Words by Jordan Martich
Belgian blackened-hardcore band Oathbreaker significantly expand their sound on their most recent record Rheia (2016), which takes its name from the mother of the gods of the Greek mythos — Rhea. 'The Dread Goddess' gave birth to six children: Zeus, Hestia, Hera, Hades, Demeter, and Poseidon, all of whom were promptly taken from her and swallowed by their father Cronus, except for Zeus. Rhea's role in the mythology, and with this record, is one of private suffering and patient, growing anger — sentiments paralleled in the gloomy lyrics penned by singer Caro Tanghe.
The record dives between carefully cultivated dynamics in the band's dark and melodic sound, with vocalist Tanghe reflecting somberly on haunted memories in her singing voice before burning each remembrance in a furnace made of blast beats and jagged riffs. Much of what separates Rheia from Oathbreaker's previous releases, which include Maelstrom (2011) and Eros/Anteros (2013), is a shift in her vocal stylings. She chose take risks by using a clean singing voice to bring a fluid and phantasmic quality to the group's quieter dirge tracks on this album.
“When I was screaming on the previous records that was the only element of our band that wasn't dynamic at all. So they sent the tracks to me, and me and Gilles (Demolder; guitarist) tried out all the vocals at home. I think I tried over a hundred demos,” Tanghe said. “It just doesn't come out the way you want. I set really high bars for myself so it's really tough to manage my expectations.”
A combination of Tanghe's ethereal new voicing and the band's experimental approach to crafting ambient metal has transformed the group. The instrumentation on Rheia incorporates not only the band's agitated approach to playing, but also utilizes synthesizers and acoustic guitars. Points of climactic catharsis in songs are found at both ends of the sonic spectrum. At times, the minimalism of Tanghe's voice, one guitar, and a single, steady drum beat are completely moving, like in the track “Immortals.” At other times, it's the layering of tones and melodies that are most engaging, like the ending of “Second Son of R.” The narrative is arc of this record follows suit by fluctuating between hot and cold, delivering an enigmatic complexity.
“Rheia is a kind of record that you kind of should listen to from start to finish. It will tell you a story and go up and down,” Tanghe said.
She attributes much of these creative successes to recording with Jack Shirley of The Atomic Garden in Oakland, who has recorded bands like Punch, Deafheaven, and Super Unison. Somewhere between her own high self-expectations and the limits of recording live to tape, they were able to find a balance that's brilliant and honest.
“It became more about the feeling of the record and how it flowed, one song into the other. Everything is so much more organic when you do it like this, when you don't feel like robots playing a record into a machine,” Tanghe said. “There's so much more emotion to it and I feel like that's what this whole record is about.”
With Rheia, they've harvested the rage of their formative years as musicians to be broken up and analyzed, then, finally, laid bare with this record in a passionate step forward.
“This record is Oathbreaker at full capacity. But it also opens up a path – I have no idea to what. It feels as if we could just do whatever after this record,” Tanghe said.
Oathbreaker play their San Francisco tour date on Wednesday.
Jordan Martich is a writer and musician living in Oakland. He drinks too much coffee and doesn't go to the beach enough.