Sound — 7
Steffen Kummerer works in waves that ebb and flow, but when he's flowing, he's got a lot to put forth. With 2004 containing inaugural releases for both his tech death metal band, the Gorguts-influenced Obscura, and his black metal band, the Darkthrone-influenced Thulcandra, both projects would end up getting shelved for the next few years. However, when Obscura acquired band members from Pestilence (bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling) and Necrophagist (guitarist Christian Muenzner and drummer Hannes Grossman), the band garnered buzz from the metal world and really took off, signing with Relapse Records to release their critically-acclaimed follow-up album, 2009's "Cosmogenesis." They kept that momentum going by releasing their third album, "Omnivium," a couple years later, as well as releasing a collection of B-sides and rarities via a crowdfunding campaign a year after that, but Obscura would ebb once more in the years following, with their champion lineup eventually leaving piece by piece.
Now back with a new lineup and their fourth album, "Akroasis," Obscura get back in the saddle and continue down their dependable path of progressive tech death metal. All new members that Kummerer recruited do their part just as well as Obscura's previously revered lineup - proven especially by Tom Geldschlager's guitar-work in "Fractal Dimension," Linus Klausenitzer's basslines in "Ten Sepiroth" (one of the three songs he primarily wrote on the album), and Sebastian Lanzer's drumming in the eponymous song. Furthermore, Kummerer and Geldschlager employ more guitar tricks in their riffs, from using more garbled glitch effects (popping up in the solos of "Sermon of the Seven Suns," "Fractal Dimension," and the eponymous song), to more harmonics (like the regular dry plucks in the clean riffs of "Ten Sepiroth," "Fractal Dimension" and "Weltseele," and a noticeable helping of pinch harmonics in the "The Monist," "Ode to the Sun" and "Weltseele").
This effort to use more techniques is one facet of Obscura trying to add some different things to their tried-and-true tech death style. While some songs sit staunchly in their subset (like the metalcore groove of "The Monist," the blackened dreariness of "Ode to the Sun," and the stable thrash rhythm of "Perpetual Infinity"), everything else generally sits in the melodeath-inspired home range that Obscura have always stuck to. The choice to employ non-growling vocals draped in a vocoder is another effort to differentiate from the clean, choir-style vocals heard in the previous "Omnivium" (although the vocoder effect on Kummerer's vocals has been done before in "Cosmogenesis"), but it doesn't hide some moments of compositional repetition, like "Ode to the Sun" having the same slogging darkness as the "Omnivium" song "Velocity," or the 3/4 acoustic riff in the opening of "Weltseele" being nearly the same as the opening of the "Omnivium" song "Prismal Dawn." And though "Akroasis" also shows the band's penchant for composing longer, progressive-minded songs (the post-solo tech riff in "Perpetual Infinity" that comes off a lot like the post-solo riff in The Mars Volta's "Tetragrammaton" is a particular moment prog fans ought to smile at), it teeters on the brink of tiring - songs like "Sermon of the Seven Suns" and "Fractal Dimension" feel like they tack on one too many repeated riffs in the tail ends, and the marathon of "Weltseele" (being the band's longest song ever, clocking in at fifteen minutes) may make the listener appreciate the tight-knit compositions of "Cosmogenesis" more than anything.
Lyrics — 9
Kummerer's lyrics throughout Obscura's albums have generally stuck to the same theme of existential musing through a perspective influenced by German philosophy (from Goethe to Schelling), both in terms of one's existence and reality at large, and Kummerer's continuation of such thoughts has wound up as a deft arc spanning from those albums - where he tackled thoughts about the creation of Earth and human life, and fantasies about transcending such meager existence in "Cosmogenesis," he worked towards attaining such omnipotence via threading the needle between physical existence and spiritual existence in "Omnivium." That theme of god-like omnipotence spans throughout "Akroasis," again picking up on the theme where Kummerer last left off, though it also runs interdependently with the collateral obliteration of life and the solitary aftermath. First shown in the summarized self-destruction of human life in "Sermon of the Seven Suns" ("At first enthrallment, a stream of grace / Kingdom come, evaporation"), the first-person being appearing in the following song "The Monist" is a cosmic creator and destroyer weighing the options of restarting the cycle of human life (in "Akroasis," which the being is notably critical towards; "Divine, a glimpse of carbon-based life... Revive, relinquished, forsaken, deserted mankind") or assimilating the existence of many into something more supreme (in "Ten Sepiroth"; "In splendor bright glory, deliverance ascends / Sustaining the cosmos, a maelstrom of spirits"), which rings satisfyingly similar to the storyline of "Mass Effect."
This plan doesn't sustain, however. With the self-righteous apex of infinite, immortal existence being highlighted in "Fractal Dimension," it also brandishes a cryptic juxtaposition: "Intrinsic perfection / Peripheral atonality." Indicative that this transcendental utopia exists in a universe unable to sustain it, it does indeed fall apart in the reckoning of "Perpetual Infinity" ("This cosmic body, a transcendental reality... Trapped forever, as stellar ion cluster / Enchained, in idle captured state"). This creator's failure ends up being revealed as a cycle of its own existence, lastly clarified in "Weltseele" ("I tear through the cosmic sea / Obtain a universe's farewell kiss"), where its unattainable goal renders its omnipotence ironically useless, and the final line "Weltseele - a magnitude diaspora" identifying such transcendence as being harrowingly lonely as much as marvelous.
Overall Impression — 8
Obscura's return is definitely a welcome one within the metal world, and "Akroasis" proves that the band can stand just as strong as it did when it previously had brand-name death metal musicians in its ranks. Though the songwriting aspect of the album contains some repetitions from previous albums, as well as a few moments that drag on longer than necessary, Obscura do make a decent effort giving the album its own sonic themes, and the instrumental skills show no decline. And with the lyrics being just as elaborate, philosophical, and concept-expanding as their previous albums, "Akroasis" is set to satisfy on nearly every level that Obscura have before.