Thursday, June 9, 2011

Expect to be sucked into the undertow by Obscura's Omnivium

A technical death metal band is a unique specimen. There are oceans of musicians capable of shredding your guts out, but far fewer who can lay down mind bending pyrotechnics while also crafting a creative, compelling, and captivating product.

When I reviewed Cosmogenesis, the second album from German tech death lords Obscura in 2009, I was less than impressed. Admittedly, I'm not huge on the genre, but I saw it as little more than technical spammery with much to be desired in heart and soul.

I advised the band to take its songwriting as seriously as it did its instrumentation.

Lo and behold, it seems they listened.

The band's new album isn't a success because it lacks for highly technical guitar and drum parts - trust me, there's still plenty of those. Rather, Omnivium shines due to its sense of variety.

Think of it this way: Cosmogenesis is a large slab of meat, naked, with nothing fancy added to it. On Omnivium, the band takes that piece of meat and blends an array of seasonings, spices, and herbs to the mix until it's richly textured and gives off a much a stronger zest.

Acoustic sections, clean vocals, and cleverly arranged melodic breakdowns - these were present in Cosmogenesis, I won't deny. But this time Obscura is able to utilize these tools in a way they weren't able to before.

Rather than focusing on slam and bang, there is an emphasis on trying to change things up so that each song has its own distinct flavor.

Take the opener, Septuagint, for example. It begins with a relaxing, gentle acoustic passage which leads into a neoclassical metal buildup that draws strong parallels to Metallica's "Battery," before charging headlong into an inferno of extreme metal. Not a very original way to open an album, but the riffs are well written. Listening to that acoustic passage is like crack.

This leads into Vortex Omnivium, an all out feast of technical death mastery, which should appeal strongly to fans of Cosmogenesis. After that you get Ocean Gateways, an all out oppressively dark and brutal slab of death metal decked out with continual double bass and bestial vocals that sound as though they could have been pulled from a seance gone horribly wrong.

As always, guitarists Steffen Kummerer and Christian Muenzner, along with the fretless wonder, bassist Jeroen Paul Thesseling, put on a clinic. And don't even me started on drummer Hannes Grossmann.

His mastery of speed, timing, and technicality is such that it is rarely seen even in other tech death bands.It brings to mind the way Mike Sus of Possessed used to sweat it out while playing the Seven Churches album on tour.

Kummerer, who also handles vocals, does a commendable job, though vocal quality isn't the focal point in a work like Omnivium. Kummerer's words drift like whitecaps over an ocean of interlocking riffs and rhythms, sometimes turbulent and hectic, other times slow and grinding, and occasionally peaceful and serene.

And, like last time, the production is still top notch. The lyrics are similar in tone to those of the last album, with an emphasis on a journey through the cosmos.

Cosmogenesis is a well respected album, to be sure, and it's a great work for fans of highly technical death. But Omnivium is much more likely to resonate among metal fans of any background, which should hopefully lead to greater exposure for this band who prove they can shred and write.

Score: 85/100

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Vijay Iyer's Tirtha writes the textbook on Indian/jazz fusion

Those of you who read my postings with any regularity will know that I'm not apt to confine myself to one particular type of music or linger too long on one particular musical approach.

Which is why it bemuses me that I haven't  incorporated any jazz music into my canon, or why I haven't made mention of a character as intriguing as Vijay Iyer.

Vijay, is, as you might guess, of Indian descent, but calls New York his birthplace.

If you're not  too keen on modern jazz, you could find a much worse starting point than Iyer. The self taught pianist has established a mammoth reputation among jazz fans and critics. His music has generally had somewhat elegant feel; it has typically given off a feeling of high intellect, without ever becoming pompous or over the top.

On Tirtha, Iyer proposes a curious experiment - free flowing western jazz melded with the music of classical India. He has a pair of buddies joining him here - Prasanna, who plays guitar and does some vocal work, and Nitin Mitta, laying down percussion by way of his tabla.

Despite what seems to be two wildly clashing musical styles, the trio comes together as a tight cohesive unit. Everything complements each other perfectly, and their technical ability with their instruments is astounding. Tirtha is an album best appreciated by someone who has a solid understanding of the nuances and subtleties of the musicianship.

If there's a downside it's that there isn't much feeling or emotion in the music but there is a distinctly academic mood to the recording, sounding like something you could expect to hear in a museum or as a background to a philisophical discussion. It doesn't inspire the warmest of feelings but it is unique.

But is it worth it to put the extra effort in to get what Iyer is trying to put forth in this album? For long time Iyer fans, you already know what to expect. For newcomers, this isn't the album to start with.

The east meets west blend is fascinating, but it's important to get a sense of what Iyer is like on his own by picking up his solo record, Solo, from last year or 2009's Historicity. 

Score: 79/100