A lot of what I like about death metal can be summed up in a simple interaction: Ask me who I think is the most important death metal band and I’ll answer with Gorguts. GORE-GUTS. It sounds natural to ears attuned to the frequency of gurgles, grunts, whammy bar dives, and hummingbird heart double bass. To everyone else? Lunacy. GORE-GUTS. Nonsense. Like it’s part of a secret language of an underground cult and uttering it’s two syllables has the power to open sliding bookcases. But, its appeal to me is it nails death metal’s ridiculous duality, the incongruity allowing it to sprint and be hamstrung. Plotted out: The most absurdly talented group of visionaries we’ve had in our lifetime, who crafted the high water mark continuing to baffle music nerds of all shapes and styles, still reside beneath a banner sounding like it was vocalized by The Return of the Living Dead zombies playing Madlibs.
VERRRRRRRRRRRRB. GOREEEEEEEEEEEEEEE GUTSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.
There’s beauty in the contradiction. It’s death metal’s delicate looking, rancid smelling flower.
And the fetid aroma is wonderful.
Gorguts was formed in Quebec in 1989, the same year that survived the releases of Atheist's Piece of Time, Autopsy's Severed Survival, Carcass's Symphonies of Sickness, Morbid Angel's Altar of Madness, Pestilence's Consuming Impulse, and Terrorizer's World Downfall. Heck of a list. Heck of an influence. Baby bands in the newborn wing would soon synthesize the sounds swirling around their cribs into a more progressive strain of brutality for the ’90s great BLARGH! forward. Gorguts, though, would start a little slower, releasing two fine albums in the slightly speedier mold of the scene’s vets. If the band dissolved after 1990’s Considered Dead and 1993’s nuttier Erosion of Sanity, they’d go down as decent deathers with their contributions overshadowed by the black metal boom. Roadrunner must’ve thought as much when the label cut the group loose, halting their momentum, and causing a five year hiatus from performing. In fact, it’d be a little bit worse than an enforced vacation, as the break pruned every player except the lone constant, vocalist and guitarist Luc Lemay. By the second half of the decade, the title of their debut LP took on a sadly ironic significance.
Then, Obscura happened.
In 1998 — a year that’s more than coincidence if you have a hard-on for numerology — Gorguts popped back into the death metal consciousness. Restocking the roster with guitarist Steeve Hurdle, bassist Steve Cloutier, and drummer Patrick Robert, Lemay was able to hide a haymaker and slip it underneath heavy metal’s guard. Obscura's alien dissonance, rats-in-the-walls Lovecraftian guitar tapping, palpitating rhythmic gymnastics, and inhuman howls immediately set fire to the blueprints of the classical architecture of the old way. It was as if the band stuck ten-feet-high monkey bars onto a playground and refused to weld on a ladder. The sun woke up the scene the next day and the entire landscape was different. It's still different. Fifteen years later, Obscura has no sell-by date. It lays to waste my own ideology. My oft-leaned on one-liner is time fixes all of music’s problems, but tends to hush its biggest bangs.
Fifteen years later, we’re still feeling Obscura's concussion.
Obscura did death metal its biggest favor and its greatest injustice; it dragged it, kick drumming and pinch-squealing, into adulthood and out of the juvenilia it found so comfortable. Death and others set the table, but Obscura cooked the meal. From that point forward, death metal had the option of being innovative to not only long-haired Floridians spending study hall inking future Autopsy covers, but to the entirety of music. It’s a weight the genre hasn’t always been able to shoulder and we blame it when it doesn’t try hard enough, writing damning reviews when we think its inert or, worse, regressed. But, it’s kind of like yelling at child laborers for not being able to lift large boxes with muscles stunted by our own demands. Even more dangerous is that it opened a wormhole of paradoxes keeping any talented shredder awake at night:
Make another Obscura out of the same parts and tools, but make sure it’s more shocking.
For the next fifteen years, bands of the same species would try and fail to grow. Obscura would become a grand old oak, impressively stretching its limbs in every direction, but dooming its seeds to suffer an unlit demise beneath its tremendous boughs. Perhaps a more fitting analogy would be Everest; though its height never changes, its stature is tied to how many mountaineers have tumbled to their deaths.
Perversely, one could even count Lemay as a climbing casualty. Gorguts follow-up, 2001’s From Wisdom to Hate, is excellent if considered context-free. However, it failed to reroute reality like its revered brother.1 Same went for Negativa, birth name: Thy Ceremony, the post-project of Lemay and Hurdle that did awesome things, but carried the same emotional resonance for fans as the second lobster scene in Annie Hall. It would seem it’s not just mistakes death metallers are doomed to repeat, but their greatest triumphs. Another duality. GORE-GUTS.
By the beginning of 2013, the release of a fifth Gorguts album was, at best, a punchline. Even with an entirely new lineup centered around Lemay — this transaction itself a been-there, done-that prophecy of the old man in the first act of slasher flicks variety — it was inconceivable we’d receive tangible results. Some of the chuckles came from recruiting snare smasher John Longstreth who has been on more band rosters than Penny Lane. Other guffaws were in reaction to those bemoaning the choice of Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel, two talented prospects upsetting the metal messageboard illuminati by having the audacity to try different things. Any way you chortled, it wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t. We wouldn’t let it. I know, we’ll force Lemay to be Harper Lee!
Then, Colored Sands happened.
The proof is in the promos. It’s here. It’s real. It’s no longer a wishlist item or a funny aside in an anticipated releases column. And, it carries with it the crippling burden of ancestry. We’ll surely continue functioning under the fallacy that anything containing Lemay’s licks needs to be the BEST THANG EVA! We struggle to understand albums aren’t created out of Legos, able to be built upon by any passing party. Sometimes the son is half the man of the father. We’ll again be forced to reckon with the depressing truth Pete Rose’s kid can’t hit.
Nevertheless, we’ll get our hopes up. Gorguts is too good not to give them the benefit of the doubt.
So, will Colored Sands prove the maxim that anything is possible? How about if we close our eyes and blow hard enough? If we make sure to remember to close off every wish on every eyelash like HTML tags before we corrupt it by thinking other thoughts?
We’re getting closer to knowing. We’re at the hour when the final grains trickle out of the titanic timepiece maintained by the Fates.
Good luck and GORE-GUTS.
Gorguts is important to me. It’s important to a lot of us. Though, not to all us. It’d be for the best then, before things get bloody, to prepare ourselves for the oncoming shitstorm.
The problem with my obsession with music is it supersedes most of my memories, sucking up viable braincells to be imprinted with the complete discography following the family lines of disEMBOWELMENT and not more important worries like, “Where the fuck are my car keys?”
So, it’s with no great surprise I remember the exact moment when Obscura clicked with me. I was on an old Air Force golf course, walking up the ninth hole towards a greenside bunker when my headphones filled with the sawing violin in “Earthly Love.” I had been trying like crazy to crack the nut based on the recommendation of guiding elders and this was the sweet meat they described.
I can honestly say it changed me. It injected me into unfamiliar territory and I had to adapt quickly or get left behind. It elevated Obscura from a piece of music into a kind of proof, like Cage’s “4’33”“2 did for my thoughts on avant-garde art.
This is how I’ll show people metal is legitimate, I thought. This is the key.
I’d play Obscura for anyone who said metal was nothing more than an adolescent fixation. It was always the crux of my argument to combat the many who considered it plain repetitive power chords, dull pounding drums, and Motley Crües. I burned it for every music teacher and awaited their return, in labored breathing caused by their sprinting, to tell me I was right.
None of them ever did.
Now, I don’t blame them.
Speaking of music teachers, I once watched one openly weep while playing “God Only Knows,” a song I knew from parents flipping through the AM dial. Because it was always there, it never held any magic for me. Today, I regard it as a masterpiece, but it won’t raise the water line behind my eyelids. It not a story for me. It has no beginning. It has no end. I’m just part of its middle. It’s just a thing.
When I said above we’re still treading water in Obscura's high tide, I wasn't saying it for dramatic effect to ramp up the importance of the record. I really do think we've yet to equal its brilliance. But, I realize, for kids born on the right side of 1998, it's just going to be a thing. They'll have their own “God Only Knows” or their own “Clouded.” Meanwhile, the Obscurians will consider their era the GOAT, putting a personal growth spurt up on the pedestal and pissing on anything that follows as a pale imitation since it didn't grow with us.
In that sense, metalheads are Star Wars lifers with less hearing. The first three are the gospel and everything else is sacrilege even though it retains the same mystical mumbo jumbo and kid-friendly tone. Obsessives are granted the right to gush because they remember a beginning, the context of a time before. They remember the moment they blinked, looked in the mirror, and had hair sprouting in areas below their ear lobes. They remember having to adapt to the new, frightening possibilities. They remember being nearly destitute in a rundown apartment and it being the best days of their lives. They remember when the revolution belonged to them.
Music moves pretty slowly for those on the left side of the age divide because we’re stuck in the day-to-day creation of it. It’s like how you don’t recognize your paunch because the fat unfolds gradually over time. It’s only when we unwittingly compare and contrast snapshots by turning photo album pages too quickly that we see how the perception of time and events hides our eroding selves. Holy shit, how’d I get a double chin? Holy shit, when did bands start incorporating 808 drops?
Regardless of the end result, Colored Sands will be the most important album of the era for folks like me since it brings something close to closure, but it won’t be the most important album of the year when we look back a decade and a half down the road. Why? Well, because I can’t make that decision. I’m too long in the tooth. My job now is to be fertilizer, to lay down my bag of bones so the next generation can claim the top of the food chain.
It’s my job now to refuse to run back when someone Zippyshares the new thing.
It’s my job now to weep in front of confused, unfeeling, embarrassed students.
God only knows, indeed.
1 It’s callous to think, though one had to wonder if its crushing anticipation contributed at all to the tragic suicide of then-drummer Steve MacDonald, whose life is still wrongly narrativized by critics as a Heath Ledger-esque cautionary tale of starring too deeply into the void.
2 This, of course, precedes my birth by a large margin. But, it was unknown to me until way later in the game. Something old can be new as long as it strikes within that 16 – 25 year old sweetspot when you think you know everything.