It’s been twenty goddamn years since I’ve anticipated an album as much as I’ve anticipated “Exul.” And like “Exul,” that last one was also a followup to a record that, to my ears, repaved the prog metal path. And to my ears, that last anxiously-awaited album, Evergrey‘s “Recreation Day,” was a massive letdown, a limp successor that in retrospect could not have possibly lived up to the eminence of the record it followed. I was crestfallen.
“Exul” is not a letdown. Hell, even if “Exul” consisted entirely of its lead single “Equus,” it would be a worthy successor to 2017’s “Urn,” a record whose gravity and thoughtfulness left very little to desire. “Equus” opens with Martino Garattoni‘s pulsating bass and now-former drummer Dan Presland’s almost tribal tom-work unnervingly re-introducing us to the unsettling, dissonant riffs of Matt Klavins and Benji Baret. But no sooner than they unsettle us, violinist Tim Charles‘ soothing strings enter the mix and remind us that this raging brutality overlain with unspeakable beauty is the essence of the Ne Obliviscaris sound: it is at once complex and vengeful, serene and savage, and is the face of the modern era’s most elegant iteration of progressive metal. I never would have thought that “Images and Words” would one day lead to this, but holy f**k am I grateful it has. Seldom has the gentle violin paired so perfectly with the blast beat.
Charles takes the first vocal on “Exul,” his gentle voice a worthy counterpart to his violin. Charles‘ voice carries the clarity of a young LaBrie with a warmth that the Canadian wailer has always lacked. It has an earthier but by no means dirtier character that befits the tense nature of his band’s sound, and feathers rather than charges its way atop Klavins’ and Baret’s halcyon acoustic strumming and Garattoni’s jazzy throb, the transition into which is as organic as the violin it follows. Things expectedly but not predictably heavy up with the earlier dissonant riffage and percussive fury as bandleader Marc “Xenoyr” Campbell boasts some of the most menacing roars of the post Åkerfeldt/ Swanö era, a cherry atop a dessert that can only be described as progressive death exquisiteness. And this is scarcely a minute into the opening cut. A string and acoustic led interlude lead us to the “Equus” climax, where the left-handed Baret opens his blistering but by no means showy solo skills with some discomforting harmonic dive bombs before he expertly leads us to a string-skipping apogee that recalls the shredders of yore without aping them, as Charles chillingly begs for release underneath. Xenoyr takes our distress multiple steps further as the song draws to a close, leaving us in stunned sobriety as all abruptly ends. Stated bluntly, the sound of “Equus” is the sound of perfection.
Another in a long string of two-part centerpieces (see “Libera” or “Devour Me, Colossus”), “Misericorde” wastes zero time kicking us in the skulls, immediately crushing us with the abrasive riffery for which NeO is known. An atonal string break offers a cold bit of comfort before Baret briefly struts his stuff. It should be noted that “Exul” allows Klavins and especially Baret more room to shred than “Urn” did, but they wisely choose to keep their boastfulness to a minimum. For all the shred-happy moments “Exul” offers, absolutely none of it is done in service to the ego. There’s plenty of wankery for you to dive into if you feel like trudging through metal’s infancy. This? This shit’s refined, string quartets and rim-shots over relentless brutality and all. The mostly instrumental “Misericorde II: Anatomy of Quiescence” opens thusly but quietly, allowing Charles to solo away in a weeping, wistful manner that few instruments other than the violin allow. Baret then takes a jazz-inspired solo that delves into the fjoory-filled metallic rage as his companions join in on the fun. The song then takes a tense turn, as Baret and Klavins chug away in mesmeric repetition that suggests they’ve taken a liking to “Coal” era Leprous. They hypnotically hold us longer than most pop songs last as Tim and session stringer Emma Charles lull us further into trance as the song re-intensifies into another expertly-built apex. “Misericorde” is unquestionably a fine addition to its epic multi-part predecessors, and any disregard to this fact is done at the peril of those who deny its glory.
“Suspyre” and “Graal” continue in the vein NeO has long established: both are eventful and plenty heavy, with the former beginning nearly like a baroque take on “Gates of Urizen,” and the latter benefiting from a brief band tacet as Charles completes a thought. Neither break new ground for the band or the genre, and they don’t really need to do that; sometimes, mere excellence is enough. “Exul” closes with a brief piano-led passage that allows Charles to channel his inner Einer Solberg. My more critical half insists that “Anhedonia” could have better been utilized as part of a larger piece, like an intro or interlude. My more sensible half reminds me that only NeO knows NeO the way NeO does, so I keep my stupid trap shut. “Exul” was, after all, birthed just as life came to a screeching halt in March 2020, and while everything certainly sucked for all of us during that time, the global shutdown afforded “Exul” that must more time to gestate. These six cuts weren’t merely borne fully grown, they were borne fully evolved. And that evolution coming from within a unit that was already pushing progressive metal’s boundaries is a phenomenon us prog nerds must not ignore. It’s often joked that Australia tries to kill those who tread upon it, but it is breathing new life into a genre that’s often accused of succumbing to its own pretensions.
Order “Exul” HERE
Released By: Season of Mist
Released On: March 24th, 2023
Genre: Extreme Progressive Metal
- Marc “Xenoyr” Campbell – Harsh Vocals
- Tim Charles – Clean Vocals, Violin, Viola, Keyboards
- Benjamin Baret– Lead & Acoustic Guitar
- Matthew Klavins– Guitar
- Martino Garattoni – Bass
- Dan Presland – session drums / Choir
- Misericorde I – As the Flesh Falls
- Misericorde II – Anatomy of Quiescence
Absolutely worth the nearly six years wait