Patience, they say, is a virtue, which must, therefore, make me extremely virtuous indeed because I’ve been waiting for ‘Oblivion’ for nigh on two years, ever since Noctem unleashed ‘Divinity’ back in 2009. Spain’s answer to Behemoth are a revelation – a relentless, remorseless killing machine, finely honed and capable of the most astonishing feats of brutality yet possessed of an innate intelligence that sees their incisive riffs welded to intelligent, thoughtful lyrics and a commitment to writing complex and gloriously brutal songs which linger long after the album has spun to a halt and which invite repeat visits in order to truly appreciate the beautifully crafted elements which make up the whole.
‘Oblivion’ then, does not disappoint and whether you’re a fan hoping that this new release is going to top its predecessor (it does) or a newcomer wanting to blown away (you will be) this is a confident and intelligent work of art. Opening with the brief calm-before-the-storm of ‘Popol vuh’ which introduces eerie soundscapes and tribal drums, the album smashes a steel-clad boot down on any expectations you might have with the intense ‘the arrival of the false gods’, a stunning opening gambit that draws you straight into the world of Beleth and co. with jaw droppingly violent riffs and drums pounding away in the most brutally mechanistic display this side of the Berzerker backed up by the sort of state-of-the-art production job that has been making the recent thrash revival so powerful. However, it’s not just about speed and brutality. Multiple tempos and riffs abound and the songs are carefully crafted for maximum impact, with abrupt shifts in mood lending a greater overall power to the lightning fast passages and allowing lead guitarist Exo space to shine without being overpowered by the brutal crunch of the drums. Next up is ‘universal disorder’, a blackened work that opens with a chugging central riff before clawing its way to the next level with a swirling display of violence that sees the guitar riffs form a vortex around Beleth’s mercurial vocal performance which proves to be hypnotic in effect, dragging you ever closer to the dark heart of Noctem’s world.
Without so much as a pause for breath, the brutal grind of ‘Abnegation and brutality’ kicks in with the sort of pneumatic drum assault that made Bolt Thrower such a powerful force, coupled with Beleth’s stunning vocals and guitars set to stun, it is liable to leave you wide-eyed and staggering under the sheer weight of the various riffs that the band deploy. Make no mistake – Noctem have always been a powerful band, but this takes their song-writing and skills to the next level and everything about this album gleams with the warm glow of hellfire and sulphur thanks to the care and attention lavished on the recording by the band. ‘Invictus’ pushes things even further with a frenzied attack that is akin to sharks scenting blood in the water. Yet for all its fire and fury there is an innate intelligence behind the vicious blast beats and searing guitars. Lyrically the band reference Eastern philosophy and mythology and do so in a way that is ornate and well-written and the music provides the perfect accompaniment for these expositions upon the soul, offering up subtle interludes and multiple variations upon a theme, often in the same song, amidst the raging darkness. No less impressive is ‘sons of Hun-Vucub’ which opens with a bug-eyed urgency and proceeds to trample the listener underfoot with a complete disregard for the discarded humanity it leaves behind. The production here, as throughout the album, is outstanding and it’s nice to hear an album of this type produced with a clarity and precision that allows every instrument to shine without being overpowered by the drums or vocals. Moreover the band themselves deserve credit for their pared down approach, with tracks carefully crafted rather than endlessly embellished and ‘pro-tooled’ to death giving the album a primal urgency that it might otherwise have lacked.
‘Seeking the ruin of souls’ continues in the same vein – a pummelling drum attack that barely lets up over the course of the song, gravel-throated vocals and guitars adding elements of melody to the overall proceedings while they simultaneously attempt to trepan your skull with their relentless barrage of distorted hatred. It is powerful stuff and can be overpowering if you’re in the wrong mood, but overall if an ounce of metal surges through your veins then you’ll find this album hits home on every level. More technical, and utterly astonishing is the symphonic, epic ‘unredemption’ which sees the band add orchestral flourishes to the mix although the track is no less brutal than anything else on offer here, it’s simply approached in a different way which adds light and shade to the album in general. It also happens to be one of the best tracks on the disc and if you are in any doubt over whether my glowing praise is valid or not you should track it down post-haste and see for yourself how phenomenally tight, heavy and impressive Noctem are in full flight. Next is the impossible-to-pronounce ‘q’uma’rka’aaj’ which proves to be a rather stunning instrumental complete with atmospheric choral touches. Like an oasis in the desert it simmers gently, as if you’ve stumbled from the heat and burning sand into a haven of temporary respite which soon becomes shattered by ‘a borning [sic] winged snake’ which recalls elements of Dimmu Borgir as well as hints of Emperor’s surreal majesty. Once again featuring huge riffs and detailed lyrics it’s another storming track and it is with some disappointment that you realise that ‘Oblivion’ is the final track, albeit a great one. Slowing the pace considerably, the guitars buzz and hiss like coiled vipers while the drums continue to chip away at what little remains of your sanity finally closing the doors upon the light and leaving you ensnared in Noctem’s beautiful web of darkness until, following a suitable period, a ‘hidden’ track erupts from your speakers with all the force of a volcanic eruption and you’re left demented following one last hint of stunningly extreme metal.
It has been a long wait for ‘Oblivion’ but it has been worth it. Powerful, intelligently written and with an attitude and style that is all their own, Noctem have surpassed their own excellent back catalogue and created a grime encrusted gem to set into their crown. This is an album that you can return to time and again and each time find something new, and while superficially it is as abrasive as you might expect, a huge amount of detail has gone into each song , repaying time spent with the album in spades. Not just a great black/death metal album but a great metal album period – ‘oblivion’ is Noctem’s highest point to date.