Review Summary: The OlympiansRheia
is ambitious and hard-hitting, but kindles a slow-burning hypnosis. Belgian hardcore/BM group Oathbreaker have expanded upon their last effort, Eros | Anteros
, in terms of sound and scope, and crafted their epinicia. In its earlier moments, Rheia
is frantic and jawdropping; in its later moments, the sixty-plus-minute epic is far more mystically subdued. Vocalist Caro Tanghe takes on multiple narrative roles and motifs: ranging from maternal guardian, to infantile sadist, to tortured banshee, and then some. Early highlights “Second Son of R.” and “Needles in Your Skin” sear like flash burns (the climax of “Second Son of R.” sounds like Tanghe’s forehead is being branded by Lennart Bossu's guitar), whereas the tracks like “Where I Leave” and closer “Begeerte” soothe like herbal balm. Oathbreaker are the aggressors and, accordingly, the healers. Over the course of Rheia
, we see them submit to some unspeakable things, and eventually achieve nirvana.
It’s a bit counterintuitive (maybe?) to launch into a paragraph describing a metal album by giving shine to the producer, but Jack Shirley has the Midas touch. While Rheia
demonstrates the band’s evident progress instrumentally and vocally, Shirley’s influence takes them to new heights, and chasmic lows. Oathbreaker’s sound here is spastic at times, but is wholly sensuous and multidimensional. Some of the band’s mood shifts are lycanthropic in the most agonizing ways, then they somehow level out into meditation and deep focus. Tanghe shakily and off-pitchedly sings the invocations of a werewoman in songs like opener “10:56” (we see the transformation take full effect in the following song), and the musicianship feels ritualistic. One can imagine the band members plain-facedly and dutifully observing Tanghe’s bizarre shapeshifting. In “Being Able to Feel Nothing”, the vocalist delivers an unsettlingly cutesy fiendishness, as one might imagine a sex captive who turns on her captors by tearing their skin off and blinding them might sound. It’s uncanny how a sensation like that transitions into a song like “Stay Here / Accroche-Moi” - the most angelic song in the album’s first half - and totally make sense. Even more weirdly impressive, the soft acoustic strumming and vault-like ambience doesn’t sound out of place placed between the preceding track and the soaring guitar work and blast beats of “Needles in Your Skin”. Again, props to Shirley. Much of Rheia
is remarkably and unexpectedly cohesive in sound, while still sprawling and thoughtfully arched.
While plenty of credence has been given to Caro Tanghe, it’s the instrumentation that helps Rheia
reach its emotive peak in the album’s tail-end. The trilogy of “I’m Sorry, This Is”, “Where I Live”, and “Where I Love” could be an impressive, freestanding suite - or a cataclysmic single composition. “I’m Sorry, This Is” is ephemeral, like the deliberation and reflection right before a bloody battle, with loved ones in hindsight. We hear sounds of conversation and bustle quelled by pulsing bass and thick, foggy ambience. “Where I Live” sees the band truly unify: less of an audience to Tanghe’s mania, more of her triumphant brothers-in-arms. Rheia
settles into something much more brooding and mournful, and possible detractors of Tanghe’s erratic vocals earlier on will enjoy her relative subtlety here. Honestly, one wonders why Rheia
isn’t proudly expressed as two separate Acts, the first one consisting of “10:56” through to “Immortals”, the second composed of “I’m Sorry, This Is” through to “Begeerte” (in the event that this was somehow intended, the promotional package didn’t make the distinction, so for all intents and purposes we’ll assume it’s unintentional). This Second Act
feels more enjoyable and appreciable as a separate listen, as the whirlwind ferocity and erratic personality of the First Act
makes the second half feel comparably tame and (unjustly) boring - a shame, since there's a beautiful, pensive quality in the later moments.
As much as Rheia
feels like a hard-fought victory march for the band - and musically, it is - we sense pangs of surrender in its closing moments. "Where I Live", while seeing the band members united in effort, could be a dreary trek home to a shattered life. Caro sings, "running through the old fields of dreams, until there is nowhere left to run / when it all comes down like the walls of your eyes collapsing, I cave in to primal fears,
" and there's something poignant in how, when the singer is showing vulnerability, the volume of the rest of the band compensates when she withers into the backdrop. Subsequently, "Begeerte" has a disturbing sexuality to it. The protagonist sings, "our bodies join like a single being in the fountain of its rebirth,
" as though she's predicting something equal parts pleasurable and terrifyingly void. It would be too starry-eyed to think of this as a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes type of rebirth. Rheia
is a swan song.