lead guitar solo duel, the melody returns with Strid, alongside yet more wailing guitar leads. I love the balance between the atmospheric, catchy melody, and the pacier, more aggressive elements; neither is over-used, meaning it’s a brilliant track with real immediacy too.
The fretless bass playing from Jeroen Paul Thesseling within the more progressive instrumental piece ‘Orbital Elements II’ is a real highlight, although the entire record is littered with some amazing, dextrous bass guitar sounds; with each instrument recorded in different studios, the overall production, mix, and master was handled by Fredrik Nordstrom at Studio Fredman, who did an excellent job – it would have been a travesty had any one of the instruments not been given the clarity that they have here. I also particularly like the forceful thump and snap of the drum sound, evidenced within the bright, effervescent techdeath-meets-thrash workout of ‘The Neuromancer’.
My favourite track as it stands currently however, is the opening composition, ‘Forsaken’, as it’s so damn compelling. Kicking off with an acoustic guitar and soon joined by the rich, playful bass, it immediately offers melody to the listener. The melody is continued even when the song explodes into full-on aggressive death metal territory, delivering what can only be described as an epic melodic sequence. I was not expecting this, and after the initial shock, I immediately fell in love with the song. It’s not all nice melody, as the four musicians are quick to up the tempo and deliver a fast-paced, powerful techdeath performance. The occasional addition of synths only adds to the atmospheres and the melodies when they crop up at opportune moments to, whilst there are a couple of really nice, slightly less intense forays into prog instrumental territory, but it’s that killer melody that comes back to do the most damage. Apparently, the song is an homage to earlier material by Obscura. I wouldn’t know, but I intend to find out as soon as possible.
I could mention other tracks on ‘A Valediction’, such as the majestic closing composition ‘Heritage’ that brings back the synths to create a companion piece to the opener in that respect, as well as the way in which strong melodies vie for your attention alongside the more technical artistry on display. Or how about ‘Solaris’, that does it’s best to flay the listener with some of the fastest material anywhere on the record?
From being an unknown entity a couple of weeks ago, Obscura are now at the front and centre of my attention. 2021 has seen me develop a much greater appreciation and love of technical extreme metal as a whole, with bands like Archspire making a bigger impact upon me than I ever expected. Aren’t you supposed to become more mellow as you get older? In my case, it seems like the exact opposite. And Obscura have, with ‘A Valediction’, have provided one of the very best examples of the year – technical virtuosity abounds, but not at the expense of the aggression or the song writing, which is out of the top draw. My Christmas list just got a few albums longer thanks to Obscura.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: