Formed in South Africa but now based in the Netherlands, one-man project Ophiuchi deconstructed elements of black metal and doom and put them back together in a more progressive and experimental way on 2017’s Bifurcaria Bifurcata. Nearly four years later the band is back with follow-up Shibboleth, which continues to flip the script on these established genres while also leaning into the doom side just a bit more. It’s a dense listen that’s likely to require a few times through to fully get a feel for, but one can easily get lost in the layers of dark and haunting atmosphere.
There are still elements of black metal to the tonality and some of the darker shades that the instrumentals build over the course of the album, but the approach on Shibboleth does feel a bit more doom-centric compared to its predecessor. Opener “Mercurial” gives a pretty good indication of how this is going to play out, as bottom heavy tones lumber forth with the type of chugging distortion that wouldn’t sound out of place in doom or post metal, but there’s a bit of sinister atmosphere underneath the surface and the rhythms are changing so frequently that it lends a progressive edge to the material. It’s an intriguing approach to metal that keeps a consistent flow and atmospheric build-up on the surface, but with ever-changing elements available to discover if you dive a little deeper. There’s a natural ebb and flow between huge, room filling sections where it sounds like ocean waves are crashing down on you, and softer elements where the layers are subtler. Sometimes Ophiuchi reminds me of The Ruins of Beverast in this regard but run through the progressive approach of Tool or King Crimson. Admittedly I did find that with the slower, methodical tempos and subtle shifts of each song that Shibboleth took a bit longer to get into compared to its predecessor, but it’s an intriguing adventure from beginning to end that has revealed more and more nuances with each time through.
The promo material for Ophiuchi’s latest release specifically mentions that there was more experimentation used when it comes to the vocals, and that’s evident from the beginning of Shibboleth. There’s an even wider range of singing and harsher ranges than before, with the first taste coming in the form of hypnotic chants that lead into abrasive screams. When Ophiuchi heads towards singing and chanting, that’s where more of The Ruins of Beverast vibes come in for me, with some of the pitches even recalling slight hints of grunge and alternative rock at times. But the screams and growls tie back to the metal foundations and help to add to the intensity and power at just the right moments.
Shibboleth doesn’t feel like a complete reinvention of what Ophiuchi was exploring on their debut, but the even slower and methodical approach gives this material a different overall tone than its predecessor. It often comes across like doom and post metal with the rhythmic exploration of progressive rock and even a little bit of jazz, with those time signature changes keeping a consistent flow as the atmosphere builds to dark and foreboding levels. Although it’s missing a particular standout track that would vault it into the upper echelon for me, this is still an album that’s been a wild ride from beginning to end and I’ve found myself drawn back to experience it again and again. It’s another strong showing even with that being the case though, and Ophiuchi only seems to get more intriguing with each release.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg
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