Music has a solid foundation, an underlying texture, of noise. The men and women that play with it, reshape it, and weave it, we call musicians. In Colored Sands, the fifth full-length album from the newly reformed Gorguts, we can hear musicians working at the edge of music. They are explorers, lumbering like martial artists in a drunken boxer style, and their journey offers us an hour-long journey into sonic freedom where lies a bewildering duality of harshness and precision.
On June 23, 1998 Obscura, the third album by Gorguts, was released and a watershed moment in metal occurred. Before, Gorguts had released two full lengths of technically proficient and interesting releases in technical death metal. In Obscura a hydrogen bomb was lobbed onto the metal scene. Noisey, atonal, obscure, and complex, are all words that have come to describe the album in later years since its release. An atonal maze of guitar, bass, drums, and madness, the album was a staggering achievement. Even more so as Luc Lemay seemed dedicated to the band and persevered through shifting lineups and being dropped by Roadrunner Records.
One other album was released following Obscura and then Gorguts seemingly disappeared. Rumors spread of a new album. The type of rumors that spoke of eccentricity, label interference, legal issues, and condemnations that fans were simply waiting for nothing, a project that would never be released. Gorguts fifth album became what Half–Life 3 is for gamers, fodder for conspiracy. But then this year Gorguts announced their signing with Seasons of Mist, a premier independent label for extreme metal from France, and shortly thereafter the “lost” album, Colored Sands, was announced and released.
Let’s take a few steps back to take steps forward. “Modernism” for music refers to a period around the turn of the 20th century and on. It concerns an approach by the musician, one that is conscientiously referential to the changing cultural landscape of the time. The agrarian landscape of romanticism was replaced by the profoundly modern industrial landscape of machines scraping and atonally meshing with one another. Musicians of the time reflected this idea through atonal, dissonant, experimental, and progressive pieces most notably from classical composers such as Charles Ives. These pieces were often described as unsettling, off balance, and equal to the profound disjointing one felt from the new industrial era that blurred spaces and disrupted the senses. Behind and in them lurked the presence of musical freedom, sonic exploration.
It’s no surprise that this same industrial dissonance and atonal musicality would be utilized through the electric guitar and amplifier with its power to distort sounds and warp the sonic space in the 1960s by art rock, experimental, and counter culture radicals (famously exemplified in Jimi Hendrix’s war inspired rendition of Star Spangled Banner), and later by extreme metal bands with extreme levels of distortion. But where atonality, noise, and an industrial aesthetic, always lurked behind these pieces, for Gorguts the musical texture of interlocking atonality becomes the very essence of the band. In Coloured Sands this aesthetic reigns as songs like “Le Toit Du Monde” and “Enemies of Compassion” seem to revel in moments where the band unfurls in numerous directions, tones, and polyrhythms. Symbiosis seems the most apt way to describe the bands playing on the album as each member acts like the limb of a drunken boxer, wildly and unconventionally moving in different directions, yet unified to a single mobile body.
If that central body has a consciousness it is that of Quebec native Luc Lemay. The central figure in the decade spanning band that has had its lineup shift and change around him. He is the driving force behind Gorguts with a distinct roar that is deep and guttural. Where most metal bands operate between a shrill high, and a growling low, Lemay bellows like a tortured lion. His guitar playing remains distinct. Disregarding traditional progressions, song structures, tonality, and chords, his playing is sinewy and weaving through intense tremolo picking, delicate harmonics, and a sonic assault through untraditional means with polyrythmic stop-starts and deep whammy bar dives. His tone at times seems at the limits of punchy distortion, but his playing keeps it firmly under control.
But the presence of the new band members is also clear. Kevin Hufnagel on guitar brings his characteristic swirling and spiraling style that he honed in bands such as Dysrhthmia, Krallice, and solo projects, to many of the songs on Colored Sands. Notably, on “Enemies of Compassion” the discordant playing pushes the odd chord progression into seemingly endless further sequences, piling on note after note while a frantic pace full of stop-starts hypnotizes and lures us off a cliff into atonal maelstrom. Together Hufnagel and Lemay synergize their styles into a more groovy and chordal-based one, but one where the signature Gorguts style and unique riff’s remain.
The lower end and drums are handled by the equally talented Colin Marston on bass, a prolific musician alongside Hufnagel in Krallice and Dysrthymia while also playing in Behold…The Arctopus and numerous other projects, and John Longstreth, formally of the technical death metal band Origin. The bass is nimble and with a delightfully thick distorted tone that is often audible. Thankfully, Marston does not simply play root notes but frequently charts his own path creating powerful moments like in “Forgotten Arrows” where the bass dominates the mix with a droning pulse that is laden with groove, but at odds with the syncopating guitar. Longstreth displays an incredible skill for drumming across the album from the blastbeats that pummel through the last 2 minutes of “Forgotten Arrows”, to the rhythmic demands of the oddly timed “An Ocean of Wisdom”, to the march rhythm he beats out of his drums during “Enemies of Compassion”, and in the slower moments of “Absconders”, a borderline doom track, where he is crucial in maintaining rhythmic coherence and keeping the song interesting with his well placed fills.
The overall complexity of the instrumentation and musicianship reflects the complexity and multifaceted nature of the music being played. Gorguts continually rejects and evades a consistent genre definition instead choosing to move from the driving and chugging ferocity of death metal, to the virtuoso musicianship and wanderings of prog, to the atonal and brazen sounds of noise, and the slowed down slog and riff worship of groove and doom metal.
This complexity is captured clearly in a binary nature of precision and harshness, delicate and raw, which persists on the album. Lemay links his lyrical content to this duality through the bipolar sounds on the album, screeching highs that dance with booming lows like tribal dancers. Focusing on the history of Tibet as an organizing concept for the album his lyrics oscillate from deep spirituality, to anguished repression and suffering (“Le Toit Du Monde”, “Enemies of Compassion”, “Absconders”). While these two ideas are lyrically split by “The Battle of Chamdo”, an instrumental interlude by a string quartet and written by Lemay, they extend to the musicianship and to the album cover with a drawing of hands simultaneously in prayer and bound over a mandala.
Freedom is the replay value; freedom is the strength of Gorguts. From their ability to continually resist easy definitions and their sonic explorations the band lucratively ply and mold sounds and noise to their liking. Despite the looming technical death metal moniker the band is a fun one to listen to because of a sense the songs may go anywhere (Lemay drops an instrumental in the middle of his album of insanity and chaos, and by god it works). This not technical in the sense of shredding, this is technical in the complete sense; they are technicians involved in playing with the parts themselves. Like any good album, picking apart the layers of noise and musicianship reveals new layers and paths to follow. That is what is most important about Colored Sands by Gorguts: their music is an example of a band playing free from normalcy and reveling in it.
If any flaw may be attributed, and it is slight, it is towards the production. Technical Death Metal is one of the few metal genres where a crystal clear mix is favorable (the exact opposite is in Black Metal where barley audible mixes through a tape recorder in a cave are favored by the most kvlt). Where Obscura featured an almost painfully clear mix, Colored Sands is a little contained, a little muddy. The mix focuses the band from a complete flux of parts into a unified force, an assaulting maelstrom that does not always leave the individual instruments clear from one another. What it does though is synergize their power and weight together allowing for a crushing full sound that can also single out one instrument for emphasis. Some may gripe, but I do not. I find the mix well balanced and quite successful at capturing the maelstrom of sound, the Gorguts sound.
The influence of Gorguts from Obscura onward has been broad; one need only look at bands such as, Portal, Baring Teeth, Ulcerate, Revocation, Dhsrythmia, Krallice, etc., but few feel as liberating and crushing as Gorguts does. Colored Sands plays with the texture of music itself, plying and molding it into a wild, seemingly unrestrained sound that is deeply under control and above all else driven towards exploration.