In anticipation of Gorguts’ impending release of the long awaited ‘Colored Sands,’ it is only right to look back at the seminal band’s 1998 masterwork, ‘Obscura.’ 12 years (2001’s also excellent ‘From Wisdom to Hate’) is a long time between records, and even if the hype does not add up to reality, ‘Sands’ will earn Gorguts many new fans, and rightly so. In the process, these new fans (and old fans) will search through the band’s previous material to find inspiration and new details about how to find, critique and maybe make new challenging death metal records.
‘Obscura’ is one of the most influential death metal albums ever created, no controversy there. This author lauds the release as a masterwork alongside the former distinction. What might be open for more discussion is whether or not the album is indeed ‘avant-garde’ death metal as it is known. In the case of death metal and its related genres, one of the traits that make an album or band forward thinking is how it stands up against newer material. Creating heavier/faster/etc music is what makes metal ‘avant’ in the straightforward sense. Many of the classics in one sub-genre or another still sound crushing and horrific (‘Altars of Madness,’ ‘Slowly We Rot,’ ‘None So Vile’ etc). Experimentation and ‘otherness’ (also signified by divided fan opinions) make up the other major pole of what determines a work’s forward orientation (i.e. ‘Into the Pandemonium,’ ‘Disharmonization,’ ‘Dawn of Dream’). Like any canon, they build for (better or worse) the course of artistic movements and the resulting culture. The record in question is probably best described as a combination of the two. Not too far afield to alienate extreme fans but also bizarre enough for listeners outside the genre to take notice. Perhaps the best illustration of this fine line is the tremendous breakdown that occurs during ‘Nostalgia,’ which blends subdued percussive work along with tightly wound lead guitar soloing. Normally palm muting, crash cymbals and pinch harmonics signify a DM break, but here the formula is turned inside out and has probably crushes a few kneecaps in a live setting.
A cursory listen to ‘Obscura’ will leave an impression, be it positive or negative. While this author is not musician and does not understand the intricate workings of mathematics and composition, hearing twangs, slapping, blasting, stop-starting, howling and breaking in this arrangement thrilling and inspiring. An album like this is by its nature multidisciplinary and panoramic. Density and depression are an inevitable result from the crazed combination of death metal, doom metal, sludge, free-jazz and general theatrics. And the most amazing of all is how listenable and melodic(!) the end product is. ‘Clouded’ is obvious centerpiece due to its almost Godflesh level of doom and gloom, but there are many other moments of high-drama and gravitas that also happen to come in many forms. The production is exemplary, giving space from the entire band to contribute to the work at hand. There isn’t an album of this kind in the fact that all the members seem so valuable to the whole. No one is crowding anyone out, which is an ideal in and of itself. Music of this kind can make one feel misled and shamed by previous favorites and then led desperately in search for similar vitality and vitriol. But what makes a work unique is the fact that it is endangered by its own individuality. One is only one. It cannot be equaled, only replicated or expanded upon.
‘Obscura’ can also be summarized by its sleeve artwork. The only problem was that yours truly couldn’t make out the picture was of. Its basic shape is there, a figure seated in a meditative position. But what of its head? It wasn’t clear to these eyes even after a copy came into these hands. Smaller images online suggested a serpent head emerging from the figure. The stripe down the center of the ‘head’ reminds of Oakland Raiders’ helmets, or more accurately the plastic capsule versions that could be quartered from the grocery store’s gumball machines. Did the head have floppy ears? Horns? But the more I looked at I couldn’t figure it out. A Rorschach image? Something purposely ‘obscured?’ Or just ‘something?’
And then, I saw it. It was right there in front of me, and thus made me feel stupid. An old man’s face, bearded, eyes shut, confounded by harsh lighting and physical contours. Breaking down the image in relation to the music can be done rather quickly: like that sagacious figure, the band was searching for something ‘obscured’ by an absence of light. The inner artwork showcases the four men in similar meditative postures. They might be clearing their minds for the task at hand, or perhaps spilling their mental entrails like the character at the center of Demigod’s ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes.’ But like said epiphany, the most profound questions can seem quite obvious when the right information is presented. The common thread is that distractions are being put aside for individualistic searching and conception. And the music speaks for itself in that matter, even if it might not be one’s tastes.
The lyrics are closely tied to that same idea of searching and transcending said ‘Carnal State’ or ‘Earthly Love.’ Becoming ‘Clouded’ and a ‘Faceless One’ are made to be the end point of the spiritual struggle of the protagonists. Even it if begins to sound a bit New-Wave, the sincerity and attention to narrative in the words and music makes the work even more concrete. It is only right that the coda is entitled ‘Sweet Silence,’ as all distracting noise and violence would probably be banished from the higher level sought for. In short, the clamoring music itself is merely sound, and thus not of the ideal place it tells of. A sort of humble admission by the band perhaps? The track itself is not silent save for the lack of vocals, as it chronicles the transformation of the ‘seeker’ in a higher/different state. Twisting and turning, pulling apart and reorganizing and finally coming to an end over a dying scansion of distortion that marks the end of the physical experience.
Word. Amazing and visionary stuff. And catchy too.
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