Artist: Ne Obliviscaris
Album Title: Exul
Label: Season Of Mist
Date of Release: 24 March 2023
How do you follow an album of the outstanding quality of ‘Urn’? An album about which I am on record as stating:
“…Ne Obliviscaris have put together a near-flawless masterpiece with ‘Urn’. It is the sound of the progressive death metal genre being ripped apart and reassembled in the most spectacular fashion. The bar has been set, the gauntlet has been thrown down, and only time will tell whether another will surpass this incredible record. ‘Urn’ is intelligent, ambitious and above all, magical.”
The answer, for Ne Obliviscaris, is to take their sweet time to offer anything at all. An extensive touring cycle took place throughout 2017 and 2018, and then a year or two later, we all know what happened with that dreaded ‘pandemic’ word. With much of the band stranded overseas when it hit, it was always going to be messy and frustrating. Ultimately, it has all meant that six long years have come and gone whilst we wait for the highly-anticipated xth album from this sickeningly talented Australian outfit.
The result of their labours is ‘Exul’, an album comprised of six tracks, and with a runtime of fifty-two minutes. This should begin to tell you what you might be expecting with this release: long compositions. Well, yes, you’d be right, but that only tells half the story. In fact, that probably tells you even less than half the story, much like the visible part of the iceberg only hints at its submerged enormity. I have had to sit down with ‘Exul’ on a frighteningly frequent basis to get anywhere near a full understanding of what they have created here. In the car, on the dog walk, on headphones of various types, and through speakers. I feel like I’m only now ready to commit some thoughts to paper.
My first thought centres on the production. Let’s just say that ‘Exul’ sounds incredible. You can hear everything, there’s clarity, and whether it’s all-out extreme metal attack, or fragile and delicate soundscapes, it just sounds right. The bass of Martino Garattoni remains audible throughout, which is essential given the gymnastics routine that he offers. The guitars of Benjamin Baret and Matthew Klavins sound crystal clear when in acoustic mode, but full of muscularity when required. I love the drum sound of recording musician Dan Presland too, as each skin hit is authoritative, sharp, and snappy, almost popping out of the mix. And when we’re treated to a frequent dose of blastbeat action, the result is nothing short of thunderous.
What the production does is it sets the framework upon which everything else is built, because the guys know that every little nuance and every idea will be heard, if the listener chooses to do so.
I’d choose to do so if I were you, too, because ‘Exul’ is utterly sensational. I’m not sure I get the logic of releasing half of the album in advance of the official street date, because where’s the surprise? But that’s a whole different discussion to have. If, though, you’ve heard the songs released already, you’ll know exactly what you can expect from Ne Obliviscaris this time around. If you haven’t, let me explain.
‘Exul’ begins with ‘Equus’, and it’s a monster. It creeps up on you over a series of frequent, implacable listens, until it attacks with full force, rendering the listener all but speechless. As with the entire album, there’s a delicious ebb and flow to the music, from quiet and pensive, right through to all-out extreme metal attack. But it is done in such a way as to feel incredibly smooth and effortless. Yet the soundscapes created are anything but. The tempo changes, the complex, multi-layered riffs, the rhythms; at every turn, the music is challenging both on a basic level and on a more cerebral one.
You’ll be delighted to know that my general distaste of brass and the saxophone in heavy music does not extend to other ‘non-metal’ instrumentation, so the violin of Tim Charles is a welcome addition. It has always been an integral part of the Ne Obliviscaris sound but here, within ‘Equus’ as it is across the entire record, it feels even more important. Charles’ violin helps to create several emotions, from sombre melancholy, to tortured anger, to wild exuberance, whilst acting at times almost like a third vocalist, alongside gruff vocalist Xen and his own clean vocals.
As good as the whole song is, it is the final three or four minutes that is the most magical for me. Featuring emotional violin and lead guitar solos, the song just explodes in a torrent of beautifully poignant melody, topped off by a torrent of relentless blast beats and plaintive clean singing intermingled with more growls from Xen. My words don’t do it justice of course, but you get the idea.
Arguably the most impressive section of the record follows in the form of ‘Misericorde I – As The Flash Falls’ and ‘Misericorde II – Anatomy Of Quiescence’. Originally, the band write part one as a stand-alone but then got to thinking what could come next. Part two was subsequently born, creating a huge seventeen-minute composition overall. The first part is more extreme and progressive in the ‘technical’ sense, as the song delivers some tight but punishing soundscapes where the violin and clean vocals take more of a back seat in favour of Xen’s more brutal approach, at least initially. As Part one reaches its conclusion, in marches the melody and clean vocals to devastating effect, a melody that seeps into the second part of the composition.
Beginning delicately with just a lone violin to begin with, ‘Anatomy Of Quiescence’ slowly starts to build, but with much more of a gentle minimalist, stripped back prog rock feel to it. With its sprawling lead guitar solo, it’s almost as if this is Ne Obliviscaris indulging in their Pink Floyd-inspired side. Naturally the serenity doesn’t last for long, but instead of descending into all-out death metal attack, the whole thing has much more of a cinematic, theatrical vibe to it. Sure, it gets heavy as hell, but it does so within very measured confines where feelings, emotions and atmosphere are never compromised by the heaviness. It’s truly remarkable.
Having spent long enough describing the last three songs, I’ll refrain from dissecting the remainder of the album, leaving it up to you to explore at your leisure. What I will say though, is that the quality, precision, and full-throttle entertainment continues until the very last note. If I had any kind of critique, I’d suggest that my preference lies with the opening trio of songs, simply because I personally resonate with the chosen melodies that little bit more. But that’s just rampant subjectivity on my part, and others will almost certainly disagree with me on this.
What is without question of any kind is that ‘Exul’ is an utter beast of an album. Every bit as good as their previous works and in some aspects even better, ‘Exul’ is the creation of a band that is at the very top of their game. When they are in full flight, as they are here, they are virtually peerless, leaving many others in their wake and with mouthfuls of dust. If you want to hear some of the best technical progressive extreme metal committed to record, then ‘Exul’ is for you. Ne Obliviscaris are dining at the top table, with no apparent desire to move any time soon. Don’t even think about it, buy this album. Immediately.
The Score of Much Metal: 95%