It’s probably not the best idea to kick things off by making an outlandish claim concerning First Fragment guitarist Phil Tougas being a shadowy villain bent on provoking fledgling guitarists to heave their instruments out the window, but it wouldn’t be terribly shocking to discover he’s to blame for at least a quarter of the guitars launched into the Yamaha Pacifica Landfill that’s currently visible from space. Yes, of course complex play such as what’s heard on this recording can and most certainly does inspire humans the same way venerable vets such as Vinnie Moore, Yngwie Malmsteen, Tony MacAlpine, Greg Howe and countless others encouraged emerging guitarists to hone their chops to the next level, Tougas himself included, but a record like Gloire Éternelle really does find a higher gear wholly unfamiliar to vehicles built on this Earth. So, yes, if you fancy becoming a whizbang guitarist but have self esteem issues, you’d better have your emotional support animal (Yngwie Meowmsteen?) in the room before taking this album for a spin.
If you’re already familiar with these virtuosi Québécois, you likely caught wind of the First Fragment debut full-length from 2016, Dasein. That record was technical death metal, and it was stacked to the rafters with the sort of note-entangling wizardry one would expect from a crew of musicians who perchance spent their respective babyhoods wide-eyed and excitedly filling diapers whenever Bach concertos were played in lieu of yet another mind-numbing Raffi album, and who eventually attached Ripping Corpse songs to early MySpace pages.
Album number two, though—Gloire Éternelle—is not really technical death metal. This is clearly an important distinction that’s deserving of a little extra highlighting before moving on, so…
Gloire Éternelle is not really a technical death metal album.
Sure, a modicum of death still hangs in the corners, mostly thanks to the continued commitment to grisly growling front to back in preference to ensnaring Jeff Scott Soto or Rob Rock in a bear trap to urge either to revisit yon days spent alongside Yngwie or M.A.R.S. Everything else, though? Pure “Extreme Neoclassical Metal” with enough twists in the path to discombobulate even the most accomplished ranger. The deviation from death doesn’t mean the record is without aggression, though. The pacing is typically aggressive, or at least conducive to some form of bushy-tailed combat, and vocalist David AB finds an assortment of clever ways to growl, bark and gnarl as an ideal counterpoint to the limitless charming melody.
Can’t get enough shredding leads? Buddy, this record is like a holiday weekend trip on the 70,000 Tons of Ibanez RG550s cruise ship. What helps set Gloire Éternelle apart is the fact that the shredfest is as much geared toward the bass as it is the 50-stringed guitars Tougas and Nick “Thriller” Miller likely play. Indeed, I very literally do not know how humans do much of any of what’s found on this record, but the way Dominic “Forest” Lapointe’s bass and the guitar work from both Tougas and Miller battle back and forth throughout every song is nothing short of flat-out extraterrestrial. Cram “Solus” into your earholes for a bonkers example of how best to lay siege on stringed instruments.
Outside of the unmitigated shredding, those gang-shouted vocals (courtesy of the “Warchoir”: vocalist David AB, Phil Tougas, drummer Nicholas Wells, and ex-Neuraxis guitarist Steven Henry) also play an important role throughout the record, cropping up on every song outside of the Bach (not at all Sebastian) cover “Sonata en mi mineur” and “Mort éphémère,” the relatively brief and calming instrumental closer.
“Solus” is also a fine indicator of the overall swiftness and lively temperament pushed throughout Gloire Éternelle. Point of fact, intense energy and positive vibes have always come fairly standard with neoclassical metal, but First Fragment, once again, finds the next level. The Spanish / Flamenco infusions that flecked the debut are fully realized in 2021, most notably on the wonderfully intricate opening title cut, and this clearly adds to the overall bright energy. But it’s the perhaps startling inclusion of slappity-blappity groove bordering on funk that sends the buoyancy into the stratosphere here. This new element pops up all over the record—sometimes in very quick slaps amidst hyper-blasted hostility, and in the case of one of the record’s most fascinating trips, “La veuve et le martyr” (“The Widow and the Martyr”), it takes center stage before sprinting off like a cheetah on a meth run.
To be clear, the record isn’t completely frantic 100% of the time. Some stretches remain devoted to a sweeping spirit where the listener is lifted and the guitar and bass battles come across more like eagles banging mid-flight. “Pantheum,” for example, which kicks off with a quick fretboard assault mighty enough to pitch Yngwie’s tent for a week before a gang-shouted ”hot potato” (do…do they shout “hot potato?”) pushes the song into full swing and eventually into a wonderfully sweeping and epic spell right around the 2-minute mark.
Honestly, there is so much going on from one song to the next here that the full Gloire Éternelle journey can and almost certainly will be completely overwhelming during initial passthroughs. A little persistence and an attentive ear will reap a wealth of rewards, though, and high points will soon follow. Outside of the wonderful “La veuve et le martyr,” be prepared to have your head launched directly into the sun by the proggy sorcery of “Soif brûlante” (“Burning Thirst”), which features the most unhinged drumming (courtesy of Nicholas Wells) found on the record, as well as the toughest riff just before its 4-minute mark. And what more can possibly be said about a pant-exploding 19-minute song on a record such as this other than, “the notes go really fast, the members really know how to play their instruments, and there is some really fine Flamenco and neoclassical in the house.”
The whole damned thing is a triumph, really, but it also indulges an extremely niche off-shoot largely reserved for those with a neurotic love of noodling and an interminably adventurous appetite for proficiency, and even a portion of those folks tend to get fussy about brutal vocals. That’s precisely what makes a record like Gloire Éternelle so unique, though, and one cannot stress enough just how well balanced the prowess is here; each player flexes Bugs Bunny as Leopold-levels of musical expertise. If these sorts of things generally equate to a bonafide windfall for you, and if your brain has been known to crave upwards of 45,609,846,098,456 notes in a single 1 hour and 12 minute journey, you just stumbled on your next ticket to Shredder Shagri-la.