Discounting the formative, retrospectively uncharacteristic Retribution – well received at the time but juvenilia in hindsight – Obscura launched themselves to the forefront of the technical death metal movement with 2009's Cosmogenesis. The big question leading into this year's Omnivium was what, if anything, they could do to top that previous effort.
It seems that when any forward thinking group comes off the heels of a near masterpiece, critics and fans alike ratchet anticipation of the follow up to godlike expectations, those expectations forming the foundation for accolades and hyperbole which – barring abject failure on the band's part – will cement itself as prophetic truth once the album finally drops. If approaching such an assessment from a purely linear artistic trajectory… sorry, I'm here to tell you that Omnivium is not quite the career-topping classic that Retribution only hinted at.
That doesn't necessarily make it a retread either. It simply means that there are trade-offs between the two, with the melodic inclination of 2009's "Orbital Elements" giving way this time around to the Morbid Angel-like heaviness of "Ocean Gateways", the catchy hooks of "Anticosmic Overload" yielding in 2011 to the augmented technicality of "A Transcendental Serenade". Certainly these elements are present to some degree on both releases, but there is a sliding scale of emphasis between the two that will ultimately determine which album any individual fan would prefer.
In short, if the primary draw of Retribution for you was the technicality, but you yearned for the shredding to be taken to the next level and the ante to be raised on the brutality, you'll find Omnivium the band's best work yet; conversely, if you enjoyed the technicality of Retribution but mainly appreciated the focus on accessible songwriting, large parts of Omnivium may seem somewhat esoteric… accomplished, certainly, but a bit formless and abstract nonetheless. Certainly there is melody to be found on this new effort, but here it's largely centered around guitar leads, with the vocals maintaining a gruff, traditional death metal grunt throughout (again: Morbid Angel being a solid reference point) as opposed to the more nuanced, often catchy singing on Retribution. Similarly, the rhythm guitars this time work mostly in the service of providing a backdrop for the shredding rather than grinding out memorable riffs.
The differences are subtle enough that this hardly marks a reinvention on Obscura's behalf. There are a variety of moving parts in the band's sound, with the shared workload shifting unevenly between those parts from one album to the next. Yet there remains much room for growth in bringing all those parts together, and if they ever find themselves bringing together the peaks of melodic songwriting (Retribution) and virtuoso shredding (Omnivium) on the same album (rather than focusing on one element largely at the expense of the other) Obscura will finally have their first true, eclectic masterpiece on their hands. Until then, the elite level they've been operating at for the past two years needs little apology; if Omnivium is not quite the "next level" monster some people expected, that may just mean they didn't quite give Retribution its due respect last time around.
9 out of 10
Omnivium is out now on Relapse.