[9 October 2013]
Twelve long years have passed since technical death metal legend Gorguts released its last album, From Wisdom to Hate. In that time, scientists have mapped the human genome; social media has consumed the world; we’ve lived through the backlash following the 9/11 atrocities; seen China become a world superpower; and witnessed devastating natural disasters take lives around the globe. It could be said, that over the past twelve years, humankind has flitted between wisdom and hate with larger apocalyptic strides than ever before - although, if our history tells us anything, as a species, we’re known to favour hate at the expense of virtues like wisdom.
That lack of humanity, particularly the tragic and oppressive occupation of Tibet by the Chinese in the 1950s, is a part of our history that Luc Lemay - leader of technical death metal giant Gorguts - found himself drawn to. Lemay started with an interest in the intricate process of how Tibetan monks draw mandalas (symbols of the universe) using colored sand, and his inquisitiveness led him to research Tibetan culture to try comprehend the complexities of its history. “As I was reading and educating myself on the culture, values and philosophy of the Tibetan people, it brought a lot of questions to my mind, and just by asking myself those questions I felt totally exhausted. I don’t understand human nature… I don’t understand why any man on earth would have the tiniest bit of anger toward the Tibetan people. They’ve been pacific people for centuries; owning an army did not seem to be a priority in their values since they’re not interested in the concepts of jealousy, domination, megalomania… On the other hand, did their non-violent philosophy serve and help their cause? I don’t think so…”
Painful tales of passivism in the face of oppression form the conceptual basis of Gorguts’ first full-length album since 2001, Colored Sands. But this is only part of the story, and the fact that we actually have a new Gorguts album takes precedent over its fascinating thematic base.
In 2005, three years after the suicide of band drummer Steve MacDonald, Lemay thought it wise to put Gorguts to rest. The band lay dormant until Lemay’s Negativa band-mate and former Gorguts member Steeve Hurdle (who sadly passed away in 2012) suggested that Lemay revive the beast to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary. That was a thought far from Lemay’s mind at the time: “When Steeve brought the idea to me to make a new record to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band, I’d never thought about it before. I was very happy with everything the band had accomplished in the past and I had no intention of making a new record. Then, when I started to write, I had no apprehensions either… I just went with the flow and wrote the music I wanted to hear.”
A demo of instrumental music that Lemay had been working on leaked online in late 2008, and he had no alternative but to announce his plans to resurrect Gorguts to the wider metal world. Anticipation grew year after year, till finally, in 2013, it was announced that Gorguts would return with a new album, one set to scramble the minds of those of willing to surrender to the band’s brand of technical death metal.
The sub-genre that Gorguts had helped pioneer with their stone-cold 1998 classic Obscura had continued to thrive in the band’s absence. Countless musicians took direct inspiration from Gorguts, as well as many of the sub-genre’s other godheads, such as Necrophagist, Death, Cynic, and Pestilence. Bands like Ulcerate, Origin, Brain Drill, Spawn of Possession, Beyond Creation, and Obscura rushed to the forefront, with those exciting bands dedicating their energies to taking technical death metal to unfathomable heights, and charging off in complex, brain-mangling directions. Hell, Obscura is even named after Gorguts’ landmark album – if you needed any further proof as to the esteemed standing of the band.
The warped sounds of Obscura have probed their way into every nook of extreme metal, and can be heard in the music of bands ranging from The Dillinger Escape Plan to Brisbane’s surrealists, Portal. Because of its influence, Obscura will always be a benchmark to which dissonant, technical death metal will be measured; and it’s a release that time and circumstance has turned into an unbreakable marble altar.
Obscura is also the benchmark by which all subsequent Gorguts music has been and will be measured; an ailment that the monstrous From Wisdom to Hate unfairly suffered from. Therefore, the question of whether Gorguts’ first album in over a decade matches up to the band’s past glories has to be on the tongues of those familiar with Gorguts’ past work. It’s totally unavoidable, but that question is mute by the time “Reduced to Silence”, the final song off Colored Sands, draws to an exhausted end.
You see, Lemay has been extremely cunning in his comeback at the helm of Gorguts. He’s opted to remain, primarily, the sole song-writer, and he’s chosen not to ask past members back to the band. Instead, he’s shrewdly assembled a who’s who of young marvels from extreme metal to provide support. “When Steeve told me about the idea he asked to be part of the band, but since we were doing Negativa together I wanted a new creative experience, with new people.” Joining him aboard good ship Gorguts circa 2013 is extreme-drummer-for-hire John Longstreth (Origin, Dim Mak, Angelcorpse), virtuoso guitarist Kevin Hufnagel (of Dysrhythmia fame), and Hufnagel’s partnering bassist Colin Marston – a dazzling multi-instrumentalist who also plays in Krallice, Behold… the Arctopus, and Byla.
Each of those hand-picked musicians are not only massive fans of Gorguts music but also acclaimed musicians who have the required technical ability to perform/write Gorguts-worthy death metal at the high level expected and demanded from both Lemay and the fans. According to Lemay, he had these musicians in mind from day one, as he had been inspired by their individual work. “I’m a strong believer that you have to have total admiration towards the artists you share the creative process with. Otherwise I could have made the whole record by myself with modern technology. Also, it was important for me to give creative freedom to my band mates so they could show their own voices as composers within the Gorguts aesthetic… I feel very lucky that they all accepted to join.”
This may be the most important factor when considering Colored Sands’ merit. The fresh perspective that these three musicians have brought in to flesh out Lemay’s song-writing ideas and contribute their own songs – see the paralyzing “Forgotten Arrows” written by Marston - has meant that each track on Color Sands sails familiar as well as previously uncharted waters. The input of Longstreth, Marston, and Hufnagel, working in tandem with Lemay’s well documented song-writing prowess, has resulted in an album that is initially impenetrable but utterly consuming and extremely gratifying the more time you spend exploring both the music and concept.
Color Sands’s concept is an interesting intellectual departure from death metal’s usual extreme gore, and the question of why Lemay felt this topic would work in the context of a Gorguts record arises. “Everything started when I became fascinated with the process of mandala drawing. But after reading pages and pages on that topic I thought it wasn’t suited for a whole record. Once I had discovered the tragic fate and the oppression that this pacific nation had suffered, it struck me like a brick in the face! From there I decided that I would talk about the beauties of their country – which are very mystic and poetic; talk about their philosophy; talk about the Dalai-Lama; and also talk about the oppression that has tortured this nation since the ‘50s. I had no desire to be pretentious and say, ‘Ok, listen, that’s how things have happened here’; I would have had to read books for 25 years to know every detail about this culture, and also when you get into the political aspect of it, it gets very complex. So, I just wanted to share with the listener what struck my values as a person and tell a story which clearly documents facts, and from there the listener can conduct his/her own research and push it as far as he/she wants.”
Notably, amongst this detailed yet open-ended theme, Lemay refrains from blatantly calling the Chinese out. “You know, the listener can do 1+1 by reading the lyrics – and especially [by] the illustrations. “Take ‘Enemies of Compassion’, I could have asked the illustrator to draw a Chinese soldier with a gun killing a Tibetan monk, [but] I was not interested in this approach. Instead I preferred to illustrate both nations through the mystic beasts that individually represent them. You know, when you read La Fontaine’s Fables human virtues are incarnated as animals and the stories seem very infantile, but they’re not. So that’s the kind of approach I wanted for my story. [There is] no need to say Chinese are the bad people here and [that] the Tibetans are the victims… everything falls into place without having to use disrespectful terms.”
It’s this considered approach to crafting a concept which, besides the stature of the music, really sets Gorguts out as genre leaders; and Lemay personally has always seemed like a perfectionist. “We all are! I know what I want! Haha! Also, Kevin and Colin don’t do anything without a reason. It was great sharing the arrangements while writing. Colin and Kevin have academic training, so we could share musical ideas on a different level.”
Musically, because of such communal song-writing, Colored Sands doesn’t feel like a band trying to recapture something that has passed and can never be repeated. It’s the sound of new blood pumping through the grotesque heart of this multi-limbed leviathan. As a result, the dominant form of Obscura fades into the milieu, and in its place is one of the best extreme progressive metal albums to arrive in an age. Each lengthy song on Colored Sands is teaming with passages of atonal brutality and eerie melodic lucidity, and the music is carefully layered and orchestrated to enhance the weight of the album’s concept. No more so than the orchestral piece, “Battle of Chamdo”, which splits the album at its axis, and gives the listener a much needed reprise from the engulfing nature of the songs that surround it.
Created by Lemay as a means to give Colored Sands a well needed gasp of air, “Battle of Chamdo” is bookended between two suffocating tracks – “Colored Sands” and “Enemies of Compassion” – and the song is a superb example of Lemay’s work as a classical composer. According to Lemay, composing both classical music and metal isn’t that different, and having knowledge of both styles helps when writing music in general. “I use the same approach when it comes to both aesthetics. A musical theme is a musical theme no matter what instrument expresses it. The classical music experience brought to my ear a sense of details that I didn’t have before… and when you go back to arranging metal songs after having written orchestrations for chamber ensembles and full orchestras, you hear things differently.”
While Gorguts has always been pigeon-holed as a technical death metal band, Lemay doesn’t believe that a song has to necessarily be technical in order to be interesting, and that orchestration is paramount. “You can have the best riffs ever, but if they’re arranged/ orchestrated badly the song is not going to work. Take the beginning of the song ‘Colored Sands’; it’s a single note, and then you have a build up until the distortion kicks in. This is not technical to play; the virtuosity lies in the dynamics and the guitar/bass counterpoint.”
Such understanding of dynamics and the tricks of great song-writing is not something inherited, it’s developed over years of hard graft. Lemay has become a figurative teacher to hundreds of established death metal musicians over the years because he has honed his craft meticulously. Now that he is currently backed by some of the best young musicians in the world, and has given them partial control over the reins of Gorguts for Colored Sands, this already legendary band could prove to be even more unstoppable in the future.
With its supreme musicianship, educated song-writing, and powerful concept, Colored Sands stands shoulder to muscular shoulder beside Obscura as the Gorguts album. 2013 has been a truly colossal year for death metal, and Gorguts are leading the destruction once again. Welcome back.
Dean Brown is a Contributing Editor here at Popmatters, and a staff writer for The Quietus, Terrorizer Magazine and Iron Fist Magazine. Dean can be found on twitter: @reus85