I don't read a lot of other music critics, though I try to keep up with the magazines to see what's in the release schedule and what's generating a lot of buzz. One site I do pop over to once in a while to see how they reacted to a particular album is Angry Metal Guy, because the critics there for the most part have zero interest in kissing any band's arse. They write longer reviews, they rarely feel biased and they don't dish out high scores like candy. Well, the Angry Metal Guy in charge of that rowdy bunch put this at the very top of his 2021 list, above Soen, Scardust and Aephanemer, every one of those responsible for a great 2021 album. I should check this one out too.
And it's truly wild, though I don't know how well it can justify its standard genre definition. There is death metal here, certainly, but it's mostly in the vocals of David AB. Even when they're playing at speed, which is often, they don't feel remotely like a death metal band. I'll buy neo-classical as a description far more, because this is virtuosic and it damn well knows it. Everyone in the band is apparently as happy to show off their substantial technical chops as they are to play actual songs. If they weren't so tight, I'd think that they didn't care about the songs at all, performing only for the technical difficulty and not caring about the artistic merit.
It's very easy for a listener to forget about any one of these songs too, because we get caught up in the notes. There are two guitarists here, Phil Tougas and Nick Miller, with Dominic Lapointe on bass often playing lead alongside them. A song like Pantheum may have some broader structure to it, but my ears heard it as a fox chase. I don't know if Tougas is chasing Miller or vice versa but one of them's chasing the other and he's doing it from beginning to end. Maybe they switch.
The bass of Lapointe overtakes both by the time it's all over, coming out of nowhere, but the point is that it's always all about these instruments. David AB actually sings on a lot of the song, but he had no reason to be there. He certainly wasn't singing lead for me and he never once grabbed my attention. Maybe he's part commentator but mostly he's just a spectator like the rest of us. He's not bad at what he does, but he could have wandered down the pub for a pint while the band put this song down on vinyl and I don't think I'd have even noticed. So much for the death metal in this death metal.
What I should have mentioned before now is that these guitars aren't just shredding in the way a shred guitarist tends to shred. I mention that and you think of Yngwie J. Malmsteen, which is fine. He's a great shredder and almost the definition of neo-classical nowadays, but that's not all that First Fragment are doing. Just check out the opening title track to see what I mean. Sure, it's neo-classical, but it's not Yngwie for a while. Never mind death metal, Tougas and Miller are duetting a flamenco piece here while Lapointe and drummer Nicholas Wells wandered in from the jazz club next door. This isn't metal and it isn't even rock. It's heavy world music, all castanets and slap bass, until almost three minutes in. Then it goes full on Yngwie.
The other thing to know is that there's a lot of everything here. Not only are there more notes in any one song than your average Dragonforce album, there are a lot of songs and they don't skimp on the running time. The title track almost reaches nine minutes and De chair et de haine does. If that wasn't enough, In'el is longer than both put together, almost reaching nineteen on its own. I could call out that song alone as overwhelming, but it's also the truest technical death metal song here. When the short ones are a lot to take in, that holds double or triple for the long ones. And then scale that up to seventy one minutes and change, the length of the entire album, and there's nobody on the planet who can take it all in. Maybe a five year old Mozart, but he's dead.
The crazy thing is that it works, just not initially and certainly not all at once. This is an album that will clobber you over the head until you're a pool of dribble on the floor. Only as you recover and realise that you didn't entirely dislike the experience, so tune back in and try to figure out what's actually going on, will you catch that there's more than technical genius here. I think what caught me first was Sonata en mi mineur, a six minute instrumental that's built out of flamenco guitars and orchestral waves. It's as far from technical death metal as you can imagine, but it's gorgeous. It's the realisation that the rest of the album is just more of the same, just faster, less accessible and with occasional death growls showing up to cheer it all on that prompts reevaluation.
So, yeah, this is a great album. How great I have no idea because I'll need to listen to it at least a dozen more times to properly grasp it, maybe more. It's technically brilliant, but it works not only as neo-classical metal but as jazz and funk and, damn it, a lot of this album frickin' swings. Really, my only complaint is that there are vocals. At all. I'm not complaining about the quality of David AB's contribution. He just doesn't need to be there, except maybe on the epic In'el. All I'm asking for is a second disc that's the same thing but entirely instrumental.