If there’s one genre you really wouldn’t have expected to enjoy runaway success outside of its own confines, it’s black metal. It’s by its very definition inaccessible, and typically conjures up images of grimacing men with painted faces lunging in the snow and shrieking about Satan. However, times are changing; genres are flowering open and becoming more fluid, and Oathbreaker, similarly to their labelmates in Deafheaven, have taken a style of music traditionally reserved for raging purists and blended it with their own sound to create something beautiful. The result is ‘Rheia’, 10 tracks of shimmering devastation that will be haunting countless Best Of lists for this year.
We’re lulled into a false sense of security with opener ’10:56′; Caro Tanghe‘s haunting vocal delivery is almost Bjork-like in the way it swells from a whisper to a croon and back again. Lyrically it’s graphic, but it washes over so beautifully it’s hard to care, but that sense of calm doesn’t last for long and, from the first millisecond of the following ‘Second Son Of R’, the listener is savagely pummelled by thunderous blastbeats, and an almost inhuman shrieking vocal. The shift in tone is so drastic that it’s literally impossible to have this as background music; your full attention is required whether you like it or not. There are a few more serene moments throughout, but whenever it feels like everything might be okay, there’ll be another harrowing moment to bring the listener right back down to hell, and none more so than the vocals at the end of this second track, which sound like the cries of someone who is in dire need of an exorcist.
One of the surprising highlights of ‘Rheia’ is the acoustic ‘Stay Here / Accroche-Moi’, which comes as a welcome break from the bleakness that came before, and it leads beautifully into the one-two punch of ‘Needles In Your Skin’ and ‘Immortals’. The former is a twisting serpent of a song and features a gut-wrenching breakdown, and generally has more dynamic shifts than you’d find on some full albums, whilst the latter is utterly rapturous with layered vocals and a more straightforward, driving rhythm.
Really though, to describe this album in terms of individual tracks doesn’t do it justice, as to be digested properly it needs a proper, front-to-back listen. It’s more of an art installation than an album, and contains enough power to tangibly change moods and atmospheres.
Ultimately, this probably isn’t an album for genre elitists, and will likely receive its fair share of criticism, but what truly ambitious album doesn’t? For the open minded, however, this mix of black metal, post-rock, and hardcore will only further serve to blur the lines of what is and isn’t “acceptable” in alternative music and force other bands to push themselves to their artistic limits. Bleak, challenging, and uncompromising, ‘Rheia’ could well be the most important release of 2016.
Written by Liam Knowles (@wearefixtures)