Classic Albums Revisited: Gorguts – ‘Obscura’

For the past week I’ve felt nauseated.

 

It’s not food poisoning, dysentery or a pregnancy scare. I’m sick with excitement. Gorguts are coming to town. Gorguts. Gorguts. GORGUTS! The love I have for this band is beyond words; the number of times I’ve listened to each album, innumerable. There are few I place on a pedestal so sky high but these guys (many, many guys over the years) embody everything I love about music. From the direct death metal of ‘Considered Dead’ and the far afield tech of ‘Erosion of Sanity’, from the genre-defying mastery of ‘Obscura’ and the even more belligerent ‘From Wisdom To Hate’, their career is one of consistent innovation and evolution; to me, the very essence of art and music.


I interviewed mainman and mainstay Luc Lemay a couple years back at Maryland Deathfest (I flew across the ocean for Gorguts. Just Gorguts. Seriously.) with the intention of writing a classic album piece on ‘Obscura’. Soon thereafter I decided I no longer wanted to write for the magazine I contributed to at the time, and though I fulfilled my end of the bargain and penned the piece out of respect for Mr. Lemay and the fact that he took his time to speak to me, I’m pretty sure this never got published (and if it did, I’m sure I’ll be receiving a cease and desist order by morning.) I’d completely forgotten about it until just now when researching some questions for Mr. Lemay regarding the new album and figured I might as well post it up. They’re playing tomorrow night at The Underworld in Camden with DAM and Oblivionized and I wouldn’t miss this rare opportunity if I were you. Hopefully I’ll be back Tuesday morning with a juicy scoop too.

 

 

 

Words can feel cheap when attempting to describe a piece of music that is profoundly moving. How does one accurately articulate a language that is, in its essence, a revolt against the perceived supremacy of words? The mysterious sensory appeal of music relates something deeper, something more complex, but since words have a one up on grunting and we don’t have time to explain everything with a flute concerto, word-smith we must. And in the spirit of losing yourself in the evoked inexplicable and casting aside the humility of emotional discipline, for an album like this, hiding behind a safe statement seems cowardly. Fuck it. ‘Obscura’ is one of the greatest albums ever made. Ever. In the history of recorded music.

 

Highly charged words, for sure, but while the great majority who understandably find metal as appealing as a hole in the head could strongly and maybe even rightfully argue otherwise, even if it doesn’t suit your taste, the innovation, skill and creativity this work embodies is undeniable. We wouldn’t dare guess where on this long and un-pennable list of ‘ever’ ‘Obscura’ sits, but it is safe to say Gorguts objectively ticked all the boxes required of a classic metal album.

 

Released in 98, the album was written almost entirely in 93 and though delayed by lack of label interest, people were still left scratching their heads nearly 5 years after the fact; ‘Obscura’ was in a universe of its own. The fleeting fancy of relatively mainstream commercial attention had ditched thrash and the few it acknowledged in death, looking towards the groovier and more palatable metal of Pantera and the hip-hop inclined, and the established bands who had grown tired of the same old sounds began to actively eschew the rigidity of the genre, experimenting with pretty much anything that piqued their interest. Just at the tip of the iceberg, Death began rewriting the definition of tech, Entombed slowed it down and got their rock on, Pestilence tried their hand at an atmospheric jazzier bit, Atheist followed the Latin tangent, and Cynic just ditched death metal entirely. All the while, bands like Meshuggah, Opeth, and Akercocke began to emerge and further broadened the scope of a genre already built on an expansive set of roots.

 

Winding through a paradoxical and alienating soundscape, the demented genius of the three-ring amplified string circus anchored in precisely schizophrenic beats harmonises dissonance in abstract melodies and challenges listeners to look beyond the traditional parameters of song with calculated but seemingly arbitrary movements and structures. They certainly weren’t the first to venture outside of the subject matter that gave the genre its name but ‘Obscura’s lyrical departure was another defining characteristic marking the album as an anomaly, bringing the eastern philosophy of spiritual guru and Rolls Royce collector Osho into a concept album where according to guitarist, vocalist and founder Luc Lemay “the main theme was the duality between the soul that lasts forever in those types of ideas and the flesh which is only going to last for 80 years so.”

 

Light years away from the more straight-forward pummel of ‘Considered Dead’ and ‘The Erosion Of Sanity’, Lemay explains that it all began with the addition of a few of strong-minded Steve’s and being dropped from Roadrunner unexpectedly.

 

“We did this European tour with Blasphemy – which is the only European tour we did – and just before we were supposed to go two guys left the band. Steve McDonald [drums] came do the tour and Steeve Hurdle came to play guitar. When we came back from Europe, I had a letter in my mail box saying they weren’t going to do another record with us. Yeah, of course we were bummed but we sat down and we consciously said to each other, we’re going to write more music and we’re going to avoid everything that the band has done, anything that was particular to the Gorguts sound before.

 

“The ‘Obscura’ sound, a lot of people think ‘Oh Luc’s very creative’, but that’s not true, it’s a collective piece of work. I was really happy because they were all leaders in each of their previous bands, and they were over-creative, and for the first time I had some other band mates with very strong ideas and very strong opinions about writing a song. There’s no way I could have written this music by myself.”

 

The work of this collective conscience came together slowly at first, their personal styles taking time to merge in each single unit of song. But once they got the hang of it, things moved faster than they expected.

 

“We’d take a week off, everyone would come up with riffs, then we’d get together, everyone would play their riffs to each other, then we’d say ‘let’s put this riff here, let’s put this riff there’ and we wrote songs. The first song was ‘Rapturous Grief’ and it took about a month to get it together. We weren’t used to writing music with each other but surprisingly we continued with this process, and then it was a week on, get the riffs done, and every song only took about two, three days.

 

“We started writing in about April of 93 and in about Christmas of 93 we had pretty much an album done. Then we took a break and ‘cos we were going to do a record with Redlight Records in Chicago and that didn’t work out so we said okay let’s write two more songs and that’s when we wrote ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Obscura’.

 

“’Obscura’ was the last song we wrote. I think its the one that has the most awkward geometry and set up the colour and the tone for the whole record, because if you listen to the record without this song I think it would have a different angle. That’s really the accomplishment of the language we were aiming for, the picture we had, and I really think we achieved what we wanted to hear because we wanted to do the music that we as musicians would really surprise us. I remember the first time we sat down in the living room and pressed play and when it was done we looked at each other and said ‘holy shit! What the fuck?’ We surprised ourselves and that was a very special moment.”

 

Album written, mission accomplished, label lacking. With a marked slump in outside interest and a fanbase still digesting the past five years of fast-paced progress, labels weren’t willing to dole out the dollars and distro, especially not to high-risk investments like ‘Obscura’. Gorguts was left sitting on their masterpiece for years, confused as to why no one would exhibit the art.

 

“We jammed these songs for four years without writing anything else in hopes that someone would call us or something. I remember I sent some tapes to record labels and they didn’t even write back. They were not even interested. We didn’t know it was ever going to come out.

 

“We were so pumped about the music and we were so enthusiastic and we just didn’t get it. It wasn’t an ego trip or anything but we were asking ourselves ‘why’? We wrote the thing so for us it wasn’t that complicated, in another way it was actually way easier to play than ‘Erosion Of Sanity’ because it was all open chords and this and that. We just didn’t get why it didn’t interest anybody. But we never said to each other let’s give up… I thought to myself ‘we got that in the drawer so when it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.’”

 

Though it’s now taken it’s rightful place as one of the finest moments in heavy metal history, monumental albums take time to understand because there is no criteria to judge them by; they create their own criteria. Eventually Olympic picked up the record and like all great works, it divided the listening public with its novel and ground breaking sound.

 

“When it came out it was ‘piece of shit’ or ‘I love it’ – one of the two. It took everybody by surprise. There were people that were saying ‘I love it, I listen to it and I find some new details every time and then there were the people who just didn’t like it, which I respect ‘cos you can’t please everybody. But I think we pushed people, forced people to question themselves and see further than accepting one way to write heavy music.”

 

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