Wednesday, April 16, 2014

album review: 'the oath' by the oath

Let's talk briefly about simplicity in music.

Now I tend to get a lot of... well, let's call it constructive criticism on my pop reviews saying that, 'Man, it's just pop music, it's not trying to be high art, you're too hard on it!'. And while there are points where that has been true, here's my common rebuttal to that statement: good pop music - indeed, good pop art - can require just as much, if not more talent as any other brand of art. Crafting something that has artistic purpose and can appeal to a wider demographic besides yourself, that isn't easy. And on a similar note, creating something compelling from a decidedly simple formula can be just as difficult. Sure, if you can play a couple chords you can probably make a decent pop song from that foundation, but making that foundation special so it can transcend that simplicity is an entirely different challenge.

So when you move into riff-based punk and hard rock, you might notice some of the compositions of the songs are pretty damn simple when it comes to chords and progressions. And yet through delivery, through songwriting, through presentation and production, you can make something entirely unique. But even putting that aside, there's something to be said for purity, refining a simple approach down into something so visceral and effective. I keep bringing up Andrew W.K., but there's a reason why his album I Get Wet is a near-classic in my books: it takes a simplistic approach to composition, lyrics, and delivery, but it uses that simplicity in creating powerful melodic hooks and pumping everything up to larger than life status. It's a perfect fusion of artistic intent and execution, and it's a reason why simple hard-edged, riff-based rock and metal will never go out of style, in that quest to perfect that visceral thrill.

As such, I was really looking forward to the debut album from the German heavy metal act The Oath, who were already building a reputation for monstrously powerful riffing that called back to the classic years of heavy metal. So I bought the album and prepared myself for a glorious trip back to the past. Did I get it?

Well, for the most part, I did, because the self-titled album from The Oath is pretty damn good and embodies exactly what it wants to be: a straightforward, unsubtle, hard-hitting riff-based heavy metal album. And while I wouldn't quite call it great or something you must hear, it's definitely a blast from the past that I did enjoy, if only because it's refreshing to see an act nail the basics so damn well. 

For a shift, let's discuss the lyrics and themes first, and I can summarize my feelings on this in five words: the lyrics really don't matter. They aren't particularly great from a composition standpoint and there are definitely your fair share of songwriting cliches, but they aren't bad either. If anything, they're conventional, with a lot of common elements you'd find in heavy metal songwriting, with the only element I really noted as interesting was the recurring motif of the number 7, which from the satanic numerology I've read tends to flip back and forth whether or not it's inscribed to God or Lucifer. From the presentation here, I'm guessing the latter. Oh, and there's a pretty defiantly Satanic bent to this material, but with the grimy, retro-70s vibe and some occasionally decent flourishes lyrically in evoking that darkness, it was executed well-enough. 

What was interesting was how defiantly straightforward The Oath are in putting forward some pretty dark imagery that isn't exactly violent - it's more nihilistic than outwardly aggressive. But then again, it makes sense with the band's instrumental presentation, which doesn't opt to overpower the listener in darkness than create the atmosphere and simply engage in it with hard riffs and solid melodies. And when The Oath sticks to that, they make some great heavy metal, with punchy guitar at the front of the mix, prominent bass, and echoing bass drums. And I can't stress that the riffs on songs like 'All Must Die', 'Night Child', 'Black Rainbow', and especially 'Silver & Dust' are some of the most catchy and potent riff-based hooks you'll hear this year. However, you can tell the band has some influences from doom metal in creating that atmosphere, and for the most part it works well - although I'd make the argument it doesn't play to their strengths as well. The fact is, whenever the band steps away from the riffs for more atmospheric moments, like on 'Leaving Together' or the album closer 'Psalm 7', they don't quite feel as tight or well-structured. If anything, these transitions feel a little unnecessarily jerky, and when compared to the tighter tracks, they suffer a bit. On top of that, the production here doesn't strike me as the greatest fit for doom metal: it's a little claustrophobic and tighter, and never really develops a lot of weight.

This takes us to our lead singer Johanna Sadonis. Now she's a good singer, she has a fair amount of presence from where she's positioned in the mix, and while I don't think she delivers a lot of emotion, she does earn her keep on this album. And she's easily one of the highlights for the doom-inspired tracks, as her serious delivery and presence really does wonders for expanding the atmosphere. But on the faster, riff-based songs, it's almost palpable the shift in tone between Sadonis' striking yet cleaner vocals and the rough edge of the guitars, and it doesn't quite feel cohesive. Maybe if she delivered a little more visceral emotion or rasp it would balance out a little better, and it certainly would have helped the overall atmosphere.

In the end, I like this album. It's defiantly old-school in its approach to heavy metal, and it definitely wears its influences on its sleeve, but when the hooks and presentation are this good, probably even enough to have stood out in the eras from which they draw, you can't really call them a throwback. But despite how great the hooks are, the richness of the atmosphere, and the great cohesive interplay, I don't quite think I love this album. As much as the lyrics don't hurt this album, they don't exactly help it either, and while Sadonis is a very good vocalist, I'm not convinced her vocal delivery has the visceral punch or emotive weight to match the instrumentation just yet. But in reality, I'm going to weigh on the side of optimism and give this album an 8/10 and a definite recommendation. This is raw, riff-based heavy metal to the core, and of debut acts coming out this year, The Oath is one you don't want to miss.

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