Obrero, Mortui Vivos Docent: The Lessons of the Dead

After a few initial listens, the core contrast of Mortui Vivos Docent – the Night Tripper Records debut album from Swedish heavy/doom rockers Obrero – begins to sink in. It’s the vocals. Even before doing any research at all on the band or its personnel, there was something about them that seemed pulled right out of classic metal, right out of the thrash era. It wasn’t until I went so far as to (gasp!) read the liner notes that I discovered the man behind the mic in Obrero is Martin Missy of the once-and-apparently-again German thrash unit Protector. In Obrero, he partners with guitarists Fredrik Pihlström and Mathias Öjermark (the latter also the occasional keys), bassist Magnus Karkea and drummer Calle Sjöström — who would all seem to be the Stockholm contingent in the band, if names are anything to go by – to nestle the sound of Mortui Vivos Docent somewhere between Euro-style stoner metal and doom. If the band represents a side-project for Missy from the reactivated Protector, he’s not the only one; everyone in the band either was or is active in the thrash or speed metal genres. Karkea and Sjöström are both members of Talion, as are Missy and Pihlström, who’s also been in Melting Flesh and Bloodbanner, among others. The only member of Obrero not also found in Talion’s lineup is Öjermark, who was both in Melting Flesh with Pihlström and an outfit called Ruins of Time with Missy, so everyone’s connected here multiple times over, all seem to be familiar with each other’s playing – Obrero’s relative ease of execution backs that theory – and all are stepping outside of the styles in which they’ve made a home to explore new ground.

They’re not the first from thrash to do so (at times Obrero reminds of a less directly blues-derived version of The Cursed, which featured vocalist Bobby Blitz of OverKill and HadesDan Lorenzo), but one of the factors that most stands Mortui Vivos Docent out among the throng of heavy rock and doom out there is how seamlessly it blends the two. Where “Svantovit” – particularly in Sjöström’s drums, but also in the guitar – reminds at first of something Kyuss might have done in their middle period, it soon moves into Trouble-styled classic guitar-led doom, the synth from Öjermark adding class and melody behind Missy’s mostly-rhythmic verse, which follows the guitar line well in metallic tradition. That song is among the high points of Mortui Vivos Docent (which translates from the Latin to “The Dead Teach the Living”), but it has plenty of company in its quality level. The center portion of the album’s total eight tracks finds one of its smoothest transitions in that between the riffy “The Fourth Earl” and the darker, more doom-derived “Octaman.” Both songs are led by Pihlström and Öjermark with Karkea and Sjöström underscoring the groove in the rhythm section, but they take different approaches, showing more stylistic diversity between them than, say, the earlier “Son of Tutankhamun,” which seemed to take the time to meld the two styles into one song. Both approaches are valid on their own – either combining doom and stoner rock or keeping them separate – but by utilizing both methods, Obrero show they are not only well versed in their genre, but in songwriting too, which ultimately is going to help them more than any amount of fandom or intricacy of influence could.

Missy reminds during the verses of “Charles the Hammer” of Denis “Snake” Bélanger of Voivod, which works for him as he ably rides the mid-paced Iommian riff, backed by synthesized mellotron sounds, to the song’s more soaring chorus. He pushes himself most vocally here, and it pays off in Mortui Vivos Docent’s most memorable song. Whereas on opener “The Wolf’s Hook” and “Son of Tutankhamun,” a more doomed beginning led to a sped up finish, “Charles the Hammer” keeps its pacing consistent and is that much stronger for it, the band sounding confident heading into closing duo “Exterminate” and “The Lost World,” both of which happen to clock in at 6:31. The former highlights just how metal the tones of Pihlström and Öjermark still are, despite the riffs they’re playing and the kind of casual bounce they affect when put to Sjöström’s drumming in the breaks. A rare bit of studio trickery comes in the bridge when Missy’s vocals are given some effect just as he says “wipe out,” but otherwise the song plays out in straightforward fashion like the material on the record’s first half, if perhaps with a stronger chorus and guitar solo. Öjermark’s keys turn out to be a huge factor in the album’s success, adding not just class and melody, but a genuinely atmospheric sensibility that pushes Mortui Vivos Docent closer to the epic than it would otherwise be. On “The Lost World,” they come further to the fore, introducing the track with a creepy ‘70s horror vibe and closing it in similar fashion before a well-placed sample (there have been a couple throughout) offers final thought. The song gets heavy, but never seems to lose the initial idea put forth by Öjermark, and that’s much to its benefit.

It’s probably not a landmark in terms of innovation – nor is it trying to be – but Mortui Vivos Docent hits a nerve with its capable blend of stoner and doom, and with Missy’s throaty voice over top, the album winds up more individualized than a few initial listens might have you believe. With Protector reunited and the other members’ projects seemingly ongoing (there are so many of them, some have to be), who knows how often Obrero plan on issuing albums, but if they do take the time to develop this band on its own terms, the payoff could be considerable for anyone who takes the time to really engage the material on its own level. They can’t deny the metal in their sound, and kudos to them for knowing it and realizing that they don’t have to to hone in on the sound they want. Obrero may have more surprises on their sleeve than even they know, and as a first, Mortui Vivos Docent ends up being a decidedly pleasant one.

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