Review: Obituary’s Obituary Is No Obituary
A tenth album needs more daring and justification than a first album. Obituary provides more than enough of each.
The men of Obituary may seem mellow enough, as casual and personable as the most humorless extreme metal guys are considered and intense. But their shorts-and-hoodie vibe belies their poise as they walk the line between Obituary tradition and the demands of a tenth album. That this tenth album is self-titled prompts fans to expect a rebirth or definitive statement. Or possibly a final statement.
But Obituary (the album) is hardly meant to be a dictionary entry on Obituary (the band). It tweaks a few key Obituary standards, even as it exalts one of music’s most exhilarating trios: extreme metal’s scariest, most inimitable voice John Tardy; the Ritchie Blackmore of extreme metal drumming, Donald Tardy; two-fingered riffist Trevor Peres and his signature murky lurch. So Obituary could’ve arrived like any other late entry in their discography, so welcome but less than tantalizing. Instead, a listener immediately focuses on Obituary’s two other members in search of the source of the album’s fun musical flourishes.
Those arrive quickly and delightfully: “Brave” launches the album at high speed and rushes to flaunt a dazzling guitar harmony; “Sentence Day” morphs from mosher to multi-staged Adrian Smith vs Bobby Gustafson guitar epic; “Lesson In Vengeance” sports a pair of hairy, sassy mini-solos. We can credit these moments to sophomore guitarist Kenny Andrews. It’s like, yeah, a listener recalls sprawling solos and surprise entrances by past Obituary axemen Allen West, James Murphy, and even Ralph Santolla, but it’d be tough to argue that those guys so immediately and so distinctly changed the substance of Obituary songs. For Andrews, it’s the difference between adding dressing to a salad and adding grilled chicken (and Peres sounds excited to be the lettuce). And I say let the guy grill. It works.
Less apparent than Andrews’ domination is the new logic of Obituary’s structures and vibe: “Kneel Before Me” and “Sentence Day” recall Devin Townsend’s tendency to start a song then abandon it in favor of a suite of key changes and riff battles (or imagine “Turned Inside Out” and “Dying” but leaner and more guitar). Elsewhere, Obituary is at their most poppy: “Straight To Hell” and “End It Now” commit to cracked hooks and ever-tightening tension; the former closes with an exhortation to “Never let your head hang down / Put another bullet in” sung like Ozzy vomiting fire ants. On “Ten Thousand Ways To Die” and “Turn To Stone,” Peres’ trademark riffs (“je-je-je-je-something, je-je-je-je-something”)” ride pauses and wind-ups that seem designed to rev a concert crowd (and Andrews strikes again, awesomely). And then there’s “Betrayed,” on which Obituary revs themselves with a jaunty, nu-metal stomp. This is Obituary-style irreverence; you can almost hear their faces stretching in wide, wicked smiles.
A listener is tempted to chalk up these deft touches to the chemistry created by veteran bassist Terry Butler. This is the guy credited by Chuck Schuldiner for help shaping the most impressive album of Death’s first era, and later dismissed by him after the same album’s promo tour of Europe in which Schuldiner refused to participate. Butler, with drummer Bill Andrews and a hired vocalist, played Europe as Death anyway. That’s the irreverence needed by a stalwart band after a problematic album (2009’s Darkest Day). Compare it to Butler’s Obituary debut Inked In Blood and now this, their self-titled instant classic.
While your ear scans for Obituary‘s hidden treats, it may listen closely for another reason — to detect any mention of the rotting elephant carcass in the room: weird-as-fuck Florida politics. Obituary are from one of the state’s few counties won decisively by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and, as such, the Tardy brothers and crew are equipped to flash us a peek of life amid the high-profile parts of #MAGA country. There’s little specific insight (“End It Now” skews authoritarianism, “Kneel Before Me” dispatches would-be tyrants) but that may be the result of Obituary‘s timing more than an aversion to dumping on Trump (or a result of Butler’s ignorant double-talk).
But one wonders if Florida’s embrace of its greatest death metal export would be as warm if Obituary’s creed were made to explicitly indict the supporters of hateful ideologues. (It already implicitly indicts the fuck out of them.) Or maybe that’s the secret function of the fun and funky “Betrayed”: a song to be hated by purists delivers a lyric to be decried by pure haters. It’d be fun to find out, for in 2017, Obituary can do whatever they want. On Obituary, they sound like they’re doing just that.