After listening to Volume III, the latest release from Obsidian Tongue about a dozen or so times, it wasn’t until moments ago when preparing to compose this review that I became aware the band is just composed of two people. Serendipitously, the biggest takeaway drilled into my mind in listening to the album was how incredibly big the sound is. This is honestly my first encounter with the band, so I had an absolutely clear head going into this, one completely barren of prejudice. This is one of those truly rare instances in the over two decades since I started writing about Metal where an album has overwhelmingly taken me by surprise. It’s the kind of surprise where you immediately call/text your friends with, “Dude! Have you heard this band?” To classify the band simply as Atmospheric Black Metal would be too inhibiting for it is so very much more.
In case the reader is in the same boat I was, blind that is, allow me to briefly run through the background of the band. Obsidian Tongue was originally conceived in 2009 as a purely solo project of guitarist/vocalist Brendan Hayter who was living at the time in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Initially, the plan was to start simple with a four-track and drum samples though he soon met up with a drummer, Greg Murphy, who joined shortly thereafter. The information available did not reveal the date of occurrence, but Raymond Capizzo replaced Murphy at some point on drums.
Just shy of fifteen minutes, the first track, “Anatkh,” is a pristine display of all they do. Opening with the most somber of guitar melodies, the band sounds like they are picking up where Anathema left off with Eternity. The lead parts have that same gut-wrenching melancholy the Brits were famous for, perhaps inspired by them or simply a common love for David Gilmour leads that truly sing. Clearly, Hayter has that same knack for choosing the perfect array of notes to accurately convey the chosen mood. Things soon pick up and the band is recklessly blazing through a blasting section replete with a furious storm of hyper-strums instead of tremolo picking. As the song progresses, one becomes so captivated by the intensity of the ensuing music, the softest whispers, and loudest screams, that the almost-fifteen minutes flies by. Like a killer film or engrossing book, music is another art form that has the power to transfer its audience to another realm entirely. It is an eye-opening, thrilling experience to engage with these songs.
The production employed in the recording of this album is expertly executed and an air of expanse is created. What is key to the band’s sound is dynamics for they don’t simply blast the whole time. Sure, their Black Metal parts are plentiful, but far from usual. Another aspect speaking to the intelligence in the album’s design is how at many points, one expects a riff to resolve a certain way – the same way one’s ear is trained to hear – yet the riff changes course surprising one’s conditioned sense. To break the music theory behind it down to an elementary level, most Black Metal uses minor keys which tend to convey sad or negative emotions, but Obsidian Tongue mixes things up and uses major keys in some of their riffs. While major keys generally connotate positive feelings, don’t confuse my words to imply the band flirts with happy parts; rather, triumphant would be the more appropriate adjective. The width of the spectrum of guitar sound on the album is staggering. The cleans alone range from softly muted, almost-Jazz-like tones to shimmering classic chime. The high gain sound has a Cascadian feel to it with a very prominent, girth-focused Doom tinge. It is a warm sound and in no way shrill or awash with excessive treble as can be the case with Black Metal. Often, through layering, a multitude of tones can be at play simultaneously causing one to become entranced attempting to pick each out.
The second track, “Coda,” features an evocative, mesmerizing piano performance. One cannot help but become lost in thought scanning through memories, dreams, and fantasies. It is a feeling of solace in solitude, a respect for and acknowledgment of disappointment, and underscored by a resolve to endure. “Empath,” the other lengthy track follows at just over thirteen minutes. Beginning with a simple section where he cleanly sings over the crystalline guitar chords, that basic progression established serves as the solid foundation on which the song is built. The tom work performed during the faster section is relentless, visceral, and abrasive. The band really settles in with this track and the swirling, thickly layered Black Metal sections are tempered with what at times evokes a mellower Opeth approach while at other points, Neurosis and even Isis come to mind. Of course, Agalloch is a prominent influence, but when all is inventoried, Obsidian Tongue has real estate that spans the Metal landscape.
Volume III is an album that can be appreciated by myriad branches of the Metal family tree. In this case, this is an album meticulously crafted and dazzling in sound. The album is not just five songs randomly picked, but rather each track builds off the others creating a cohesive, larger, macro statement. This fulfills so many checklists for elements of preference that it is difficult to reel in my sheer enthusiasm. It is only the second month of the year and Obsidian Tongue is a solid contender for year-end lists.