It’s not too much of a stretch to say that death metal at its finest is some of the most sophisticated contemporary music going. Certainly the most sophisticated rock/metal music. At some point in the mid-1990s it just grew beyond its rock routes. Death metal musicians began to take an increasing interest in classical music, jazz, and electronica for inspiration alongside more conventional metal riff patterns. It seemed that for the first time death metal was capable of producing music that was mature and complex first, extreme second. Some thrash metal towards the late 1980s had arguably reached the same holy grail, but it still sounded like thrash metal (a subgenre of rock), blended with progressive influences.
Death metal’s approach was that much more complex and novel that it was elevated to a new level of musical legitimacy, and arguably a new subgenre of *non-rock* guitar music. Broadly speaking this took on two forms in the mid-1990s, the technical/mechanical, informed by jazz, modern classical, and electronica; and the neo-romantic, informed by 19th century classical music, dissonance, and opera. Let’s look at a choice pick from each camp.
Mexico’s The Chasm had been making waves throughout the 1990s for their emotional and romantic approach to death metal. But it was their third LP, 1998’s ‘Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph’, that saw them truly consolidate a novel approach to emotional, romantic, epic death metal. This sound has precedents in the likes of Greece’s Varathron and Septic Flesh, and the early works of Amorphis, Therion, and At the Gates. But precedents only tell half the story, this music really pushes the boundaries of the ‘two guitars/one bass, meat/two veg, plug-in and go’ approach to rock music. This album clocks in at nearly an hour but it might as well last an eternity (in a good way).
Production has improved somewhat from previous releases, but it’s by no means astounding for the mid to late 1990s. Vocals are a deep, death metal rasp coated in reverb that allows them to sit perfectly well with these twisted yet epic riffs. The guitars are distorted certainly, but the sound is crisper than much death metal at the time. This balances the impact inherent in all death metal, with the more subtle requirement to make every nuance of the music audible. Again, production wise the drums are nothing remarkable. The playing itself is another prime example of holding the music together without the need to be overly technical. They act as the stitches between each piece of musical fabric, not the star of the show, but nonetheless essential to the final mix.
So what is it that sets ‘Deathcult for Eternity’ apart? This album is the amalgamation of pre-existing styles; the perfection of what had come before, rather than the creation of something completely new. Through the use of a variety of techniques and influences; from thrash riffs, to dissonance, to tremolo strummed melodies, an ever churning and changing brew of neoclassical metal manifests before the listeners ears, all the while maintaining a cohesive structural whole. Whether it be to pummel or depress the listener, to dazzle with a sense of triumph or haunt with dark majesty, no one aim takes precedence over another. So we are presented with death metal that aspires to frame the human condition in all its complexity. This is still extreme music certainly, and an intense listen, but it has arguably surpassed its death metal routes,.
Gorguts started life as something of Canada’s answer to Suffocation, albeit with a more neoclassical bent. Their debut ‘Considered Dead’ (1991) showed much promise, and follow up, 1993’s ‘The Erosion of Sanity’ streamlined their elegant take on technical and brutal death metal. Then five years passed…..and nothing happened. Then in 1998 everything happened. Their third LP ‘Obscura’ was released. And what a bloody tricky album it is to review. As with ‘Deathcult for Eternity’, ‘Obscura’ has precedents, this time in technical death metal such as Demilich and Atheist, but this really is a different beast entirely.
Helmsman Luc Lemay is an academic musician with an impressive understanding of various styles and techniques well outside western music, let alone metal itself. By the release of ‘Obscura’ this began to show. Aside from the classic games one can play with this album (guess the time signature. How many drummers are there? Is this in a key?), some interesting stylistic choices were made on ‘Obscura’, not least the cold, metallic production. The snare drum is tinny, the guitar tone is sharp and mechanical, the vocals are a hoarse rasp or high pitched shriek, given zero embellishments in the mastering process, with Lemay and guitarist Steeve Hurdle sharing vocal duties.
Add to that the incomprehensible chord patterns, the atonal or dissonant riffs, the abundance of guitar techniques that were simply not designed for this level of distortion; all create at times an almost unbearable degree of static, scratching, and abrasion. On top of all this is the album’s runtime, which kisses an hour in length, with little to no change in the dynamics and no let up in the sheer energetic intensity of the music. It all makes for a fucking slog of a record.
It seems this album was made with the intention of dividing opinions. The centre piece, a track called ‘Clouded’, which is no different to the rest of the album stylistically, but is played at a doomy pace. The slower tempo allows the listener to take a forensic look at how this music is put together. From each chord progression, to each riff’s progression and placement within each track, to every rhythmic and structural choice; all seem to be written with one philosophy in mind: whatever reward our brains give us for anticipating musical progressions when listening to more conventional music; do the opposite.
Obviously there’s a lot more at work behind these compositions, but this, combined with the production choices, implies that Lemay et al. were intent on creating a divisive work of art. I admire this in the same way that I would admire a Jackson Pollock. Its unpleasant to look at, it’s massive, it’s complicated, and it’s messy. Yet one cannot help but be impressed by it. But this only works if absorbed occasionally. So demanding an undertaking is it, that frequent and repeated listens leave me numb to its charms as a piece of abstract music.
So taking these two works together, it is apparent that ‘Obscura’ is the more original, but not necessarily the more worthy of praise. I admire it as a scientist might, and I admire it for busting down new creative doors for extreme metal. Its influence may not have been felt immediately, but a certain crop of 21st century extreme metal certainly has strong antecedents in ‘Obscura’. But what DFETT lacks in originality by comparison, it makes up for in sheer creativity. This is an album one can play often, and it still reveals hidden corners with each new listen, a riff or lead that one did not notice before. This is an album rich in its ambition and scope, and one amongst many in the back catalogue of The Chasm.
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