Given the untamable diversity of styles that the term conveys, there’s almost nothing one can say accurately about heavy metal as a whole that isn’t so generic as to be hopelessly vague. Nevertheless, here’s a pithy attempt: heavy metal is about intensification. “That was pretty loud – what if we played louder?” “This band is playing really fast, but I bet we could play faster.” “I guess that was kinda heavy, but what if we did it heavier?” Heavy metal doesn’t require uniformity, but it’s hard to imagine many of us have been drawn into its orbit without feeling the need, at some elemental level, to hear something loud, fast, and heavy.
Technical death metal is, in many ways, the apotheosis of those animating tenets. And yet, while the subgenre has produced astounding demonstrations of skill and creativity, it has too often and too easily mistaken the tools of intensification for the attitude of intensification. It seems like for every band using speed and blinding technical ability to enhance and intensify their core musical ideas, there are a half-dozen others whose sole focus is simply lengthening the axis.
Dasein, the debut album from Quebec’s First Fragment, is punishingly fast and overwhelmingly technical. It is, more than anything else, a monument to shred. Even so, First Fragment never falls prey to the common pitfalls of the style, because where tech death often feels sterile and academic, Dasein is playful, curious, and exuberant. The album is unremittingly melodic and neoclassical, with its stacked arpeggios sometimes sounding like a baroque fugue played on a harpsichord that has been dredged in liquid mercury.
First Fragment fits in easily with spit-shined tech death’s royalty, so don’t be surprised to hear echoes of Necrophagist, Gorod, Augury, Spawn of Possession, et al. The squealing, cosmic sheen of the lead guitars, however, is straight out of the Mithras/Sarpanitum playbook, and it is a glorious thing to behold. With its overtly neoclassical approach, Dasein also has some kinship with Exmortus, but unlike the shredtastic death/thrash of Exmortus, very little about First Fragment feels truly aggressive. Instead, the band seems to be pursuing a strategy of transcendence through giddy, unselfconscious awe at the sounds they still can’t quite believe they’re able to make.
Special mention has to go to First Fragment’s lead guitarist, Pat Tougas. If it wasn’t enough to sit back and marvel at the buoyancy of his playing throughout, consider that Dasein is the third exemplary death metal album he has played on this year, rounding out one hell of a breakout year on Chthe’ilist‘s Le Dernier Crepuscule and Zealotry‘s The Last Witness. All of which is to say that if you hate sweet licks and classy guitar leads that tumble out of every last nook and cranny of an album, please steer clear of Dasein, because Tougas is aiming to wipe that frown off your face with every tap, sweep, and pinch in his formidable arsenal. (And he’s only 24! Sweet potato-peeling Persephone, that’s incredible.)
Truthfully, every song on the album has at least a few moments where the only realistic reaction is to laugh at the preposterous ambition and thrill of it, whether that’s the gleaming reverb on the solo from “Archetype” – where the lead duties shared between Tougas and Mathieu Marcotte of Augury are enough to send a Leon Macey-shaped comet streaking across the starry night sky – or the utterly jaw-dropping closing of “Gula,” where the solo/lead section from around 4:00 on sounds exactly like what you might expect the space-borne cries of the whales from Star Trek IV to sound like if they had given up krill for a diet of crystal meth.
Nevertheless, for as much as Dasein devotes itself to hyperspeed melodic blitzing, the songs rarely stay in one mode for too long, with stylistic tangents that work smartly more often than not. The album’s opening track breaks into a syncopated, choppy death metal breakbeat section midway through before diving immediately back into double bass pummeling. The flamenco-style acoustic intro to “L’entite” is a beautiful touch, as is the brief section of lurching carnival waltz late in the album on “Voracite.” While these flourishes typically jut out from the death metal core at odd angles, it’s almost always in service of, if not the song, then at least the spirit of the song. David Brault-Pilon’s vocals sometimes have a touch of Mikael Akerfeldt, although the phrasing is much more staccato. “Emergence” showcases a great variety of vocals, including some higher-pitched ones that really sell it just before the solo break.
The jazzy opening of “Voracite” isn’t quite convincing, because Troy Fullerton’s drumming sounds more nervous than intentionally scattershot, but this is a witheringly small quibble. Dasein‘s pacing is a little strange at times – the extended intro from bassist Vincent Savary on the title track saps the momentum a bit, and the flamenco instrumental “L’entite” (fantastic though it is) might have helped the album’s flow if placed toward the end rather than at track 3 – but that unpredictability seems more like the product of enthusiasm than it does inexperience. Throughout, while there’s plenty of room for individual spotlights, the most captivating moments occur when the players lock into intricately composed duet or trio “leads.” Much of the latter half of “Mordetre…” (which has guest lead guitar from Spawn of Possession’s Christian Munzer) follows this pattern, so while it turns out to be one of the album’s most standard death metal songs, it still glistens with an infectious sort of hunger.
For all its speed and wild intensity, the lasting impact of Dasein is that it is a simply joyful experience. I’m sure First Fragment is screaming and bleating about important, deeply felt things (the term Dasein, after all, comes from Heideggerian philosophy), but listening to Dasein is fun and makes me feel good and happy. It’s easy to lose sight of that kind of simplicity, particularly when it’s robed in such complicated vestments, but it’s always worth celebrating. Dasein is a great album that KNOWS it’s a great album and doesn’t mind taking a victory lap or twelve. Why not join in? This heavy metal is for living.