Sound — 9
After making waves in the progressive death metal scene with their 2014 album "Citadel", Australian band Ne Obliviscaris cemented themselves as one of the genre's best up-and-coming names, garnering favourable comparisons to other greats in the genre such as Wintersun and Allegaeon. Featuring a relatively stable lineup through their career, the band features violinist/clean vocalist Tim Charles, harsh vocalist Xenoyr, guitarists Matt Klavins on rhythm and Benjamin Baret on lead, and drummer Daniel Presland. This is, however, the band's first album not to feature the bass playing of Brendan "Cygnus" Brown, who was fired from the band early this year after allegations of drug abuse and domestic violence, and he is replaced on this album by Robin Zielhorst, formerly of jazz-metal bands Exivious and Cynic, but only in a session bassist capacity.
"Urn", the band's third full-length, keeps to the band's signature sound where it counts: a blending of dark, brooding extreme metal that shows both death and black metal influences, and modern progressive metal with ambient, melodic textures. There are subtle changes to the album's dynamic over that of "Citadel", such as an increased presence of violin playing during heavier, riff-y sections of the album, and a slightly more "straightforward" compositional style that shows the band shortening their songs' average length slightly, with only one track, "Eyrie", exceeding the ten-minute mark. Multi-part song suites are still in force, with two compositions, "Libera" and "Urn" split into two distinct tracks each.
The band has struck a more equal balance of heavy riffing sections with death metal vocals and softer progressive sections with clean vocals than on "Citadel", and the clean vocal sections seem to have slightly more urgency than on "Citadel", especially on the opening section of the first track, "Libera (Part I) - Saturnine Spheres". Tim Charles' violin playing is at least as notable as Benjamin Baret's lead guitar work, and Charles often gets a bit more screen-time with it than Baret. But Baret does still show some very capable soloing in "Libera (Part I)" and "Intra Venus", where he performs a duelling solo with Charles. He also brings a fair bit of technicality to the track "Urn (Part I) - And Within the Void We Are Breathless" (this band's propensity for obnoxious song titles is still very much intact). Acoustic guitar dominates "Libera (Part II) - Ascent of Burning Moths", giving the album of a bit of a breather episode. And closing out the album is perhaps the record's most all-out metal track, "Urn (Part II) - As Embers Dance in Our Eyes", a relentless assault of heavy riffs and blast beats with some absolutely great technical playing and a climactic ending section.
Writing-wise, "Urn" is definitely one of the most tightly-constructed progressive metal releases of the year, and while there's a lot of technical playing and odd time signatures going on, it never feels like the technicality takes over the songs. Rather, each song feels like a sonic journey with a lot of epic scenery. Every note seems to tell a story, and it doesn't feel like there's any time wasted on filler here. The mixing is fairly well-done in terms of keeping important melodic elements from being buried, though I'll echo other reviewers' concerns about how brick-walled the mix is, especially when it comes to not really hearing Zielhorst's bass playing as well as we should. But overall, it's not a bad-sounding album.
Lyrics — 9
Dark, brooding imagery is pretty much par for the course when it comes to progressive/melodic death metal, and Ne Obliviscaris is no exception to the rule on "Urn". The album does not really seem to have any one over-arching theme to the lyrics, but the end of humanity itself is a big part of "Libera (Part I) - Saturnine Spheres", pointing to a demise by way of technology: "This is our end design/The war on all life/Of our mindless vessels/Death we breathe/Life's demise, mechanized end design/Far beyond our humanity/Our end design/To be erased from all time/Through the shadow of the valley of death/We bathe in blood". Death itself is a very strong component of both parts of the album's title track, and both contain a fairly powerful motif in the lines "Beneath aqueducts, anointed, we transfigure/And within the void we are breathless, we are delivered". Dark lyrics can often seem rather cheesy or boring, but Ne Obliviscaris manages to keep things interesting by the lyrics simply being well-written poetry. One does not necessarily need to look for meaning in them to appreciate the beauty in verses like this one from "Eyrie": "Bathed in funereal starfall/This night, we drag the waters/The world opens its eyes/Where tides chase the dawn beyond".
Vocally, the band's two vocalists contrast one another very sharply, with Xenoyr's unrelenting guttural harsh vocals giving way to the smooth and serene singing of Tim Charles. No single track seems to entirely favour one over the other, and both of their styles complement the music behind them perfectly. Tim Charles, in particular, is responsible for some of the album's best moments, like the aforementioned opening verse of the album's first track, "Libera (Part I) - Saturnine Spheres", which has an absolutely captivating vocal melody.
Overall Impression — 9
The task of following up one of progressive death metal's best releases in the past few years would prove to be a challenge for almost any band, but Ne Obliviscaris' efforts pay off wonderfully on "Urn". The band has not tried to reinvent the wheel with this album, sticking largely to the sound they perfected on "Citadel", but some streamlined song structures and slightly more concise writing have given this album a bit more of an accessible edge over their prior records.
But none of this streamlining comes at the expense of the band's technical prowess, nor does it "water down" the band's epic, progressive songwriting. It'll be hard to say this album is any better than "Citadel", but even with some of the changes brought to the band's musical style that would normally be an issue for most other bands, this album is still equally worth a listen as their last record, and a testament to the talents of this band. For my money, "Urn" is the best progressive death metal release of 2017, hands-down.