Oak’s Third Masterpiece – “The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise”

Oak, The Quiet Rebellion Of Compromise, 2022, Karisma Records,
Tracks:
Highest Tower, Deepest Well (5:57), Quiet Rebellion (4:51), Dreamless Sleep (5:37), Sunday 8 AM (5:54), Demagogue Communion (6:16), Paperwings (13:52), Guest of Honour (7:03)

Oslo’s Oak have been my favorite “new” band since I discovered them in 2016 when they released their 2013 album, Lighthouse, on CD. The album blew me away. I had never before heard rock, classical, and atmospheric music synthesized with such precision and in such a beautiful way. I was equally if not more stunned with their 2018 follow-up, False Memory Archive. It continued their sound, and it saw the band mature as they developed their wall of sound, their compositions, and their arrangements.

In November the band released The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise, a masterpiece standing toe-to-toe with both their previous releases and any release from the giants of the genre (I’m looking at you Marillion, Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson, Big Big Train). Upon first listen I thought perhaps this record didn’t live up to its predecessor, but that was based upon my mild shock at some of the new elements the band added to their sound. After a few listens, their brilliance convinced me. I don’t typically rate albums for my Progarchy reviews, but in this case I give it a 10 out of 10.

This record includes the atmospheric overtones, the piano, the swelling rock sounds, singer Simen Valldal Johannessen’s deep brooding vocals and his evocative lyrics – everything the previous albums contained. But they’ve included more of the electronic influence to their sound on this record. While always there, it is more pronounced, especially on “Paperwings.” Typically not a genre I listen to, I wasn’t sure how to respond to the electronic elements at first, but after careful listens, I came to appreciate how it fit into the music and into the band’s sound.

Another element I did not expect was the introduction of black metal-style distorted vocals. I don’t listen to black metal, but I’m familiar with the unique form of distortion those vocalists use. It’s different from the type of metal I typically listen to, which tends to use either a grittier distortion (Meshuggah) or a higher-end distortion (Devin Townsend). Black metal vocals are low and smooth, befitting Johannessen’s natural singing voice. To be clear, he uses it on four lines on “Paperwings,” and considering the lyrical content of the album, it fits perfectly. The album covers intense themes of mental health and suicide, with the font used on the album cover based upon handwriting from actual suicide notes. Chilling, to say the least. But the band did their research, consulting scholars and mental health professionals. All that to say, the distorted vocals, while new to Oak’s sound, are used sparingly and to great effect when you consider these lyrics in the light of suicidal thoughts:

One thought takes hold
Seeps out rules all
Lights fade, time bends
One step so it ends

Oak – “Paperwings”

It took me over ten listens before I picked up on distorted growls deep in the mix on other tracks, not singing any particular lyrics – just adding to the band’s wall of sound. I think it appears in two places, and it’s very subtle. I’ll let you listen for it.

I appreciate how the band reach back into their previous work and pull in brief lyrical and musical excerpts, tying this record to those others and creating a sense of continuation. In doing so, Oak create their own mystique – a musical world you can fall into and feel like you’re somewhere else. Interestingly, it makes me feel connected to potential future albums as well.

Musically Oak blows me away. Whether its Johannessen’s soothing piano, Sigbjørn Reiakvam’s intricate drumming, Stephan Hvinden’s atmospheric guitars, or Øystein Sootholtet’s basswork (as well as acoustic and electric guitar and keyboards) – this band stands out. Steinar Refsdal adds some wonderful saxophone, which dances nicely atop the wall of sound created in the swelling instrumental passages that have become a signature part of Oak’s sound.

One of my favorite parts on the album is the bassline in the second half of “Sunday 8 AM.” The first half of the song is a bit of slow burn for me, but when it hits the instrumental part halfway through, I’m in musical heaven. The drums sing, the piano and keyboards build gently, and then that deep bassline comes in – wow. The musical highlight of the year for me. Even when the saxophone comes in on top of that, it’s the bass that steals the show with a memorable line that makes you want to skip back to the beginning of the instrumental passage once the song ends. I can’t even imagine how amazing this would be live.

I’ve mentioned the “wall of sound” a couple of times. What I mean by that is the way the band layer and gradually add (or subtract) musical elements to create a sound more majestic and powerful than any of the parts taken in isolation. Devin Townsend and Steven Wilson are masters of this sound, and I would place Oak up with them in terms of quality and its prominence on their records. It also helps that the album is mixed very well. There is a lot of dynamic range, with the record sounding very clear. They’ve also played a bit with the stereo mix, with some of the programmed sounds or percussion dancing around the mix.

The band use a variety of sounds, some of which have become staples in their music – percussion sounds I haven’t heard other bands use, thus making Oak’s music instantly identifiable for me. By including them on this record, I feel a sense of nostalgia to when I first started listening to Oak five years ago, even if the band have begun to include other elements in their sound. It still sounds unmistakably like them. They also include spoken tracks, probably from other sources like movies, which help add to the mystique. “Paperwings” has a passage with a hypnotist speaking to a patient over a calm musical section, which immediately proceeds a heavier and more chaotic section that eventually includes the distorted vocals. Musically we are drawn into the hypnosis with the subject.

Oak know how to end an album like few bands. “Psalm 51” off False Memory Archive may be one of the best album closers I’ve ever heard. The musical build-up to end the song is absolutely perfect. You’re left completely satisfied. I don’t think “Guest of Honour” is quite that good, but it was a high bar to match. Nevertheless, it’s a great song. The lyrics, “Walking blind through damp corridors / Piercing sounds, of footsteps or guns / Racing heart – I’m wearing you out” have particularly stuck with me, especially that last line.

The physical CD comes in a digipack, making it the nicest of their physical releases thus far. I’m sure the vinyl is even more stunning. I liked the album art from their first two albums a lot more than this, because I felt those fit the band’s aesthetic better. With that said, there’s something very unsettling about the expression on the face of the female bust on the cover, which given the subject matter on the album seems entirely the point. Suicide and mental health concerns are inherently unsettling.

It didn’t take long for The Quiet Rebellion of Compromise to blow everything else out of the way at the top of my best albums of the year list. It’s an album I can listen to over and over again, finding new bits to enjoy and investigate after many listens. That’s one of the things I’ve loved about their previous records. I can keep listening and never grow tired of them, and it appears this record has that same quality. Oak are a criminally under-appreciated band that deserve widespread attention. They’re one of the most imaginative bands in the genre right now, and they aren’t to be missed. Everything they have done is worth paying attention to. It isn’t often that a band like this comes around. Don’t let the close of the year pass without diving into this record.

https://www.oakinoslo.com
https://oakinoslo.bandcamp.com/album/the-quiet-rebellion-of-compromise
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Storm of the Light’s Bane

Straddling Gothenburg death and Norwegian black metal, at the margin of what we might term as consonance and coarseness, resides Dissection. Crossing genre and aesthetic boundaries, Storm of the Light’s Bane prods listener into conflicting paths. Responses to this could vary, from a nodding reverence of those exquisite guitar passages, to a chilling silence, or just a morbid mosh-pit. Channeling their Scandinavian contemporaries, Dissection simply shapes their own brand of occult romanticism, often more despondent and atmospheric.

Extending the boundaries of aggression and poetry, these compositions are constantly shifting their contours. Adequately complemented by the drifts in lyrical prose — “I drown in the colour of your eye, for a black heart will only find beauty in darkness“– simultaneously conveys the elegance of an autumn night and dual guitar harmonies. With vocal textures reflecting the gloom in lyrics, Nödtveidt adds a layer of darkness unlike any other. Channeling divergent strands, and yet in perfect harmony, Storm of the Light’s Bane is one of those meticulous crafts. The rare ones illustrating extreme metal in all its glory and quirks. Described in Nödtveidt’s own lyrics — “Forged in blood by tragedy” — album leaves a lasting mental imprint.

Dissection_live_in_2005.jpg: Shadowgatederivative work: Elizabeth Bathory, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Exercises in Futility

When that punk coarseness is braided with some outside influences, black metal becomes something more. Whether it’s ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’, ‘Nemesis Divina’ or the stunning ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ — it’s crassness with sophistication, that has elevates the genre to unusual heights. Exercises in Futility is not completely rooted in the 90s, but they channel that very sensibility, and same crudeness with atmospheric elegance.

Mgła mellows that black metal fury, almost like they applied some post-metal filters to a Burzum sound. With that constant strumming interleaved with adequate doses of tremolo picking and blast beats, the sound here becomes more streamlined. In short, there are no jarring temporal switches, but more tempting progressions. It’s not an all-out melodic assault like Dissection or Watain, but a more contoured, and structured aggression. But, quite like the black metal greats, Mgła is also moving the genre forward, beyond the confines of its Norwegian creators.

 

 

S. Bollmann [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas

For an album which emerged out of utter chaos, De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas is flawlessly breathtaking. Just imagine, some of the real world events surrounding its release included suicide, murder conviction, conspiracy and deception. An ancient Greek philosopher once said — “The whole is more than the sum of its parts” – never been this evident. Musically and culturally, seems like Mayhem just defined the pinnacle of Norwegian black metal, which includes all its marvels and malice.

The album derives on that Darkthrone like dissent, the same aesthetic and cultural statement. But then proceeds to elevate black metal to a stunning jazz like refinement. It’s sophisticated and raw, complex and grounded, malevolent and dazzling. A rare infernal blend. Beneath the layers of intricate drums, riffs and abominable vocals is a sheer morbid coherence. Halfway into the record Csihar wails – “The past is alive” – followed by a staggering Hellhammer drum passage. Just about then you will realize, the album is unforgiving, and it’s just not going to relent on that technical intensity.

***************** Image Attribution ***********************
By Cecil [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Immortal and Megadeth

Two brand new releases — one a remastered version of 80s metal, the other a brand new single. Compositions separated by decades, but illustrating raw melody in its most natural habitat — old school black and thrash metal — at threatening velocity. Immortal and Megadeth school of craft is on stunning display. Records developed in different eras, but still sharing a common context; Mustain proving he can play as well, or better, than Metallica — and Immortal going into studios for the first time without Abbath.

Killing Is My Business… and Business Is Good is already a classic, its testament is simply its massive influence. Immortal’s new single takes no prisoners, they launch headlong into an aggression totally missing from their last few works. An icy chill descends, rewinding music to the darkest corners of mid-90s. Worth mentioning there are striking 1349 like qualities here, another essential Norwegian talent. If the whole album is even a fraction as good as “Northern Chaos Gods”, we are in for an early winter.

—– Image Attribution
By Mark Coatsworth [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Decibel Metal & Beer Fest, 2018

An Easter weekend music fest might seem whimsical – but it’s heavy metal – and it is Decibel fest. Except for some metalheads and lost travellers, an otherwise crowded Philadelphia streets were absolutely deserted by Sunday. At the Gates on Easter Eve and those picturesque Old City images on a drizzling Sunday morning – Decibel fest Day 2 had the best of preludes.

Spectral Voice, with an absolutely dim stage lighting and a matching sound is an ideal opener. Dial down those doom metal like qualities and we pretty much get the sound created by New York City death metallers — Incantation. The final three bands seek no introduction or picturesque settings. They would simply make their mark even in the void. The calmness with which Repulsion vented dissonance might have defied all the laws of physics. These grindcore veterans, perfectly composed on stage, wrecked pandemonium below.

Needless to say, Mayhem would simply double down. After that initial intimidating stage presence, an unprecedented frenzy befell. The Fillmore has seen its performances, but here the decibels were off the charts. Only the fittest survived to finally face Carcass. Two days of beer and dissonance ending with an unyielding train — of grindcore and melodic death — riffs which simply explain metal as we know it.

As Fire Swept Clean the Earth

Ivar Bjørnson (from Enslaved) talks to Decibel about his favorite song from Below the Lights.

I feel we reached a new level with the band with that song. It felt like I had broken some kind of code for the band in terms of communicating something emotional, atmosphere. We kept the rawness and aggression, but we managed to sneak in something more tender, a bit more fragile into the body of destruction, aggression and madness that extreme metal is about.

Almost a year ago, an obscure post at Progarchy:

Enslaved blends that melancholic overtones of ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ with the ferocity of Viking metal….We can safely state; abstraction of the quirky melodic aspects of a ‘Selling England by the Pound’ and placing it within the context of 90s extreme metal has now been accomplished – with captivating surgical precision.”

Excuse the brazen self-promotion, but the mighty Ivar Bjørnson did sort of confirm my modest take. Or maybe it’s just my sleep deprivation and high blood caffeine levels talking — that 35000 ft perception – from a flight to the Atlantic coast for an Easter weekend with the likes of Incantation, Mayhem, At the Gates and Carcass.

Phoenix Rising

Among the best to have emerged from Down Under is this band named Deströyer 666. Feels like they only entertain one single goal – destroy even the last remaining understated qualities in metal. And that’s exactly what they accomplish. Synthesized from black and thrash elements, Phoenix Rising takes extreme metal aesthetics to unprecedented loudness.

Rough harping choruses, over-the-top guitar melodies, black metal screams and galloping old school riffs. In short, 80s/90s heavy metal signatures exaggerated to the point of no return. From “Rise of the Predator“ to “I Am the Wargod” to “The Eternal Glory of War” – lyrics pretty much mirror exactly what the music conveys. With this brazen approach, they will manage to get through to even the most obtuse of listeners. With no frills old school structures, a style absolutely devoid of pretenses and adequate in substance – Deströyer 666 becomes that essential cross-over band to darker genres. Needless to say, album is rated 666/666.

By Christian Misje (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons