On Obscura and metal albums as song collections

obscuraTracklist

Arising from modern popular music, underground metal has retained many vestigial traits that several artists have consciously tried to erase and that some observers have started to question as detrimental to the effective expression of the genre. As the title of this article reveals, the case in point is the matter of albums as song collections. A good example of this becoming a hindrance to the message of the music is Gorguts’ Obscura.

Clocking in at one hour, Obscura consists of twelve songs, a little over the typical ten tracks of metal albums since the mid 1970s. The number ten has traditionally been associated with wholeness or completeness. In the most mainstream heavy metal circles it is considered only right to fill that exact number. No more, no less. A lot of death and black metal albums have veered slightly away from this rule and tend close their albums with eight or twelve tracks. Grindcore degenerates have never let numbers stand in their way and have completely given the finger to this rule as Repulsion, Napalm Death and Blood have shown us with their two-digit track lists.

The reason why more original and progressive-minded artists pay no attention to these unofficial guidelines is because whatever the artist has to say in an album should not be restricted by too many tracks. Even worse than being limited by the number of tracks is having to fill up tracks in order to reach the required number. This is precisely how we get the albums with “filler” tracks. Tracks nobody cares for but which make the album more “meaty” for those who care about such things.

More important than the adherence to a particular number of songs or tracks in an album is the fact that most bands produce precisely that: individual tracks bundled up in collections. This is Gorguts’ worse enemy even on their classic of classics. Every one of the songs up to the sixth track, Clouded, expresses a very distinct message in its method. After that, we basically get more of the same. The songs aren’t bad at all, but they do not add anything more to the album except extra minutes and more good songs whose essence is not any different from the ones before them. It’s basically thesaurus recitation.

Some propose that metal needs to look beyond the number, both as a rule and as a kind of indulgence. Just because that you have more songs does not mean you have to put them in the album. Just because you have more riffs does not mean they need a song to contain them. It is suggested that the album format in underground metal be exchanged for the classical opus format, where we have movements belonging to a coherent whole work, in which saying the same thing again and again is unnecessary and highly discouraged but in which consistency in style and voice is required to a healthy but not over-restrictive degree. Metal is not young anymore, the time to consciously take the step to the next level has come.

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23 thoughts on “On Obscura and metal albums as song collections”

  1. Bobby says:

    Obscura would definitely benefit with a couple less songs. I think it’s more about the band’s unique harmonic idiom on that album getting (dare I say it) obvious by the end than just the length.

    A lot of albums would be better if they were EPs.

    Burzum’s Det som engang var gets it right, even with the ambient tracks. 4 of the best songs in black metal, or maybe even metal, surrounded by some curio (but not much) where you catch your breath.

  2. Ara says:

    As someone who definitely tries to compose albums rather than song collections I agree. Often simple things to make the record feel like a solid piece of music like time in between songs are overlooked. Each second of a record is crucial.

  3. Moses says:

    To be fair to Gorguts, they have done more to address this problem on Obscura than most metal acts. Obscura makes for an interesting example though because it does make an attempt at narrative structure but over the course of the whole album falls short. The tracks towards the end become slightly more conventional and despite being individually well-crafted that interrupt the flow of the album as a coherent narrative. I think metal artists in general would do well to think of albums as multi-movement works in the classical sense – with thematic/tonal relationships between the movements but also requiring each movement to have its own individual character as well as forming a part of a larger whole. Too many metal albums, even those of a relatively high standard feel more like the same song 10 times rather than 10 songs. The exceptions to this are actually surprisingly rare.

  4. black commentator says:

    “feel more like the same song 10 times rather than 10 songs.”

    This has always been my chief complaint. You get sonic unity but the over all feel of the record is a lot like viewing the same object from different angles. After you’ve seen it’s front, sides, top, and back closing out the experience with an isometric perspective, there’s not much more to see. That’s maybe about 6 tracks worth of material. After that, dimetric and trimetric views offer notching which has not been seen and are merely pointless retread.

    Onward to Golgotha is – in my opinion – the best death metal record. However, I cannot think of a single reason it needs to be heard all the way through.

    1. AH, I was waiting for this moment. Onward to Golgotha REALLY deserves to be listened to the end. So does Transilvanian Hunger. So does Effigy of the Forgotten, so does Stormcrowfleet.

      Obscura, doesn’t. And I think it is because the main interesting point in Obscura is its new approach, but the structural part of this death metal is much more simple than The Erosion of Sanity. In that respect I would go as far as to say that The Erosion of Sanity is a composition of greater complexity and richer content.

      1. Ara says:

        Both Erosion and Obscura get their ideas across most effectively on the front side of the record, I feel.

      2. MichelobMike says:

        I’ve been saying this for awhile: After ‘Clouded,’ I skip to the last track and that’s MY Obscura.

    2. Murph says:

      What would you consider to be exceptions to this? It seems if a band were to do as you describe and introduce more individual character to each song, it is questionable if it would still be death metal album at all. Not to mention it would probably get a lot of flak from the readers and editors of this site for being a grab-bag of ideas, incoherent, carnival music, et cetera. You could make an argument for more subtle variation, but this really already exists in the best death metal.

      1. Murph says:

        As an aside, I would nominate Therion – Beyond Sanctorum as one of the best examples of overt variation in death metal.

      2. Murph says:

        Another aside, adding short little scorching ditties in between your main show piece compositions (Skin Her Alive, anyone?) rarely adds substance or variation.

        1. Daniel says:

          Why are you even trying to compare Dismember to Therion? We get it, you don’t like how thrashy and grindy Dismember/Carnage actually were but that doesn’t mean the eight songs on Like an Ever Flowing Stream (or any other of their releases prior to Massive Killing Capacity) weren’t well written or laid out extremely well. Dismember didn’t need as many variations as they were more creative riff writers.

          What’s next? Complaining about how crusty Entombed and God Macabre were?

          1. Murph says:

            I wasn’t comparing them directly, just how they relate to the idea of variation in death metal.

            LAEFS is fantastic, but if you could trade Soon to be Dead and Skin Her Alive for another Override or Dismembered, wouldn’t you?

            1. discodjango says:

              You are absolutely right.

            2. Daniel says:

              Grinding violence is what made Carnage and Dismember unique in the crusty, Swedish death metal scene.

              Skin Her Alive is a showpiece composition. Those bangers are what make Dismember Dismember. Having more atmospheric introductory solos would detract from the three already on the album. An 8 track, 30 minute death metal classic would then become self-indulgent and bore the audience over repeat listens. Override is the slow introduction to just how ridiculously uncontrolled and fat the Dismember guitar tone actually was, Dismembered is the mid point, and In Death’s Sleep the end.

              Now that tone with their dimed JCM 900 heads on top of super high gain tubes in addition to the dimed HM-2 pedals is amazing. Lofi listening (computer and car speakers) and the brickwalled reissues of the album butcher the rhythm guitar into television static. Only the original German LP and CD (06-91 matrix code) from May/June of 1991 sound good. The world pressings from later in ’91 are bad and the less said about the digipack reissues the better.

      3. Moses says:

        The important thing is to be able to give each track more individual character without needing to deviate from the overall style, and secondly for the album itself to function as an integral whole with each song occupying a unique and necessary position within the overall structure. Classical music provides us with a good model where each movement has a unique character and also functions as part of a larger narrative without the necessity for something as crude as “stylistic variation”. The crucial point is that metal artists should move towards composing an album rather than composing several songs and then putting them together on an album. The best example of this in my opinion is Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Burzum’s other records of that era are similarly great.

  5. impluse control says:

    Obscura had a parental advisory sticker? Hmm.

  6. Adrian McCocks, Noble Hessian Warrior of Life says:

    I think I disagree with this assessment. If the last 5 tracks were switched with the first 5 you would still probably say that the last 5 were unnecessary despite them being undoubtedly good. Could this have been a more ‘poignant’ presentation as an EP? Probably. Did Gorguts show their utmost mastery and innovation by proving it over an hour long? I believe so. Ultimately, the length doesn’t detract from what they did here. The statement was made regardless, even if your individual listening experience may vary.

    1. ” If the last 5 tracks were switched with the first 5 you would still probably say that the last 5 were unnecessary despite them being undoubtedly good.”

      I agree. But I am not sure.
      I did not say the last were worse. I say that after Clouded the ideas were redundant.

  7. JC says:

    eye have only got an old CDr of obscura with the tracklist all jumbled up, the last track, the instrumental actually comes up first but it works well for the song progression. Really kind of have to be in the mood for this album to hear it at all. though I won’t deny it is probably the pinnacle of death metal.

  8. Count Ringworm says:

    Who cares about track counts. The number ten may be psychologically satisfying to look at on an album cover but 40 minutes is, in my opinion, the sweet spot for total runtime.

    1. If you think a fixed amount of time is the ideal for any record, then you are not listening to the music, you are only satisfying a general craving.

      Somethings only need 20 minutes. Others need 40. Obscura was OK at around 30, when they ran out of ideas.

      1. JR says:

        This is true David. Actually, though it is good to think outside of the box, sometimes the box does have its merits. To be sure, not every band does ‘thinking outside of the box’ all that well and thus it is a domain best left for those select few (above and beyond time).

        But I think you are generally right; in this instance, 20 minutes is all that is really required of faster punky /grindy stuff whereas more complex and immersive compositions typically develop over a longer length of time. One could say it has to do with ‘all that is required’ to get the ideas across without overdoing it, perhaps, but try telling that to some genius while he is composing.

        1. Actual geniuses know this intuitively, I think. Try to find wasted space in the best of Beethoven’s. You’re gonna have a tough job.

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