Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Long Hundred 014/100: Gorguts - Obscura which death metal was broken, then reshaped.

[This is part of a series of posts dedicated to 100 albums I feel lucky to have heard. The full list and a more detailed explanation of the series can be found here.]

Before I talk about Gorguts, I have to talk about Emperor Mike.

Emperor Mike worked at a record store in New York's East Village - one of those hole in the wall places that you'd only find by accident, and whose name completely escapes this aging hesher. I only found out about the place through a chance mention in Metal Maniacs.

Mike was the kind of guide I'd been looking for as a teenager - an older hesher with a wide knowledge of the genre and a well-defined bullshit detector. [Upon hearing a few seconds of the fourth Overdose album, he restricted his opinion to "UGH NO", before handing it off to me.] He was instrumental in tracking down a number of albums missing from my collection, and for a surprisingly low price to boot.

I respected Mike so much that when he issued the simple instruction, "Go get the new Gorguts album", I did.

Mike wasn't alone in rating Gorguts highly. My buddy Tevlin Schultz -  a talented drummer who was one of my first metal friends at college - made me a tape of Considered Dead, and cemented in my mind that Gorguts were a band to be taken seriously. But the unadorned Schuldiner worship of that first album in no way prepared me for what Obscura unleashed in my dorm room.

The album was written during a period of inactivity for the band - after getting dropped by Roadrunner Records, head Gorgut Luc Lemay enrolled in a Canadian music conservatory. It's clear that Lemay's studies expanded the way he viewed death metal, and Obscura was his proof of concept. The album isn't a departure from his previous albums, exactly - rather, the slow Florida-influenced riffs of Considered Dead and the more technical blasting of The Erosion of Sanity were reconsidered, skewed, and mutated into atonal forms. Lemay saw a potential in the genre that hadn't been considered yet.

Even now, the album isn't an easy listen. Lemay deliberately and defiantly shunned conventional scales, making the music dissonant and jarring. But his arrangements display his music school pedigree - like good classical or jazz compositions, the songs on Obscura ebb and flow in ways that subvert listener expectations. As a guitarist and songwriter, Lemay was a mad scientist who used his genius for evil.

I feel the need to stress that as much as I enjoy Obscura, I don't pretend to understand it. As with Mitochondrion, Abyssal, Ulcerate, or any other similarly confounding dissonant/progressive death metal bands, confusion is a large part of the appeal. I prefer music that isn't easily assimilated and forces the listener to work - because when comprehension finally arrives, it causes a seismic shift in my understanding.

Though Gorguts had a few like-minded peers in the death metal scene - in particular, the equally forward-thinking Finnish band Demilich - I always felt Obscura was closer in spirit to bands like Coalesce, who crafted heavy discordant music around confounding time signatures, with no regard as to whether their fans would "get it". Though undeniably a death metal band, Luc Lemay belongs to a class of musician unhampered by genre fidelity or considerations of being "true"; so it made perfect sense when Gorguts later assimilated Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marsten - two highly proficient musicians whose work with the math metal outfit Dysrhythmia made them perfect additions to the band.

Perhaps Lemay realized that Obscura was a leap too far for most of his audience; subsequent albums tempered its disorienting onslaught, and re-integrated more traditional melodies. Obscura remains a testament to Lemay's boldness, vision and prowess; few bands have managed anything as confounding, even as the "dissonant death metal" sub-sub-genre grows exponentially. I'm grateful that a simple instruction from Emperor Mike led to twenty years of confusion.

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Dan Swanö