Review Summary: Shifting our gaze outward
URSA is an acronym for Union des Républiques Socialistes Animales
, the title originally given by George Orwell to the French translation of his seminal dystopian novella Animal Farm
. The title plays on several close connections with the novella’s harsh but accurate critique of Stalinism and the USSR, and despite its eventual scrapping it served as a more direct affront to the work’s allegorical underpinnings. Novembre haven’t taken such a hardline approach to the themes of Animal Farm
in their interpretation, but rather have committed themselves to addressing the Orwellian “apocalypse” unfolding before us as we turn away in blind indifference.
These rather heavy themes are the result of a 9-year sabbatical taken by the veteran Italian progressive death/doom metal act, and since their previous record The Blue
the band has turned its artistic looking glass outwards, rather than keeping it intently focused on personal struggles. Through that, the record sounds fundamentally different from what the band has previously done. Novembre’s sound has long been a dichotomy of airy clean vocals and snarling rasps, but with URSA
the focus has shifted toward a more delicate, melodious dreamscape that seems to be hiding another aspect; always feeling as if it is perilously close to turning into a nightmare. The instrumental arrangements act more as a single unit rather than a chorus of distinct, individual voices, and that renders the album in a different manner entirely. A product of thick swells of harmonious guitar riffs, URSA
takes care to create an atmosphere that is fluid and natural, and nowhere on the record do things seem to stray away.
It is not a particularly heavy record, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t desperate or overtly angry. There is a lot of pain and struggle within the prevalent clean vocals, building up energy that is unleashed with staggering force when the harsh vocals do force their way out. It was at first disappointing to find that Carmelo Orlando’s sublime screams took a back seat on URSA
, but given the tendency of the songwriting to veer away from heavy chords and thundering drums it only seems natural that the screams are also kept at bay until the right moment. That decision gives the heavy moments of the record more of a lasting impact, and effectively drive home the fact that URSA
is reliant on effective mood shifts to be successful.
Novembre have always been securely rooted in the “progressive” camp, not allowing song structure to drive the atmospheres they want to convey. URSA
is no different, taking no predictable path and always letting the prevailing mood determine what is to come, leading to a record that feels perpetually varied. The opening of “Agathae” shows instrumental flair and songwriting maturity, given that the immense buildup of the 9-minute track is left solely in the hands of calming, dancing guitar melodies that give no inclination toward the fact that the track quickly darkens and segues into the album’s heaviest moments mere minutes later. There is no predictable path through URSA
, and that is part of what makes the record so successful. Even the more accessible tracks like “Umana” drive themselves through innovation rather than repetition, giving both the album’s music and concept a chance to spread their wings and achieve great things.
Great things are achieved, indeed, because through a concept that is allowed to really develop we have an album that tells a story. Carmelo Orlando, the band’s mastermind, is very adamant about URSA
being more of a conceptual record focused on this aforementioned Orwellian apocalypse, and thankfully he and his fellow band members have written a record that feels like it has the instrumental and structural freedom to explore this concept. Sure, the clean vocals that dominate the landscape lack emotion at times, and the riffs aren’t necessarily memorable, but that’s not exactly the point here. URSA
would be nothing without the strong thematic influences that have been swirling in Carmelo Orlando’s mind for 9 years now, and the songwriting perpetually strives to draw attention to the sociological, philosophical, and psychological underpinnings crafted by a band that has not ever been very reliant on the “concept album” in order to be effective. In the end, Novembre have succeeded in shifting their gaze toward the world at large, and with it they have shifted their own musical style. The potency of URSA’s
sparse heaviness is offset greatly by a clear abundance of radiant, ever-changing melodies, allowing for a dynamic, complex record that refuses to let any of its many fragile parts shatter.