Technical death metal is a subgenre that sometimes feels strangely… unhistoric. Like a musical sui generis that just popped out of thin air to sound exactly the way it does. At least that’s my impression nowadays. In times like that, it’s nice to look back at the roots of this blistering, ferociously technical style of metal. One of those roots traces back all the way back to 1998, when Gorguts elevated themselves from a capable death metal band to pioneers of tech-death. The record that documented this evolution is none other than Obscura.

Hanna Ott

I can’t say I know terribly much about 1998 in music, and I hadn’t been on this planet long enough to be able to have any memories of that year, either. It seems like it was a pretty great year, though, giving birth not just to me but also Bloodbath, Sunn O))), High on Fire, and Ephel Duath (on a side note, Rob Halford also made metal history by coming out on live television). It was also a great year for death metal in specific – Behemoth, Cryptopsy, Dying Fetus, Meshuggah, Death, Nile, and Opeth were all releasing albums that were pushing the boundaries of metal as a whole, and redefining the sound of death metal I particular.

Most pivotal among them, to me, is Death’s The Sound of Perseverance, very unfortunately the last album that band would ever release. It does things to the death metal ‘formula’ that are so unexpected and fresh, yet still build on their earlier work – I can never decide if Perseverance or Symbolic is my favourite Death album. Perseverance plays with more melody, more fluidity of structure, and a wider range of tones than what was normal in death metal up until then. It’s immensely technical without being alienating or overly abrasive; I find it really quite beautiful and consonant for an album that’s pushing the boundaries so much.

GorgutsObscura, on the other hand, is brilliant, but I hesitate to call it beautiful. It, too, pushes the boundaries of death metal, but in the opposite direction to what Death were doing. At times, Obscura seems like it’s just being as sour-sounding and jarring as possible – a lot of the transitions are abrupt, the riffs are challenging, the harmony dissonant verging on the atonal. And yet, Obscura feels intensely vital, immensely coherent, and so incredibly emotionally laden, much in the way that The Sound of Perseverance does.

I think what makes Obscura so special, and also in many ways so similar to The Sound of Perseverance, is its incredibly brave and playful way of contrasting. Even just the opening title track is a fantastic example of this – you get the contrast between sharp, jagged, high register dissonance, and low, rumbling, unison riffing; the contrast between calculated-yet-chaotic polyphony and delightfully fat unison among all instruments; the contrast between sour clashing notes and lovely, warm, minor consonance. There’s a lot of this throughout the album. Tracks shift gears suddenly, become the opposite of what they were, mirror and morph, scatter only to reunite and then scatter again, but remain somehow intact.

Especially adrenaline-pumping is the album’s vicious second track, “Earthly Love”. It features some of the most aggressive playing on the album, but also a weighty slower section that showcases, of all things, violin, which feels like a nightmarish Sleepytime Gorilla Museum premonition. It’s one of my favourite songs on Obscura, I think because it navigates all the section times with a bit more finesse than its colleagues. I’ve always enjoyed this track, as well as “Nostalgia”, “Clouded”, “Rapturous Grief”, and of course, the perfect closing track, “Sweet Silence”. But one that I never really got until I listened to Obscura in preparation for this article was “La Vie Est Prélude… (La Mort Orgasme)”.

Perhaps it’s the most accessible, perhaps it’s the most coherent, perhaps it’s just awesome. I think its structure makes it stand out for me – you could call it straightforward, but I’d just call it succinct. There aren’t as many jarring transitions – a lot of the sections flow very naturally, and the ones that don’t feel super intentional. I love the cheeky clean break near the start of the song; it’s such a tasty treat after such a long, bitter onslaught. Most importantly though, “La Vie” doesn’t feature a single lacklustre riff; it really is all killer, no filler. How I didn’t notice it before, I’m not sure.

I have this very vivid memory of one of the times I listened to Obscura. I couldn’t tell you if it was the first time, but it was certainly early on. I would’ve been maybe 15, perhaps a little older, and I was just wandering around the local park. I remember, it was a beautiful golden day, late summer or maybe early autumn, and I lay down beneath a gorgeous yellow-leaved tree and looked up at the clouds drifting across the sky in pure bliss as the agitated, angular sound of Gorguts pounded my eardrums. In some delicious, unusual way, it was the perfect match, and seemed to somehow relate to the album as well – this extreme juxtaposition, creating something wholly amazing.

At that time, I was listening to a lot of tech death – Origin, Dysrhythmia, Between the Buried and Me, and, of course, Gorguts. I was pushing myself to listen and appreciate music that was outside of my comfort zone, and often beyond what I could really comprehend. Nowadays, when I listen to some of those bands, I just don’t feel anything for them anymore – they seem to just be technical for the sake of it, timestamps of an era when being the fastest and weirdest was synonymous to being the best and heaviest. What speaks for Gorguts, and Obscura in particular, is that it still feels so fresh and so extreme, 25 years later. While I don’t love all of the transitions and don’t completely understand what some of the riffs are trying to convey, it does still impress me every time.

I’ve since moved away from tech death, and often find modern versions of it to be derivative, clinical, and trying much to hard; but even though I’ve distanced myself from the genre in general, I can’t help but be transported right back to that gilded park, the gleaming amber leaves, the tickling, whispering grass, every time I hear even just the opening moments of Obscura. I feel instantly the curiosity and awe I felt back then – and I truly hope that never changes.

Eeli Helin

So it’s been 25 years since Gorguts revolutionized an entire genre and created another one in the process? That’s quite something. I find it hard to believe that anyone would really argue against Gorguts’ importance in the dissonant death metal world, as they were amongst the first acts to really push the envelope of what can be done in the context of challenging music, and even though there might’ve been others doing something similar either prior to them or at the same time, no one else made such an impact as they did. The tremors of that can still be felt tangibly today, and if you’re even remotely invested in death metal as a whole, chances are there’s not a single day you’d evade seeing someone mention Gorguts by name somewhere.

Obscura was truly an oddball of its time, even though as elaborated on above, it gained wide acclaim and recognition afterwards. The instrumental prowess and out-of-the-box mentality embedded in its DNA is rightfully celebrated, as to this day there is very few artists reaching the signature brilliance Gorguts demonstrated on the album; while the technical execution is on point, the main motif lies on approaching known instruments from a fresh angle, throwing familiar song structures to a blender and molding something new of the mush, all finally brought together by means of organic production. The industry standards of today have shifted towards idolizing the unnatural, with productions aiming towards being clean and clinical, losing any and all motes of humanity along the way. I don’t have the tiniest doubt that the reason Obscura still stands out is that it never relied on any type of standards or requirements on any imaginable spectrum.

Obscura showcases its significance right from the beginning hits of its titular track, forcing the listener to question and re-evaluate what it is that they’re hearing, and to recalibrate their mindsets accordingly. I’ve stumbled upon that phenomenon a few times, as I’m sure most of you have, but I wonder if there is one with such an universal status as this one? At least I can’t think of one for the time being. That should speak volumes in on itself, though. The prog and tech-death scenes of course have their forerunners, some of which even might precede Gorguts, but it’d be moot as fuck to try to disprove or belittle them, as they are the very definition of a forward-thinking band that’s an exuberant sum of its boundary-crushing parts.

Even though the majority of Obscura is founded on percussive elements and discordant atonality, there’s also nuances like the cascading dreadful melodies on ”The Art of Sombre Ecstacy”and ”Clouded”, for example, that add another layer of fascinatiom in to Gorguts’ shroud of compositional mystery. Making the chasm sing in awful yet mesmerizing manner is an achievement of its own, and you can pinpoint exactly when and how Gorguts later on tapped to the same source as on Obscura on their later efforts. Hell, you can pretty much do that on every modern dissonant metal album and draw potent lines to where certain aspects of influence stem from, either directly or indirectly. You can pick apart the unnerving stretched wailing of ”Subtle Body” or the colossal and surging high moments of the closer ”Sweet Silence”and clearly note the components that became immortal after the album’s release, yet as said earlier, it is the sum of these things that make Gorguts and the record what they are. And that sum is one for the history books.

Jake Walters

Plenty of bands in the past have reinvented themselves, changed styles, or generally switched things up. Few, however, have been as dramatic and meaningful as when Gorguts leaped from being a good death metal band to being one of the greatest technical death metal bands of all time with the release of Obscura. When I had the luck of seeing Gorguts earlier this year, Lemay said that this album was their rebirth, and that is a brilliant way to look at it. This album wasn’t a slight deviation from their established sound; this was a shift that shook the entire genre and spawned a whole new way of looking at death metal.

With Obscura, everything was new and different. Themes of gore and horror were exchanged for existentialism and philosophy. Groove and rhythm was replaced with angular dissonance. The growls of Considered Dead were indeed dead, replaced by the howls of a being contemplating its place in the universe. While this isn’t the first album to contemplate such things, there is something about the pairing of this style and these themes that feels incredibly brutal but also wildly apt. Lemay’s well-documented fascination with classical composition informs each track and while there is elegance to be found throughout, there is no loss of brutality.

From the opening notes of the title track this is a different animal altogether. Bendy riffs amidst the chaos of the frenetic drums and thundering bass lines, and ever-shifting tempos. Each song brings with it a fresh idea and a surprise or two that to this day feels as fresh as it did 25 years ago. The funky breakdown on “Nostalgia”, the doom-leaning “Clouded”, and the gallop of “La Vie Est Prelude” are just some of the touristy spots at which you can stop on a trip through Obscura, but behind each thumping bass note or string slap there is something to uncover and appreciate. This is an album that I think requires some settling in.

The first time I listened to Obscura, I was not into it at all. It was jarring, off-putting, and my ears were just not ready for it. Over time, however, I was compelled to come back to this album again and again because I wanted to solve this puzzle. I wanted to break through that barrier of entry and find what so many loved about this album, and frankly, it took a while. What really made the album click for me however, was watching and reading interviews with Luc Lemay, the band’s chief architect. His passion for music and almost child-like wonder that appeared in his eyes showed a man that was constantly inspired by ideas and new ways to translate his energy into death metal. He could have had a career in any genre that he wanted, of that I have no doubt, but his love for extreme music led him to emulsify this knowledge of composition with his love of death metal.

Obscura is and will always be an enigma, a wild idea that shouldn’t have worked. Instead, it is the progenitor of an entire subgenre that marries the density of metal with the intricate compositional focus that hadn’t been found in many albums that came before it. It has withstood the passing of time to become a seminal album, not just within metal or extreme music, but within the scope of modern composition.

Daniel Reiser

Luc Lemay is arguably the best death metal songwriter the genre has ever seen. Something about the brutal technical delivery of the bone-crushing riffs and tempo shifts that flow as organically as a mountainside creek makes everything he composes sound otherworldly. The end result is a biomechanical monstrosity that is on the verge of coming unhinged, and from wherever your entry point is into his catalog you’re immediately introduced to a challenging viscerality that stitches together so many ‘what the fuck’ moments, you’re just left there wondering how the fuck he ever pulled it off. It’s breathtaking as much as it is exhausting, but nothing short of fucking brutally beautiful.

Obscura is no stranger to that sound. Every track on this album delivers exactly what to expect out of Lemay. He wastes no effort in building unstable structures of composition before tearing it all up in a beautiful rage. “Earthly Love” is a perfect example of this, as is “Subtle Body”. Both tracks challenge the listener to hang the fuck on, and each second further sounds like one closer to a fucking meltdown.

Hats off to the pinnacle track “Illuminatus”. The whirling/buzzing riffs make things feel absolutely unlevel as the chord progressions climb like stairs with frequent sporadic squeals and what I guess you could call a mini-solo, if it needs a name at all, because it’s honestly just all Lemay.

It’s visceral jazz for harsh noise listeners and should be coveted as an uncompromising release that stands the tests of time because of its gonzo decimation, and unique flare for unhinged theatrics. Death metal wizardry has never sounded so monstrous or unhinged as it does on every single track on this beautiful album.


Dominik Böhmer

Dominik Böhmer

Pretentious? Moi?

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