It might be bad form to admit this, but when I discovered Australia’s Ne Obliviscaris just a couple of weeks ago at time of writing, I wanted to be blown away. Their band name is a Latin phrase meaning “lest we forget,” although the meaning itself is less significant than the fact that I felt compelled to look it up; their song titles and lyrics are all inscrutable, ellipsis-packed abstract poetry; virtually all of their tracks exceed nine minutes in length; their album cover art looks like a cross between a kaleidoscopic DMT hallucination and the end boss of a Final Fantasy game. Though Portal of I is their debut album, the sextet have maintained a pretty robust cult fanbase ever since the release of their three-song demo, The Aurora Veil, way back in 2007. In short, Ne Obliviscaris are exactly the kind of band I like: a band with a nebulous but overpowering sense of significance, a cult phenomenon in the making, who write huge, elaborate, progressive songs draped in all sorts of cryptic, mysterious imagery, whose albums are talking points amongst those who are “in the know.” I confess I enjoy jumping on brand new bandwagons. I probably derive a bit too much pleasure from being present at the birth of the next big thing, and it skews my judgement more than it should at times. It’s a character flaw, and I acknowledge that, but nevertheless, there you have it; when I went into Portal of I, it was with an attitude of “awesome-until-proven-otherwise.”
Having done my best to accommodate for whatever biases I may have then: Portal of I is a masterpiece, and anyone who considers themselves any kind of a metal fan owes it to themselves to listen to it as soon as possible.
This is the sort of album which sounds like all of the planets aligned for it, where everything somehow went right. Ne Obliviscaris exhibit a monumentally ambitious authorial vision and back it up with mature and capable songwriting, a sterling production job courtesy of Jens Bogren, and most importantly, six impeccably skilled musicians working as a tightly regimented unit. Progressive black metal works well enough as a generic classification, and the long running times of the 71-minute album’s seven tracks (even the runt of the litter, Of the Leper Butterflies, clocks in at just under six minutes long) will elicit the usual inevitable comparisons to Opeth and Agalloch, the twin titans of extreme prog, albeit not without merit in this case. Certainly, Ne Obliviscaris seem to be shooting for the same territory as those two touchstone acts, with similarly dense, heavily wrought instrumentation and winding, unhurried song structures featuring long breaks dominated by clean or acoustic guitar, which develop organically even as they obfuscate their eventual destination. It’s certainly hard not to think of Opeth at the finger-picked acoustic lines in the middle of Tapestry of the Starless Abstract, or of Agalloch at the autumnal chords which open Forget Not.
The Agallopeth comparison only gets you so far however; for one thing, neither of those bands have ever sounded quite this kinetic, this propulsive, this downright metal. This is in large part thanks to the staggering bombardment laid down by drummer Dan Presland, whose match for sheer relentlessness I’d be hard pressed to name, which stands to reason. In 2006, Presland was the Australian finalist in the World’s Fastest Drummer Competition, at which he was awarded the title of the Fastest Feet in Australia. The guy is literally one of the fastest double bass drummers on the planet, and this is well represented on Portal of I in his superhumanly protracted periods of double kick and super-fast blasting, which he nevertheless manages to channel appropriately, reigning in the speed when necessary. If there’s anything that makes me slightly apprehensive for the future of Ne Obliviscaris, it’s that Presland has quit the band since Portal of I was recorded. Not to imply any lack of faith in his successor, Nelson Barnes, but I find it difficult to believe that Presland’s performance – one of the magnetic I’ve heard on an extreme metal record, right alongside Tomas Corn on Lykathea Aflame’s Elvenefris and Flo Mounier on Cryptopsy’s None so Vile – could be easily replicated.
Not that the other band members are exactly coasting when it comes to making Portal of I an intense listen, mind you. Matt Klavins and Benjamin Baret bring a fully stocked arsenal of lush, melodically inclined but nevertheless furious riffs. The full spectrum of extreme progressive metal is well represented, from the jagged, decidedly Opeth-esque stop/start chord progressions at the climax of Forget Not, to the blizzard-like tremolo-picked riffs on Tapestry of the Starless Abstract in the vein of classic melodic black metal like Dissection or Sacramentum, and the nimble, flitting Gothenburg tinged lines which open As Icicles Fall. All these, and many more, and all executed with aplomb and refinement, a cavalcade of delights and surprises for the listener. And the solos! Those are in rampant abundance too, pure melodic ear candy. Vocalist Xenoyr is no slouch either, alternately belting out guttural death-grunts and full-bodied black metal shrieks with equal ferocity.
Gracious, I’m 800 words in and all I’ve spoken about so far is what makes Portal of I a capable recitation of metal conventions; shame on me, because it’s more than that. So much more. Metal thrashing madness, however well they do it, is only one of the cards Ne Obliviscaris holds. Even while Presland, Klavins and Baret are operating at full speed, at no point is the instrumentation anything less than three-dimensional, weaving and spiralling through complex harmonic relationships in endlessly intriguing ways. Portal of I is the very definition of a headphone album, one which reveals its nuances with repeated listens. Brendan Brown’s bass gets a large share of the credit here, having a presence entirely distinct from (yet interwoven with) the guitars, adding another layer to the instrumentation and giving the album a warmer, more spacey feel. Speaking as a (highly amateur) bassist myself, I appreciated the cascading bass line on Of the Leper Butterflies and I took an entirely dorky delight at the use of the use of harmonics (an underused technique in metal, wherein a sound with a clear, ringing timbre is produced on a bass guitar by plucking a string while very lightly touching a precise point at the divide between frets with the fretting hand) in Xenoflux.
By far Ne Obliviscaris’ most interesting gambit, however, is the inclusion of Tim Charles’ violin on practically an even footing with the guitars. There are plenty of metal bands who incorporate violin into their sound, either as part of an orchestral backdrop or on its own, but there aren’t many who afford it such prominence, let alone integrate it so wholly into their melodic latticework that it seems as though it always should have been there to begin with. And sure enough, it’s Charles who frequently gives Ne Obliviscaris that extra push from excellence into outright genius. His quivering vibrato notes lend the album a brittle, beautiful crystalline quality, an exquisite, erudite melancholy. Charles also contributes the record’s clean vocals, which he delivers with a slightly nasal intonation, but also a pleasant smoothness and clarity with a slightly shoegaze-ish vibe, which might speak to an awareness of French acts like Alcest or Amesoeurs. It makes for a fine counterpoint to Xenoyr’s guttural performance. Charles ensures that there remains a discernible and relatable humanity to Portal of I, even when the arrangements are at their most byzantine and Presland is enacting violations of the Geneva Convention against his kit.
I could ramble all day about the constituent elements of Portal of I; it’s an album where so much is going on that it’s difficult to know where to start, when around every corner lurks yet another awesome vista of sound. What’s most remarkable about it though, is the extent to which all of these instruments, musicians, riffs, solos, melodies and divergent styles are marshalled in the service of the final product, an utterly colossal creation, and yet, somehow, coherent. For all that it swoops and dives and twists, it remains memorable and engaging. For all its meanderings and diversions into classical and folk influenced territory, it’s absolutely never boring. For all that it draws upon a dozen different obvious touchstones and influences, it also transcends them, using them as a foothold to blaze trails into new and exciting territory. It’s an enigmatic, mysterious, invigorating and exhilarating album, one which, even at 71 minutes, is continually morphing for the entirety of its runtime, constantly unlocking new potentialities in its DNA. It represents exactly the kind of innovation metal needs right now. While so much of the genre is content to relive the glories of the 80’s or pursue lateral movement into gimmickry and genre hybridisation, Ne Obliviscaris are one of a select few demonstrating that my favourite style of music has a future of its own if it chooses to embrace it. A few days before writing this, the band announced that they were signing to Code 666 Records, who will now be distributing Portal of I outside Australia. I may have been eager to jump on this bandwagon, but I’m glad I did, because this bandwagon’s going to interesting places, and it’s gathering speed.
1) Tapestry of the Starless Abstract
3) Of the Leper Butterflies
4) Forget Not
5) And Plague Flowers the Kaleidoscope
6) As Icicles Fall
7) Of Petrichor Weaves Black Noise