Listening to Obscura is a little bit like standing in front of a smooth, rotating metal sculpture glinting in the sunlight. It looks different from every angle and feels impressive, but it remains slippery and ill-defined. Your reaction to the art was neither solicited nor expected in its crafting, and its creators ask – at best – for your impassive admiration. Although the surface of Obscura’s music is a liquid metallic shimmer, its hues are often pastel and watercolor, and most of the time the only reaction possible is to watch mutely as a cavalcade of sun-blind reflections dances past.
On their fourth album (and first in five years), Akróasis, German death metal wunderkinds Obscura are still as wiry and widdly as ever, but they’ve allowed this batch of songs much more space, a bit more prog, and a LOT more Cynic. Even so, the best thing about the album might simply be that it has been a long enough time since the last Obscura album that there’s room again in life for this endless profusion of margin-scribbled notes upon notes upon notes.
Of course it’s splitting the finest of stupid hairs, but Obscura rests at that nice middle point between the progressive death metal of the early 90s (Cynic, Death, Atheist, Pestilence) and the cleaner side of contemporary technical death metal (Spawn of Possession, Decrepit Birth, etc.). If the song titles alone don’t suggest a monastic, aseptic tidiness, the band’s sound gleams with a freshly waxed hospital floor sheen. This means that even when the songs lean forward into aggressive passages, the attack is rounded and smooth. The only time Obscura really summons a vision of feet-on-the-monitors, synchronized-headbanging death metal is the first minute or so of “Ode to the Sun.”
Obscura’s other nods to traditional death metal weightiness occasionally fall flat. The tone of guitarist/vocalist Steffen Kummerer’s more glottal vocals is a very poor match to the music, a fact which is most obvious on the early verses of “The Monist,” where the effect of the sing-songy rhythmic cadence of the moose-in-heat vocals is wet and laughable. (Imagine Martin van Drunen singing for Jesu.) Kummerer’s raspier, slightly higher-register vocals are much more effective, and tend to parallel the band as a whole, which is at its best when embracing the pristine and chaste aspects of its sound. The title track is an astonishing feat, because it merges the band’s overwhelming technical skill to a memorable, emotionally affecting song in an economical four minutes, all with a light touch that conveys constant, frictionless motion.
As further testament to the lovable squareness of the band, listen to the drum beat that undergirds the guitar solo about 2:56 into “Ten Sepiroth.” It’s almost a d-beat, but instead of really leaning into it, Sebastian Lanser plays it absolutely straight and upright, as if he were riding a horse at a steady trot through a daffodil-thatched meadow. Additionally, Linus Klausenitzer’s fretless bass playing, despite its impeccable technique and rubbery twang, brings to mind the keen insight of our esteemed former colleague Ramar Pittance, who (to paraphrase) noted that fretless bass guitar nearly always sounds like a balding man in a ponytail and turtleneck.
The biggest problem with music this busy is diminishing returns on its technicality. Akróasis carries on for nearly an hour, which means that even though each polyrhythmic fill, each hammer-off run, each micro-shred is flashy and executed perfectly, they carry significantly less weight as the album grinds on. Although several of the songs are deceptively catchy and memorable, most of them instead feel like buckets into which instrumental techniques have been poured from a tall height, with little concern for what lands where. This kind of music often works best as background, which isn’t a slight against Obscura’s sincerity, but a comment on the band’s aims. Simply put, it’s often unclear exactly what the music is supposed to be doing as it crouches on the twin edges of taut physicality and cerebral calculation.
The closing song “Weltseele” takes up 15 minutes of the album’s near-hour, but is paradoxically (both because of length and placement) Akróasis‘s most consistently engrossing song. Much of its first several minutes is taken up with variations on a greasy, chugging riff with pinch accents, so while the players still needle and lash elaborately, it’s always anchored to that core. Roughly halfway through, the band walks offstage to make space for a beautiful string trio interlude. As the song continues, what initially felt like song fragments are brought together with a compositional skill that places “Weltseele” close to a classical symphony. (At times the song evokes such relatively disparate but compositionally mature death metal voices as Gorguts, Opeth, and Edge of Sanity.) The climax comes from about 12:30 to 13:00 with a valkyrie-worthy chorus of frantically sawing strings and martial snare cracks, while the main theme’s reprise at 14:00 is the victory lap that eases the album off to its sunset.
If Obscura’s music is, almost by definition, easier to appreciate than to love, it’s also harder to hate than to nitpick. Maybe that means they represent the conservative wing of progressive death metal, or maybe it means their music is difficult to find flaw with unless you start with wholesale rejection of the premises of their genre. That kind of ambivalence might actually work to Obscura’s benefit in the long term, because Akróasis is a Rubik’s cube you find yourself drawn to even once you think you’ve lost interest; just because there are no answers doesn’t mean you have to stop asking.