I initially wrote this review of Gorguts’ 2013 comeback album around the time of its release, but sat on it for some reason and eventually forgot about it. In the spirit of #throwbackthursday, I’ve decided to finally put it up here with some minor edits. It’s a tad effusive in its praise, but overall I stand by my initial opinion: Colored Sands was a fantastic record when it was released and it’s still fantastic two years later.
It’s rare to come across such a disconnect between a band’s name and its music as in the case of Canadian death metal pioneers Gorguts. The moniker suggests gore-soaked horror movie clichés of the kind exhibited by any number of groups in the genre’s early 90s heyday. And indeed, that’s basically what you find on their first two albums, Considered Dead (1991) and The Erosion of Sanity (1993). Both provide solid, technically sound brutality that fits neatly into established tech-death parameters, with lyrics about mortality and sickened, rotting flesh. Next to the output of scene-defining titans like Death or oddballs like Demilich, though, they can’t help but feel like entertaining but ultimately unnecessary genre exercises.
But when the band’s founder Luc Lemay unveiled a reconstituted Gorguts with all-new members on Obscura (1998), an entirely unique take on death metal was unleashed. Even for those accustomed to aural extremity, it’s still a “difficult” album. The sound is dense, teeming with complex song structures, abrasive textures and atonal solos owing more to avant-garde modernist composers than to Cannibal Corpse. The recording itself is mastered at such a loud volume that it can be literally painful to listen to. The lyrical focus on the body- vulnerable, subject to illness and decay- is not entirely abandoned, but spiritual and mental themes take precedence, thrown into relief by the transient state of corporeal existence. By comparison, the 2001 follow-up From Wisdom To Hate was almost accessible. Still bracingly experimental, but more firmly rooted in the death metal tradition of the band’s early days, the release was slightly easier for headbangers to digest, but no less essential.
The suicide of drummer Steve MacDonald in 2002 led to the band’s breakup, and the years since have been quiet. (Former guitarist Steeve Hurdle also passed on in 2012). A reunion was announced in 2009, and live dates followed, but promises of new material seemed unlikely to be met. Yet four years since that initial announcement, and bolstered by the addition of some of metal’s most talented players, the latest incarnation of Gorguts has released an album that may prove to be as much of a game-changer as Obscura was fifteen years ago.
Putting it simply, Colored Sands is ridiculously, obscenely heavy. But with tremendous skill and thought having been put into its composition and performance, it achieves almost transcendental heights. There’s still a recognisable link to the band’s earlier work, particularly in Lemay’s distinctive growl, little changed from earlier releases. But the dizzying, head-spinning guitarwork of Obscura has been welded to greater control of dynamics and expansive, inventive songwriting. The new players- drummer John Longstreth and guitar wizards Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston on lead and bass, respectively- are metal titans in their own right, and fully contribute to this progression. Skill, finesse and power inform every gnarled and twisted riff, every shift from jazzy shuffle to raging blastbeat. Marston doesn’t quite get to display the flash he brings to Krallice and Behold the Arctopus, but more than makes up for it with his songwriting contribution, the track “Forgotten Arrows”. One of the more immediate songs on the album despite its shifting tempos, its crushing coda in particular sets a new standard for heaviness. Hufnagel brings the similarly accomplished “Absconders” to the table, with a calm bridge bookended by psych-metal terror at either end.
Overall though, this is clearly Lemay’s show. Already one of death metal’s most thoughtful and reflective writers, Colored Sands represents new compositional heights for this scene veteran; the twelve years between albums have clearly not been spent idle. The lyrical focus on Tibet and its experience of being assimilated by China in 1950 pervades the album and provides a genuinely interesting context. But even if you can’t follow Lemay’s growled delivery of lines like “Onward to reach the wheel of time/A path of solitude/Embraced humbly”, the music itself has more than enough depth to keep you listening. His classical training and background on violin are channeled most directly on the album’s most radical departure, a palette-cleansing instrumental piece for string quartet. Gorguts riffs are already orchestral in their complexity and expressive nature; “The Battle of Chamdo” runs with this, playing with dynamics and tension rather than crushing the listener flat. It wouldn’t sound out of place scoring a film, or even an interpretive dance performance.
Coming midway through the album, this brief breather is about the only period of respite the band offers the listener. Thanks to the production and mastering prowess of Marston, Colored Sands is less stressful on the ears than Obscura. Unlike many modern metal albums, it doesn’t attempt to be as loud as possible, instead recording this brutal-sounding music in an almost gentle manner. Even so, much like Obscura, listening to the whole thing can be an exhausting experience. The tracks are tightly arranged yet epic in scope (song lengths are greatly extended compared to previous releases), to the extent that they become overwhelming, too much to fully process in one, or even ten listens. If you play it on crappy headphones through your phone, you’ll miss most of the magic. You either listen to Gorguts with your attention fully focused, or you don’t really hear it at all.
But for this reviewer at least, an overabundance of inspiration is preferable to a dearth of it. And it’s refreshing for a band that now qualifies as “retro” to embrace an old-school album listening experience, while still pushing their music forward. Like any of the band’s releases, Colored Sands does not reveal itself all at once, and in the many times I’ve listened to it already I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. Even if it takes years to fully get to grips with, though, it will be time well spent.