Aside from a child quietly gestating inside the warm confines of its mother’s womb, it would be hard to say anyone, or anything, has had a better nine months than Phillipe Tougas (aka Pat Tougas). The twenty-four year old Canadian ended last year with the release of And When the Sky Was Opened, the sophomore effort of international tech-death band Serocs (and the first with Tougas as an official member). Next, in early 2016, Profound Lore released his pet project Chthe’ilist’s debut LP Le Dernier Crepescule. On May 20th of this year, Unique Leader Records will release First Fragment’s album Dasein, on which Pat handled lead guitar and vocals (of course).
Yet somehow all of that will be eclipsed by Zealotry’s 2016 coming-out party, The Last Witness. It’s quite something to announce that Zealotry’s is the best of the aforementioned releases. The Last Witness might be the greatest death metal album, and even album, released in 2016, which has already been a never-ending jaw drop when it comes to death metal. It’s Pat Tougas’ planet. We are just breathing the air.
Much like Chthe’ilist, Zealotry begins with a foundation in the Finnish tech school of Demilich. But much like fellow 2016 panty-droppers Nucleus, Zealotry reach into the more modern American school of death metal as well as the Canadian reaches of bands like Mitochondrian. Zealotry is a band with the absolute confidence of their youth, yet the inventiveness of a heroin-addicted jazz musician near the end of his rope. They have their hands inside the cookie jar of pretty much every single genre that metal has ever bled into.
Most interestingly, Zealotry borrows from liturgical black metal. It’s not a common occurrence in metal. While death metal and black metal often remain on parallel highways, sometimes converging to form blackened death metal, there isn’t often liturgical chanting in technical death metal. On tracks like “Progeny Omega,” Zealotry steps outside the mixing bowl and dives headlong into choir chants that serve as a sort of breakdown. The track twists its way through meandering bass lines and staggeringly jagged guitar melodies only to fade into atmospheric keyboards, spoken word, tribal drumming and nearly clean guitar melodies before rebuilding the foundation. The rebuild is led by the punchy, bright bass-work, and leaping into the canonical history of liturgical church chants. The choir is underscored by some of the most rhythmically precise and technical drumming on the album, and yet there is a serenity achieved by the mere beauty of a full choir in perfect harmony.
And yet again, we have to reach into the well of American death metal and pull forth Atheist’s 1991 release Unquestionable Presence, which is likely getting more press in 2016 than it did in 1991 due to so many bands borrowing from it. The jagged, experimental compositions matched with the clean, walking, nearly playful bass have essentially become commonplace (beginning their resurgence with Horrendous’ 2014 release Ecdysis). Across The Last Witness (and particularly on the title track), the bass is an absolute standout. Allowing Tougas’ deep, diaphragm exploding vocals to handle the low end, the bass work of guest/session musician Aodán Collins is free to create countermelodies and contrasting rhythms against the guitars. His work is near Jaco Pastorious levels of fusion-oriented, jazz-focused work, always hovering around the root note but never revealing too much about the chord progressions.
And the closing track… Oh, boy. “Silence” is another track that exceeds the eight-minute mark and borrows from genres unheard of for death metal. The opening acoustic guitar piece is a Spanish (nearly flamenco) influenced, blues-tinged work of classical beauty. The track is slower than the usual Zealotry tracks, more pragmatic in its slow-moving assault. Zealotry once again utilizes classical influences in an acoustic bass breakdown of sorts: At roughly the 2:40 mark, a bowed, acoustic bass sizzles through the confusion and clearly demarcates a shift in the track direction, following which Tougas takes a solo that builds on the bowed feeling of the bass. Later, a string trio, accompanied by piano, builds on that solo idea in fully composed harmonies. That’s what Zealotry does so consistently: Builds on ideas slowly, making leapfrog connections between previous melodies and styles and feelings to create an overall enthralling, captivating composition.
Zealotry is, in the end, very squarely a technical death metal band. But their skill and composition is so effortless that they simply don’t feel as arduous as the label. Recently, a fellow metal writer (who shall remain nameless) took a brief pause from his dissertation on why Triscuits are better than Doritos to proclaim that death metal is failing because it “doesn’t have any hooks.” And it’s true: Zealotry doesn’t write hooks or choruses. Their songs barely even have parts that repeat. But the experience as a whole is simply unmatched. At the tender age of twenty-four, Pat Tougas has the metal scene on lock. His skill, vision, and vocals have transcended mere pop concepts like hooks and catchiness. Rather, entire tracks and entire albums are in and of themselves the catch and the experience.