Speaking as a person who is, ahem, Technically Inclined (seriously, Buke, Hera, waiting for that guest spot) I enjoy music that is highly technical without any of the usual caveats like “but it’s not technical like that” or “but it’s at least listenable.” Of course I enjoy music that is accessible and that is not a gigantic mess of sound, but…I also enjoy music that is technical for its own sake. Maybe it’s the fact that like every teenager who had dreams of selling out arenas and putting on clinics (spoiler alert: I’m competent but not that great), I worshipped at the altar of Malmsteen, Becker, Vai and Satriani. Maybe Ophidian I did too, because boy does Desolate reignite some of that indescribable wonder that electrifying lead guitar work sets in my soul.
Ironically enough, Desolate is an album that is actually conceived with one of the caveats I mentioned previously in mind. The Incelandic quintet set out to make their second album, which also happens to be their first since 2012 due to the project going on the backburner in favor of other outlets, an album that is faster and crazier in terms of the technicality, but with good solid songwriting and melodic sensibilities at the forefront. “We spent a couple of years developing the sound and interplay – the technical front. We wanted to make very technically oriented music that still focused on songwriting. Essentially, catchy tunes, arranged in a somewhat traditional manner that’s generally not prevalent in death metal. As a result, we spent most of our time working on the music itself, with the technical aspect serving as a way forward to that goal. We consider the sound we came up with fresh and accessible.” On Desolate, the technicality is not the point, it’s in service of the song, but make no mistakes about it: this is a highly technical album. The near constant guitar soloing from newcomer Daníel Máni Konráðsson and founder Simon Þorolfsson is a staple of the sound of the album, and on Desolate they nearly reach Dragonforce levels of insane guitar prowess, with all the requisite sweeping, tapping and blazing fretwork. The fact that in the intervening nine years since their debut Solvet Saeclum the band has spent a great deal of time and effort honing their chops is readily apparent.
Obviously, when listening to Desolate, the first thing that is immediately noticeable is the guitars, but the whole band needs a shoutout for coming together and laying down songs that are incredibly technical and showy without them being daunting. In this way, they remind me of what I love about a lot of tech death today, but especially their Season of Mist labelmates Archspire, which is that the technicality of their songs rest on a solid foundation of hooks, melodies, verses and choruses: things the average music listener looking for a challenge can easily use to step into the vast world of tech death. Not that Desolate is tech death with training wheels; it’s just really good songwriting that sticks with you after the last note finishes ringing out. Take the leadoff singles “Diamonds” and “Spiral to Oblivion,” for example. Both are incredibly memorable songs despite the fact that they are mostly made up on blistering lead work and warp-speed blast beats, and that is because everything is so melodic and built on a foundation of musicality that the technical aspects work because of the song, not in spite of the song.
Hopefully it won’t be another nine years before Ophidian I release another album. Desolate is such a prime example of what happens when you do tech death right that I would hate to see the world deprived of more of its ilk. Something tells me that with a release this monumentally good the project won’t go on the back burner for that long ever again, if ever at all.