Review Summary: Letting go, one by one, piece by piece
I can't even imagine how horrifying it would be to have Alzheimer's disease. Having your fondest memories slowly disintegrate from your mind as your body starts failing sounds like one of the worst ways to die, and it would be equally hard for your family and friends to witness it. Through a loved one of mine who passed away years ago, I do sadly have first-hand experience with how it affects people mentally and physically; it's also for this reason that The Oubliette
is one of the most emotionally resonant albums I've heard in a long time. While The Reticent's progressive metal style is pretty familiar for anyone who's listened to an Opeth or Soen record, it's the way they use
this sound that makes them so unique and interesting. The record, which follows a bedridden Alzheimer's sufferer named Henry, is almost entirely written in a first-person point of view, offering the listener a chance to know what it's like to be immersed in such a devastating condition and struggle. Every track showcases Henry's condition getting progressively worse, the concept bolstered by both the heartbreaking lyrics and the even more heartbreaking spoken word clips that often connect the tracks to each other. But something else this album excels at is what I like to call "musical imagery," in which the music is in service of the concept and the lyrics rather than being presented independently. This is even true of the more technical showcases on the record, such as on "The Nightmare"; the brutal riffs and skittering off-kilter drums perfectly illustrate the fear and confusion associated with this stage of Henry's condition, and it really leaves you both on-edge and incredibly sad that this is what his life has come to. But this approach works just as well the other way around; the sparse minimalistic piano work that begins the title track speaks so much more loudly than words ever could, especially as it follows a really depressing vocal clip revealing just how "gone" Henry is.
The way this album is structured and composed is just so impressive, though. For instance, the very first song "His Name is Henry" is the only song that's presented in a third-person point of view, most likely to set the scene for the rest of the record before really immersing the listener into the rest of the experience. This is also evident by the more tenuous and lowkey instrumentation that kicks off this track; the whole thing feels very cinematic, as the music toys with dynamics in such a way that you could easily imagine the film that could accompany this album (although the band have
been making music videos for it, so there's that). I know I haven't really brought up the actually technical aspects of the music very much yet, but honestly, that's the part that doesn't warrant as much attention here. In terms of how The Reticent sound sonically and compositionally, they don't exactly innovate much on The Oubliette
; the musicianship is at an incredibly high standard, but the music is the usual combination of weird time signatures, varying dynamics, and switching between clean and growled vocals that you'd expect from this corner of the prog metal market. But again, what elevates this entire piece of work is how they integrate the overall narrative and emotional weight into the music. And nowhere is this more perfectly captured than on the final track, "_________". That blank title should pretty much tip you off on what's going on here, but having Henry (and metaphorically, the listener) drown in a lush orchestral number before he goes to sleep for a final time is both so poignant and so damn devastating at the same time. We all knew this was how the album would end, but it's still an emotional gut punch when it happens.
But that's exactly what The Oubliette
is: an emotional gut punch. It's fitting that the title is another word for "dungeon," as it really feels like every successive song is widening and darkening the dungeon our narrator is trapped in mentally. As you might imagine, this is definitely not an easy record to digest and I don't recommend it as casual listening. But it's been a long time since a album has hit me this hard, and whether or not you're a prog or metal fan, I do highly suggest listening to it at least once for the sheer experience of it. These are the kinds of artistic heights that any modern concept album should aspire to reach.