The Middle Ages hold a special allure to me, perhaps the most of all the historic ages. That's not exactly original, the fantasy genre is almost entirely based in them, as is a large part of pen & paper and computer gaming, heavy metal, many more historic movies taking place in that time instead of say, Renaissance, and so on. Personally I've wondered before why is that so, since we are clearly historically aware that it was such a backwards age. Surely, its romanticization by films and literature had its effect, but what was there to inspire it in the first place? For a start, it is sometimes forgotten that the Middle Ages had their undoubted contribution to high art, from Gothic architecture to early plainchant and early polyphony in music, the masterpieces by Perotin, Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume de Machaut, that bear this unique "spirituality" that is seldom found in music even 10 centuries after. Oh, badass knights and their castles too (back on that later).
Obsequiae is a US band from Minnesota that is, as you surely must have guessed, heavily influenced by the medieval period both in music and general aesthetic. We are greeted with a wonderful cover taken from a 15th century fresco, that depicts a typically symbolic scene of a lady out in nature, accompanied by the usual pets every hip lady should have had at the time, a unicorn, a lion and a monkey. The title of the album itself is a perfect companion to the scene and was actually what lulled me into checking the album in the first place. But, let's hit play; two folkish guitar leads kick in right ahead in counterpoint, enthusiastic, robust and bright, as exactly you would have expected the glorious morning light to sound. They are accompanied by screaming vocals and powerful drums, both sounding somewhat reserved at the same time, like well-mannered medieval lads engaging in court etiquette (ok, let's say medieval duel etiquette and be more metal). The overall style of the band seems hard to pin down, carrying a black metal feeling but featuring little blasting, tremolo picking or dissonance, not brazen enough to be labelled pagan metal, too harsh and virile to be "melodic death metal". It's actually closer to the very beginnings of the latter genre, for example the first Opeth album or the Dark Tranquility demo, in which DT, ignoring the typical thrash riffing of the era, attempted something like a bold embodiment of nature in its beauty and ferocity alike, exactly as the "Vernal Awakening" title sums up.
To be more precise, the medieval elements in the music of Obsique are closer to the folk music of troubadours than the churchy stuff I mentioned in the beginning; even the pseudonyms of the two members are actual names of musicians from the 12-13th century, even though the polyphony that characterizes the interplay between the guitar tracks of the album wasn't really heard until Renaissance, when composers starting making polyphonic compositions out of these folky, bouncy melodies we've came to associate with jousting, tavern partying and so on. Not that this is important, as Obsequiae are clearly a metal band, not some medieval fest re-enactment troupe. In a metal band, there is almost always an extra-musical will that drives the creation, something beyond historicism, epistemology, a personal will-to-power that concerns this very world, even if obscured by reference to fantastic ones. Especially in such a regal, high-brow band such as Obsequiae.
Feeling this, I was disappointed not to receive any lyrics in the BC download, site, or wherever else, so my only point of reference was an Invisible Oranges interview of the band. In which, however, apart from the lyric absence being justified rather crudely (I get it about the cd insert, don't see why they couldn't be uploaded somewhere) we at least get a sum-up of the lyric themes (" dreamlike fantasies which attempt to illustrate simple tasks, observations, or notions and carry their symbolism into greater realizations "). Still, my questions mostly remain answered; what is in the medieval age that fascinates the band? Well, not "medieval history, fantasy novels, role-playing, video games, weapons", but just medieval music and instruments and... castles. Concerning which, the band also takes heed to note that "anyone who dislikes castles is probably a dick". I don't dislike castles, but I can think of a few reasons why someone would.
You see, sometimes we forget that castles were the exclusive residence of middle ages nobility, the class that emerged out of the feudal system to amass local power. Lords and knights have been always portrayed conveniently as the humble protectors of the weak, when in reality they were land-lords that employed large populations of peasants in their farms, to harness almost all of the wealth coming from their work, in exchange for protection (or, obviously, "protection", at times). There were as responsible for epic feats of bravery, for patronizing the arts, as they were for maintaining the all-known misery, poverty and rigid hierarchical system of the middle ages. This is actually where my concern about medieval-inspired metal lies; it's no lie that as the larger part of the power and resplendence of the ages comes from the aristocracy, there is often an implied, or perhaps subconscious endorsement (and a meeting point with some contemporary right-wing politics) of it by many bands within the "genre". However, I would not lump Obsequiae into this category, for not only there are no such references, but interestingly the lyrics to "The Wounded Fox" posted in the I.O. interview depict an inversion of the state of power between the hunter and the haunted, an antithesis to the ideal of perpetual, hierarchical, supposedly "natural" order that must be maintained in such a worldview. Hopefully they don't think I'm a dick too.
Getting back to the music, the only drawback that I can attest to is that the mood does not differentiate that much throughout the album; certainly Obsequiae have a distinguishable, personal style, characterized by an interchange of mid tempo folkish guitar leads with faster, tremolo riffing parts that could be labeled as melodic black metal or death metal, depending on the case. After the first half of the album has passed, there aren't many surprises to be found though, not because there isn't variety in the wealth of musical influences, but because the mood that they are presented wavers between regal lyrical and regal angry. But this is just a minor complaint, as the quality almost never diminishes. Indeed, what shines on is the spectacular musicality of the band. Besides the already lauded intricate guitar harmonies, courtesy of (also Celestiial main-man) Blondel Del Nestle, praise must be given to the airy delivery of Neidhart von Reuental on the drums, as also for some nice bass lines that pop out once in a while. Although the band plays often quite technical parts, there is a finesse in the delivery that makes the music really breathe and succeed in its goal, also aided by a dynamic and spacey, non pro-tools sounding mix that works great, especially when listened in headphones. Also noted must be the classical guitar instrumentals, in a purely medieval style that sounds like actual transcriptions, that serve as interludes between the metal songs. The highlights of the album lie for me (not surprisingly I guess) in the moments when the band emphasizes the melodic black metal influence, such as in the epic "In the White Fields", the menacing "The Starlit Shore", not to ignore the excellent instrumental outro of the album, "Cabin Lights" that actually ends sooner than I would like.
"Suspended In the Brume of Eos" is one of the finest metal albums I've heard lately, that places Obsequiae in the esteemed category of the bands that I hold the most expectations for the future. Perhaps the only thing missing is them defining themselves in a more assured manner; in some ways (from the absence of lyrics, to the band choosing a certain obscurity both in presentation and attitude) this feels like a well-done project rather than a "main" band. Acknowledging that I am projecting my own interpretation and expectations in a supposedly objective manner, I'd like to see more clearly what they are "about" and what is their will-to-power. Neidhart mentions in the I.O. interview that "the best heavy metal has always been mired into escapism and mysticism". But, the best heavy metal has been that which was able to create and reflect, out of the escapist freedom, meaningful and powerful visions and realizations about the very real world.