What do we mean when we use the word "atmospheric" to define a piece of music?
In a bland sense, all music has an "atmosphere." After all, music is, at its base level, just a series of sound waves emitted from some sort of device. It has no intrinsic power or value besides what we grant it. Yet, we have a common understanding that certain types of music provoke different feelings, images, and reactions in the consciousness of the listener. So when we say that music is atmospheric, perhaps this means that its creator or subsequently its receiver perceives something consistent and thematic in it. When we talk about atmospheric black metal, it's usually to denote a sound that has more of a flow than a bite, and more naturalistic themes than blasphemous ones. Usually, it's a vague attempt to rip off Ulver's Bergtatt—slap some pine trees on the cover and call it a day.
Sometimes though a band comes along that creates an atmosphere all their own and makes their music flow and soar in totally different ways. Minneapolis' Obsequiae is one of those bands. Through brilliant alchemy of blue-cover black metal, those pine-tree sounds, the melodic feel of Hellenic black metal, and a variety of other noises, the band has created what some call "castle metal." The band's use of guitars envelops the listener in riffs and melodies that gleam brightly across the air, as steady rhythms and harsh, reverb-heavy vocals piece the narrative together. This combines to create an almost regal sound, one that takes on themes of classic medieval literature and avoids making those themes cheesy. Think the theatrical production of Shakespeare's Henry V (either the Kenneth Branaugh or Lawrence Olivier versions will do), rather than a more Dragonheart-esque affair akin to power metal.
The band honed this style through its early years as Autumnal Winds, sounding a bit more like Dance of December Souls-era Katatonia than the Sacramentum worship they'd later adopt. After changing their name and putting out a couple more releases, the band truly stunned underground listeners in 2015 with Aria of Vernal Tombs, which took the various threads and wove them into a glorious tapestry.
The Palms of Sorrowed Kings is a continuation of the same excellence, but one that takes a few different shapes and forms. The band has put more power into the drumming, more force behind the riff-writing and more variation in the song structures. The overall feeling is still the same, but there's more to discover this time around. The head-banging fun of "Ceres in Emerald Streams" makes it the album's definite highlight and ensures the listener that, while there's a lot of flow to the sound, this is still a metal album.
Other peak moments include the riff-packed "In the Garden of Hyacinths," in which the guitar harmonies create an almost "shining" effect, something the band specializes in and does like no other. There's also the clean-vocal climax of the title track, and the blending of vocal approaches on "Morrigan." The remainder of the album has a consistent level of quality, each song with its own peaks to traverse. This even includes Vicente La Camera Mariño's medieval harp interludes—these serene passages add something essential to the listening experience.
In any review, there's a silent pressure to try and find something to quibble with to establish some sense of objectivity. But to the dungeons with all that. This album is simply a triumph. It creates a mood and brings forth images of medieval legends and classical mythology, without making it overly cheesy and kitschy. For listeners looking for raw, melodic and imaginative black metal, Obsequiae's new album nothing short of a sublime sonic experience.
Favorite songs: "Ceres in Emerald Streams," "In the Garden of Hyacinths," "The Palms of Sorrowed Kings," "Morrígan" and "Asleep in the Bracken"