Formed in 2003, Australian progressive/extreme metallers Ne Obliviscaris have become one of the genre's most adored acts. That's especially commendable because they've only released three prior full-length records—2012's Portal of I, 2014's Citadel, and 2017's Urn – yet each subsequent release further established their ingeniously frenzied but elegantly symphonic chemistry.
Luckily, they've lost none of that magic on Exul. It's debatably less eccentric and playful than its predecessors, but in turn, it's exceptionally cohesive, ripened, and precisely focused, too. Regardless of if it surpasses those earlier gems, then, Exul is another masterful journey as only Ne Obliviscaris could provide.
Naturally, the line-up from Urn returns here; however, drummer Daniel Presland left in February 2022 (long after his parts were completed). In a statement issued at the time, he explained "After 16 years, I am… moving on to new and different challenges in my life," adding that the pandemic—as well as his band, Black Lava—played a part in the decision. Happily, Exul also marks the studio debut of bassist Martino Garattoni (who joined in 2017). Alongside his returning bandmates—and a few guest musicians—he's helped create a truly phenomenal experience.
As for how the LP builds upon the group's former works, harsh vocalist Xen reflects: "Overall, there's a darker core to this album, perhaps more ominous than previous releases. However abstract the lyrics are, they involve some form of unwanted departure — all journeys into torment, passion, longing and even despair. They touch on the process of physical and psychological destruction that comes from that sense or reality of being exiled, whether forced from one's land, ostracized from a community, shunned by a religion, or even simply being treated differently for being who they are."
That sobering thematic core is evident right away, as the initial battle-ready rhythms and guitar riffs of opener "Equus" exude desperation, fury, and isolation. Cleverly, Xen and clean vocalist/instrumentalist Tim Charles often sing simultaneously, using their characteristic styles as counterpoints for maximum emotional significance. All the while, feisty bass lines, piercing strings, acoustic guitar strums, and other wide-ranging timbres contribute to what's undoubtedly one of Ne Obliviscaris's most epic and versatile compositions. It's also a superb indicator of all the different approaches and sentiments to come.
On that note, the two-part "Misericorde" suite essentially fuses the band's polar opposite personas. The first section ("As the Flesh Falls") exudes scorching tech-death metal ferocity and speediness, albeit with some lighter passages strewn throughout; then, it glides delicately into the latter portion ("Anatomy of Quiescence"), a largely classical and mournful instrumental whose temperamental shifts are as fluid and beautiful as they are unpredictably tense. If push comes to shove, it does go on a bit too long, but it's nonetheless an exceptional display of the quintet's perfected chemistry.
Admittedly, the second half of the LP isn't quite as diverse and surprising, with both "Suspyre" and "Graal" serving as tightly woven amalgamations of the group's tried-and-true formula. The buoyant detour halfway into the former tune is a great touch, though, and fortunately, wordless finale "Anhedonia" works perfectly as a morose and unsettlingly coda. Its blend of grim piano chords, vocal wails, and symphonic disharmony is magnificently disturbing (just as it should be for an album of such heavy subject matter).
While Exul doesn't definitively top Ne Obliviscaris' past achievements, it surely earns a spot alongside them. In fact, it's likely their bleakest yet prettiest outing to date, with a concentrated contrast between sheer belligerence and somber orchestration. There's a fair amount of adventurousness along the way, too, in terms of both the group's arrangements and textures. Combined, these wildly different but effortlessly unified features make Exul a must-have triumph of the genre and an indispensable addition to Ne Obliviscaris' spotless catalog.