It has been 12 years since Gorguts last released an album.
It has been a full 15 years since they dropped The Album That Changed Everything.
But it has only been about half of that time since I truly got to know Luc Lemay’s innovations. Being the late bloomer that I was, when Obscura dropped during my senior year of high school I was too busy listening to Pantera to dig into the actual underground, and didn’t truly dive into death metal until my college years. So getting to an album as game-changing as Obscura took a backseat to catching up on the Morbid Angel and Death records I’d known about for ages.
Therefore, I was not only absent for the wave of change that the album represented, I was also not on board until the dust had settled and imitators had long been failing in their quest to duplicate the kind of one-time genius that simply can’t be duplicated. Gorguts themselves could “only” follow up the album with the brilliant-but-less-than-innovative From Wisdom To Hate. I won’t get too detailed here, but refer to the personal blog of our own Ian Chainey, who offers a much more detailed telling of what Gorguts and Obscura meant for heavy metal music late in the millennium. He was around to hear the bomb drop, and he quite accurately describes the feeling that the album gives when it truly “clicks.” I likewise had such a clicking moment, but it was blurred by knowing what the album represented, and lacked the purity of what Ian and many others must have experienced way back in nineteen hunert’n’ninety-eight.
All of this is a way to say that in many ways, Colored Sands feels like my Gorguts album. The one that I will get to know with everyone else, not later after the surprise has settled. So reviewing the album was an exciting proposition, and an act that seems to provide a strange maturity to my life as a metal fan. Not that you, dear reader, really give much of a shit about this history, but perspective for such a monumental release is an important ingredient in understanding one person’s analysis.
So now you have this perspective… onto the album we go…
Much has already been made about the band that Lemay has assembled for the modern incarnation of Gorguts, with fans assuming the worst or best, depending on their opinions of the talent involved. Regardless of said opinions, considering any of the band members less than a master of his craft would be an error; each brings a music school nerd kind of flair to Colored Sands. On second guitar, Lemay brought in Dysrhythmia’s Kevin Hufnagel; on bass, Hufnagel’s bandmate Colin Marston (also of Behold… The Arctopus and Krallice); and on drums, tech wiz John Longstreth (Dim Mak, Origin, etc.). These names will obviously elicit certain impressions, but any trepidations should be set aside, and right the fuck now.
The foursome not only sounds like Gorguts, but is Gorguts, and that success is due to one very important point: despite these songs being largely constructed by Luc Lemay, he allowed each member to shape their parts and be themselves. Hufnagel adapts his Dysrhythmia style into a kind of Lemay-on-atonal-steroids approach, enhancing the already signature dissonances of the band. Marston’s bass is fucking bonkers here, simultaneously acting as a third guitar in harmonies, providing counter-melody, and being produced in such a hard-edged manner as to also sound like an additional percussion instrument. (Really, the album is worth buying for the bass work alone.) Longstreth, meanwhile, is what you would expect him to be: a consummate professional with immeasurable technical talents, and a crucial ingredient in the album’s massive dynamics. Finally, there is Lemay himself, whose riffage is as brutal and beautiful as ever, combining slowly-developing melody with harsh atonality and clinical precision, while his vocal performance is the best of his career, finding a way to be more aggressive and forceful than ever.
The collective talent of these aces means that Colored Sands sounds like an updated, denser version of Obscura, and damn near just as thrilling. This is dense, immaculately performed and produced, dynamic, and insanely exciting music, to say nothing of how it stands within death metal. Each of these eight tracks (and one interlude) is a journey, and each adds to the journey of the whole, with songs often leading directly into another. There is nary a dull moment, and even orchestral interlude “The Battle of Chamdo” – which initially feels more like an intro to a Dimmu Borgir album than a Gorguts track – eventually worms its way into the brain of the listener. In fact, the only perceivable flaw on the album is how penultimate track “Absconders” could easily have been a few minutes shorter. But this is a minor nitpick, as the track remains strong, and the plodding finish merely slows the album’s momentum a tad as it reaches towards its hour-plus run time.
But the rest of that hour? Good gravy does it tickle the ears, folks. It takes about five seconds for opener “Le Toit du Monde” to reveal its quality, changing between guitar-and-bass twitchery and the band’s signature “trapped” melodies (cyclical and super active, but unable to break out of the brutal prison in which they operate), with the band constantly piling on the nuts. The clincher is when Gorguts employs their almost inconceivable ability to vaguely reference earlier song themes, as if in some compositional attempt to catch a listener off guard and make them question exactly what they have heard; and they do it all over the album. At the other end of the same spectrum is the title track, which aims to show off exactly how vastly dynamic this music can be. Beginning with a minimal “ping” of the guitar, it crafts a slow crescendo, sounding almost like a clean Meshuggah section before the flood is unleashed. The heavy comes, and the heavy overwhelms. The moment when Lemay’s vocals arrive might be the most naturally headbangable thing the band has done since their Suffocation-esque early days, and the track just keeps growing. The heft is like some giant, thinking, cybernetic tank, and the jazzy lead lines are like wires that desperately try to tangle in the tread, but are only absorbed and assimilated into the greater, demented machinery.
The temptation to give a full account of each song is indeed quite high, because the level of rich detail and thought that went into Colored Sands is staggering, and I just so much want to talk about it. I’d love to get into every last drop of the Morbid Angel-by-way-of-Obscura feel of “An Ocean of Wisdom,” or how the finale of “Forgotten Arrows” just takes everything fucking down as the song conquers itself. Then there is the neck-breaking riffage and ludicrous soloing in “Enemies of Compassion,” you might want to hear more about that. Or perhaps how a particularly percussive passage of “Ember’s Voice” comes across as an extreme metal version of a Stomp concert. Or even that relentless hook in closer “Reduced to Silence,” and how the band suddenly abandons it only to constantly tease its return. I’m sure you’d love to know more about that, and I’d love to get into every minute nuance, but something has to be saved. Just know that each of these passages are only small nuggets of the songs that house them, and that the richness of detail on Colored Sands will likely reveal new secrets just as long as Obscura has.
Granted, this album can never mean to death metal what Obscura did; it is utterly impossible. But it can add to one band’s musical legacy in massive ways, and if the short time I have spent with Colored Sands has anything to say, it is that this will indeed thrill any and all fans of the band, and those of adventurous music in general. (This is said while realizing that the closed-mindedness about heavy metal will mean that most “adventurous music fans” will never give the album a chance, but it really needs to be shoved into the ears of every blue-blooded Julliard freshman.) At this juncture, Colored Sands feels to be even stronger than the monstrous From Wisdom To Hate. Again, this will be up to time to decide, but it isn’t up to this review to look into the future. I can’t predict that any more than I can go into the past and experience the shock of Obscura with everyone else. All I can say is that this is the type of music that must be heard at least once, and even if you come away not enjoying it, the notes within will have bent your perception of the possibilities of music, if only a little.
And that, more than anything else, makes this a Gorguts album.