Obscura – Colliding StarsThursday, 11th November 2021
A beacon of the progressive, technical death metal scene, Obscura are about to present their fifth album to the world in the form of A Valediction. Lots of new stuff this time around, such as a new label, some new (and returning) band members, and they are free from their 4-album concept that took place through their Relapse Records years. So naturally, we grabbed Steffen Kummerer, vocalist and guitarist for the band, to get his insights on all of the exciting things from the Obscura camp, as well as his thoughts on what Obscura does to keep their identity in the genre, a look back at Omnivium, and a glimpse ahead into the band’s future as well.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your impressions of the album? To me it felt a little more melodic than previous releases.
Steffen Kummerer: Something we did in the past, a song like “Incarnated” or “Universe Momentum,” those sorts of songs from the early years of the band have very strong, memorable, I would even call them ‘hit melodies.’ That’s what we did this time, as the entire album was meant to be played live. Maybe not as one piece, but I was looking for material that works in the live situation. In my opinion, the band is definitely a live act, so it’s something that needs to be enjoyable. If you play something with 20 different parts, where nothing repeats, it’s a bit boring, to be honest [laughs].
Dead Rhetoric: You would think when you are playing all those different parts, it wouldn’t be boring for you. I would imagine it’s a lot more challenging to pull off live if you are constantly changing things on the fly.
Kummerer: That’s another thing definitely. I really want to enjoy the live shows as much as the audience does, so the way it works is that if the audience likes what you are doing, you get pushed and push the audience, so you have a fantastic evening. If one part is too distracted by something – a lousy or boring performance – that’s something I really wanted to push in the right direction. The album is definitely technical and technical, but it’s not so on the edge that we don’t have enough headroom. Doing live shows, there is also some air to breathe in between.
I wouldn’t say we laid back a bit, but since we went down the road to do what we really like and what we wanted to do for a long time, but never realized with Obscura because we were more narrow-minded. I think in A Valediction, there’s pure fun and joy to be heard that we had as a band writing and recording and producing the album. That’s also something that translates into the live session. It all has a certain meaning behind it. In the end, the music counts. If you think the melodies are a part that stands out in comparison to the previous records, then I am very happy to hear that.
Dead Rhetoric: You have a new line-up, including Christian Munzner returning. What can you say about Obscura 2021?
Kummerer: Obscura is a live band, and you need to like this kind of lifestyle. You need to accept that you will be doing this for months just for one tour. You are maybe away for half of the year each year. If you like it, you love what you are doing. If you have a problem with it, you should be doing something else. When I started to put together ideas for the new album and direction, after working on everything behind the scenes: planned touring, planned recordings, planned video sessions, I figured that if someone is not loving what we are doing with the band, then it’s time to make a change. Therefore, I was looking for band members who could pull it off and contribute to the compositions and that I can get along with well, even in stressful situations. With the line-up right now, I’m very satisfied and I can’t wait to hit the stage.
Dead Rhetoric: Everything was recorded separately due to COVID – what were some of the pluses and minuses of doing it that way?
Kummerer: A minus was definitely that the album could have been released way earlier. We had a recording session booked maybe a half a year earlier or so, but in the end we had to respect the restrictions. We couldn’t change anything, so we had to record all the instruments in national studios. The bass was recorded in The Netherlands, drums in Austria, guitars in Germany, and I traveled to Gothenburg to record acoustic guitars and start mixing with Fredrik Nordstrom in Sweden. The pro was definitely the fact that we worked without any pressure, and we haven’t had that situation in the past. You would book a certain number of days in the studio, and if you are under the weather or just have a bad day, you still have to perform on the edge of a very high level of your instrument and you struggle. But every band faces this. So we were able to lay back a bit compared to that. Things were prepared easier. There was no traveling for most of the band, and in the end, we sorted out everything in Studio Fredman.
Another plus, in my opinion, was the fact that for the first time, we chose to go abroad to produce the album. In the past, everything was recorded in Germany and this time, I changed to producer to simply move on with the band’s sound. To push the band and look for new horizons. I think in choosing Fredrik Nordstrom, who worked for many years with different bands and released timeless albums in the ‘90s like the At the Gates, In Flames, Dimmu Borgir, and Arch Enemy, all of those albums stand well to the test of time. All of these new productions, like Architects, really convinced me to work with him. In the end, I am very happy with the mix and master. It sounds extremely organic and you can feel the human touch in everything we did on this album. That’s not common when you see that we are coming from this progressive, technical death metal department. One more minus is that the delay was in releasing the album – everything came together as it should have, and I am happy how it turned out and the 11 songs on the album.
Dead Rhetoric: Was there a certain freshness to be done with that four-album concept that spanned from Cosmogenesis to Diluvium?
Kummerer: Definitely. With the last album, I felt a bit stuck in a certain seam. It was my own trap, to be honest, since I brought up the four album concept, so I had to finish it somehow [laughs]. But in the end, when you have a blank page in front of you, it’s very relieving. I am proud that we finished this four album concept, which took around 10 years, and now we can do something new. It’s like a new start. I also changed the artist, Orion Landau, who worked for the band for many years. So the visual shifted as well. We also changed the record label and line-up. The direction took a more open path. If you listen to all eleven songs, I think it’s interesting that each song has a different pace and feeling, and in the end you have one musical story beginning to end that is being told, without being boring. I think that paid off. It was relieving and rewarding at the same time.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you discuss the personal nature of the lyrics this time around?
Kummerer: In the past, the albums were bound together in terms of the lyrics. I thought it was a little to abstract at times. There have been some fans who just don’t know what I am writing about at all. With the production becoming more organic, with a human touch, I felt it was necessary to do the same with the lyrics. They have all been influenced by the last 2-3 years. I lost a couple of family members, close friends, band members, and it was an idea to write a full album about farewells and leaving things behind you. There are so many different variations of farewells that can be put together quite easily. “Heritage,” the last song, was written during the week when Sean Reinert passed away. He was meant to record on the Cosmogenesis record. We played together a few times on the Death to All tours and stayed in touch. I wanted to work around that. Later I heard that Sean Malone passed away. I thought that being negative wasn’t good, so I worked with a few ideas about how to leave that negativity behind you.
Another story, when I was born it was in the communist part of Germany and we had been divided. I escaped when I was about 4 with my family in 1988. We left everything behind and we had to start from scratch. Nobody wanted us and that was something that I felt was necessary to write about. If you build up your existence from scratch, you enjoy every single glimpse you get or gestures you get from strangers. Being nice when they don’t have to be – I simply felt that was a nice topic these days, and I brought 10 stories since one song is an instrumental. I think it’s a new direction, but at the same time there is a previous connection to Diluvium. The opening track, “Forsaken,” was actually written, with lyrics, as the first song for Diluvium. I didn’t feel that it was finished at the time. So there are still those links between the albums, even with a new start.
Dead Rhetoric: Is it more exciting/empowering to be able to go from the more abstract lyrics and now have your own feelings involved?
Kummerer: I’m not sure. I think in the beginning, when we started with Cosmogenesis and Omnivium, it had to be abstract because as a writer of lyrics in a language that I speak but am not very confident in, it would have been a bit too open to write about personal things. That’s part of why the previous albums went down a more abstract route. You can hide a bit behind the abstract part. I think on Akroasis, it started with two songs and Diluvium had more songs with more of a personal touch/opinion/thoughts, but I didn’t hear or feel a big difference in terms of feedback from the fans. With A Valediction, I put all of those thoughts aside and brought up the ideas that I really wanted to write about.
Dead Rhetoric: Could you talk about “Devoured Usurper?” I love those slow, grooving Obscura tracks like “Ocean Gateways.”
Kummerer: It’s quite nice to hear that you chose this one, this one stands out since all of the other interviews I have done in the past always sing a different song as a favorite, so I have to count each one [laughs]. “Devoured Usurper” is quite a special song because I think it’s the most simple and brutal song on the album. It’s exactly the opposite of what you would expect from a demanding prog/death metal band like us. It’s the very first time in 20 years that we have used a d-beat in a song. I think it’s interesting to arrange an entire album, in order to keep it interesting, to have a song like this. We started working with those mid-tempo, doomy riffs with Retribution with “Nothing.”
We did the same for Cosmogenesis with our bonus track, and you mentioned “Ocean Gateways.” We had “Ode to the Sun” on Akroasis and on Diluvium we had “An Epilogue to Infinity.” It’s kind of tradition that we have one of those really slow and brutal songs on each record. The same goes for the other elements too – starting with our demo in 2003 we had an instrumental on each release. There’s no master plan, but there are some traditions we simply keep up. “Devoured Usurper,” I think it beats “Ocean Gateways” by far! It’s more brutal in my opinion.
Dead Rhetoric: What do you think is the most important thing that Obscura does to set themselves apart from the large chunk of bands that play technically driven death metal, at this point including a number of bands influenced by Obscura itself?
Kummerer: To be honest, I think there are 1,000 killer bands how there and ones that are coming up. If we are the reason for some of those bands, I’m simply proud of it. I think every band should have their own identity, and if you see bands….such as Rivers of Nihil – they go into a really interesting direction. Same for Revocation, Beyond Creation, Archspire. All of those bands really have their own stamp and signature sound. With Obscura, we have established that, I think somewhere between Omnivium and Akroasis, we really brought up our own sound and established some signature riffs/moves, and a certain feel that you establish within the first minute of listening to a song and identifying it as Obscura. That’s something I’m really proud of. But I can’t explain it in detail really. It’s a matter of feeling and composing songs together. In the end, it sounds how it sounds, and I’m proud of that.
Dead Rhetoric: You moved from long time home Relapse to Nuclear Blast for this album. What caused the change?
Kummerer: We signed a deal with Relapse back in the day for four albums. We delivered the four albums and fulfilled our contract. It was the first push to come up with the four album concept to begin with. I thought it was cool to have some sort of a collector’s item. I’m a collector of vinyl myself, as well as CDs and VHS tapes back in the day. I thought it would be cool to have all of this stuff that would stand up to become a real collection. So I thought we had a real opportunity in delivering four albums – let’s come up with something connected. Relapse pushed the band a lot, and we have a good relationship with them, past as well as present employees. But when we finished our contract, we got a lot of offers from different labels, so we thought about what direction we would go with the band.
Relapse is extremely well established in North America, but in Europe we were looking for a stronger partner. Nuclear Blast is, I would say, one of the biggest independent metal labels worldwide. When they got in touch with us, I negotiated with them and decided to go with them. I’m confident that it will be the next step for the band. If you see all of the promotion for the releases and feedback we got so far, it was the right choice and right direction. We are still going to work with Relapse on the back catalog with the albums we released with them. There’s nothing bad to say about them. I’m really happy we worked with them for the past 10-15 years, and we are still continuing to work with them.
Dead Rhetoric: Omnivium turned 10 years old this year. What do you recall about the time surrounding that release?
Kummerer: I remember the band was pretty much touring all over the place. I had just finished my university degree at the time and was starting to work. I became a father a few years later. It was quite a wild time. Back then, we were relentlessly working on live shows, and at the same time, the band became under pressure. We felt a bit pushed to release a new album soon, but at the same time, we were exhausted since we toured for Cosmogenesis for maybe 150-160 shows, then the same happened for Omnivium. We needed a break but didn’t get one. Tensions came up within the band, and I simply went forward with a different line-up at a later point.
Around 2011, I think we went into the studio too early. We had a really hard time in the studio because there was no pre-production made and the entire album was just written in guitar pro. In the end, it was a problem. You can record everything part by part, but it was extremely difficult to translate them into the live setting, because they were written on a computer and not with an instrument in your hand. That’s also the reason why we never play more than three songs off the album in the live setting. So it’s bittersweet. Looking back, I’m happy that we did what we did, but I would change a few tasks [laughs], but you can’t alter the past.
Dead Rhetoric: What would you like to see from heavy metal as it continues to progress?
Kummerer: In general, I’m happy if there are still musicians out there that are starting to tour and write music together. That’s the root of everything. It doesn’t matter if you play in front of your friends in a rehearsal room, play as a support band on tour, or doing your own headline shows. It’s about the joy and fun of making music together. If you can do that, you’ve made it through the first step. The second step is to establish your own identity. There’s always hype for certain music styles. During the last five years, I think that in Europe there has been more hype for ‘70s rock bands. In the 2000s, there was black metal hype, and in the 2010s there was brutal, techy death metal hype. It doesn’t matter what it is – just do what you like and try to make your own identity. You can work with influences from your beloved bands, but I think the most difficult part is to write something on your own and not copy anyone. Establish your own voice. But there are tons of bands that do that. The bands I already mentioned earlier, but also Vektor, Cryptic Shift from the UK, Vale of Pnath, and the farther they go, the more they sound like themselves and it’s really cool. You just need perseverance to make it happen.
Dead Rhetoric: What are your plans for this year into 2022?
Kummerer: At this point, we just finished a couple of video productions. There will be at least 4-5 music clips coming up. We are looking forward to touring again. The world is opening up and we figured our European tour, which is in November/December, is looking very good and we are working on a nationwide North American tour with more than 50 shows for next spring. Hopefully everything will be fine by then. I’m optimistic and positive, so I think everything will be okay.