Interview: Vocalist/Violinist Tim Charles and Vocalist Xen of Ne Obliviscaris

Australia’s Ne Obliviscaris (henceforth “NeO”) have always been at the forefront of tugging at the listener’s (violin’s?) heartstrings using extreme metal as their canvas, though their use of every media possible is part of what makes them stand out amongst their peers. Album art, music videos, lyrics, and of course a style of progressive metal that’s all their own are always on point, but NeO have absolutely outdone themselves with Exul. The record, out March 24th via Season of Mist, has been nearly six years in the making, though the delay is absolutely worth the wait. Exul is a masterclass in how to make very different ideas work in cohesion, and it’s a major step up in terms of composition and execution. It’s like an extreme metal weighted blanket, comforting and warm, if perhaps a bit challenging to untangle from at times (in a good way).

Everyone rightly focuses on NeO’s expert use of violin and the vocal interplay between Xen and Tim Charles. While those aspects are clearly at their pinnacle on Exul, it’s the “other” aspects of that stick out to me on repeat listens: their best guitar riffs and solos by a mile (Km I suppose down under) and a rhythm section operating at peak efficiency. It’s not so much that you let each element shine in various orders as each band member is seemingly contributing more to each song at the same time, resulting in stunning songs. Aside from trying to outdo your last record, what did you want to do with this record, musically?

“Personally I’ve always felt that one of our great strengths as a band is that every member is great at what they do,” violinist/vocalist Tim Charles answers. “Each of us is quite different in what we bring to the band. This allows us to really pick and choose how to employ each member in different roles, not just throughout a song, but also across the entire record. This happens mostly organically, though at times there is a section that may work equally well for a guitar or violin solo, clean vocals, or even bass. I feel we have the luxury to mix it up and as you said, allow each element to shine throughout.”

“When it comes to what we wanted to do with this record overall,” he adds, “the main consideration for me is always trying to continue to push the boundaries of the way we write music and explore ways that we can improve the cohesiveness of the album. To help with the latter we made a conscious decision to employ Mark Lewis not just as the mixing and mastering engineer (which he was for ‘Urn’) but also have him produce the album as well. We really wanted to work with the one person from start to finish on the album as our music is quite complicated to mix and bring to life on an album. We worked together very closely on choosing tones for every instrument so that when we got to the mix stage things fit together music nicer than ever before. That ‘warm’ sound you referred to is a direct result of working with Mark Lewis start to finish on this album.”

Balance is something any metal or prog band has to pay attention to, though when you bring in so many different styles and sounds (not to mention three unique stringed instruments). I think it’s a skill NeO has displayed from the onset, but each record has seen NeO find new ways to push themselves. Exul is both their most extreme, melodic, and progressive record to date, one where European tech-death, progressive black metal, and operatic prog all play nice in the sandbox. What does balance and writing with different variables mean to you all these records in? Charles responds:

“This is something that happens both organically and yet also quite consciously. When we are writing music, I’m always very aware of trying to take the listener on a journey throughout not just the album as a whole but also each individual song as well. There is an emotional ebb and flow that I am observing as each song and the album is put together. I think with this album it was about trying to push things even further in each direction whilst still maintaining that balance of energy when the album is listened to as a whole. I definitely leaned more into including string sections on this record and a song such as ‘Mesericorde II’ was really rewarding to explore sounds we hadn’t included before. We’ve always been a band that enjoys exploring different sounds and I love what we managed to come up with on Exul in that regards.”

The time between composition and studio time is how bands often fine-tune songs or come up with new improvised parts, but the significant delay had to contribute to a vastly different version of Exul from March of 2020 to what we’re hearing now. How much did NeO go back to the drawing board with songs, and which was the biggest change from 2020 to now for you on the record?

“So the interesting thing,” Charles says, “was that if the pandemic had hit just a few days earlier the album might have been really different. We had several songs half written in early 2020, but put the tracklist together based on the songs that fit together the best that were on track to be completed for the slated March 2020 recording timeframe. If the pandemic had hit just a few days earlier we wouldn’t have recorded anything and so likely would have continued to tinker with adding additional songs. However, what actually happened was the borders to Australia closed about 12 hours after Dan arrived back in Australia after recording drums in Nashville, USA. So at that point the drums for the albums were set in stone as we the option of adding more songs wasn’t really an option. Maybe that is a good thing though seeing it took long enough just to complete these ones!”

“At that time,” he continues, “some of the songs, such as ‘Equus,’ were essentially 100% completed except for a few lyrics. Whereas for the song ‘Graal,’ I actually hadn’t written a bunch of my vocal and violin parts yet. Once the pandemic hit writing got shelved for quite a long time, and it was a whole year later that I then revisited ‘Graal’ and re-wrote my parts in a way that I felt was much better. So even though the primary elements of the drums/bass/guitar riffs were all locked in and didn’t change from March 2020, some of the violin and vocals for myself and Xen were adjusted and re-written with that extra time. Another thing the extra time afforded was more time to ensure the best vocal performances possible. Due to the lockdowns closing studios in Australia, I ended up recording most of my vocals at my home studio. As a result, the amount of time spent recording to get the take I felt best represented the energy of the part was a lot more than what you normally would be able to do when paying $x per day in a recording studio.”

Let’s touch on the other aspects that NeO nailed on Exul. I appreciate when a band focuses on the visual elements of an album’s presentation as much as you do. Your blend of surreal imagery, fantasy, and horror elements, while displaying in both artwork and videos a real human element. I sense both an exodus and an ache for a welcome home throughout the art here. What were you inspired by in creating the visual elements of Exul? How do you view that portion of your storytelling?

“The imagination is the most unique thing we as individuals possess,” Xen replies, “and to not delve into it feels like a travesty. Implementing visuals to help people understand, inspire, and dream is integral for bands. I’ve always seen NeO as a visual band musically, our music creates images, and so to me everything else needs cohesion, needs to make sense, so both the art and lyrics should also complement the vast array of notes and feeling from the overall sound. Growing up I’d always been interested in abstract concepts, horror, surreal art, fantasy and science fiction books, so it’s inevitable the influences come through in most of what I do. For this I was inspired also by medieval history in general, my own history, and history in the making, also old art, particularly (for the cover as an example) the Martin Schongauer engraving, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. However, differing in meaning, visually it depicts an individual surrounded by torment, that influence was something I wanted to tip my hat to in the overall construction of the cover.”

In one way or another, almost all life was exiled in the past three years. and where we choose to go and who we welcome into our lives is where we’ll draw meaning. What did you want to talk about with this record? Do you see it as a hopeful or despairing release? Xen answers:

“The pandemic created new worlds for most people, more cut off, insular, everyone needing an altered way of living, however that influence was only a small portion by way of the general feeling which seeped into my lyrical direction. We’re too musically diverse to dwell in complete despair too long, but the subject matter does touch on being outcast, feeling displaced, experiencing loss, so there’s definitely an aura of foreboding and despair about it. The lyrics were started prior to 2020, but it was only after I’d finished all the lyrics and thought about it, the general subject matter and associated feelings coincidentally seemed fitting for what the world was going through, hence the title, Exul, fell into place. I agree that it’s our darkest, but like all our releases there’s always that glimmer of hope. That is ultimately what keeps us going after all; we can’t help but be human.”

The new album is available in the JSR Direct webstore. And don’t forget to follow Ne Obliviscaris on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more updates.

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