Duplicate Records is slowly but surely gaining a reputation as a boutique label with a keen eye for compellingly odd takes on the darker ends of metal’s vast spectrum. 2011 alone saw Einar Sjursø’s (of Virus and Ved Buens Ende fame) label release excellent albums from Void, Virus, and Execration, and with this debut album from British / Belgian two-piece Omega Centauri, 2012 is off to a promising start. Omega Centauri is principally the project of Tom Vallely, also of the proggy but tough-to-classify British act Orpheus. Vallely’s songwriting and instrumentation finds its vocal foil in Rob Polon, also a bandmate of Vallely’s in Sanctus Nex. Regardless of the album’s knotty provenance, Universum Infinitum is an exciting debut of atmospheric and avant-garde black metal that ought to be just the right wind-up for fans of tangentially similar acts such as Secrets of the Moon, Oranssi Pazuzu, Lunar Aurora, Klabautamann, and recent Enslaved.
Perhaps one of the finest things about this debut album is how little of the stitched-togetherness of one- or two-member projects it betrays. Universum Infinitum has a nicely spacious production with excellent, full drum sound, but the real draw is the searching but melodically off-kilter guitar leads that guide the chord progressions and transitional sections of many songs (see “I Am” for a particularly strong example). In keeping with the band’s name and album title, the general sound stays nice and cosmic throughout, from the brief dark ambient swooshes and clankings of “The Oort Cloud” to the fractal guitar patterns and the deep, distant hoarseness of Polon’s rasps and bellows. Even when the instrumentation leans back into a crashing shamble of doom (which happens with some frequency), there always remains a certain brightness of tone that matches the astral implications of the album.
When Omega Centauri’s songs work, they are quite honestly breathtaking, with the opening one-two salvo of “Ad Infinitum” and “Elusive” showcasing the absolute best that the band has to offer, from fast, shuffling blast sections to recursive, almost psychedelic guitar noodling; from all-together power to drifting-apart ambience; from concrete to elastic. However, Omega Centauri doesn’t quite hit the mark in maintaining that quality and intensity across the entire album. Things grind to a near dead halt with the frustratingly meandering “Fallen,” where a delicate instrumental introduction is suddenly overpowered by a brief fit of blasting, which then fades out into a quiet drone, and so on. The constituent pieces are fine, but the delivery feels haphazard. Following this up with a limpingly uneventful interlude threatens to permanently derail the album.
Thankfully, “May Whatever Cleanses Me Take Form” goes a fair way toward reclaiming one’s squandered interest. It doesn’t quite earn its 14-minute running time, but the lengthy section of machine gun riffing locked into a mathematic drum pattern is seriously engrossing, with a single guitar above it, traveling with no map or metric into the lonely deep of space. The track tumbles to a satisfying close as well, with acrobatic guitar triplets pushing and stressing against the 4/4 glide of the rhythm track. The album closes with an extended instrumental coda, and while it takes its sweet time to get going, it far outclasses “Fallen” by running through a sequence of mood and textural changes that feel at least intentional, if not masterful.
Thus, after a brilliant first half, Universum Infinitum alternately toys with one’s patience and partially rewards the effort of listening through. I also can’t quite shake the feeling that as the record goes on, it moves further away from discrete (if internally diverse) songs, and closer to lapping waves of interesting sounds and sections without stitching. If I’m coming off as a little negative, it’s really just because of the absolutely massive potential Omega Centauri has tapped into. The pieces that work…well, damn, they work like the collision of impossible galaxies and make me slaveringly hungry for more. If these stellar cartographers can work out the kinks next time, we won’t need the Large Hadron Collider to grind our protons to dust.