The journey you are about to embark on was spurred by a simple question:
What were they thinking?
What were the Canadian death metal giants Gorguts thinking when they crafted their masterpiece Obscura? Where does this unorthodox form of musical expression come from? More significantly,
What makes an album that would change the face of metal music forever?
This fundamental inquiry uncovered not just a tale of invention and innovation, but of persistence through struggle, some chance circumstances, and a strong belief in creative vision.
This is the story of Obscura.
Line – up
Luc Lemay – Guitar, Vocals, Piano
Sylvain Marcoux – Guitars
Eric Gigeure – Bass
Stephane Provencher – Drums, Percussion
Gorguts’ second album The Erosion of Sanity was released on 19th January, 1993 via Roadrunner Records. Between their erstwhile debut Considered Dead and this album, the line-up remained the same. While the music on the album was composed by Luc Lemay, as on their debut, the band’s focus was to create a mature record, with an emphasis on the technicality of the music.
Just before the release of the album, bassist Eric Giguere was removed from the band, and Lemay brought in bassist Steve Cloutier from drummer Stephane Provencher’s former thrash/death band Damaged, who began the process of learning all the songs. Just after the release of the album, after a month of rehearsal in February, 1993, both guitarist Sylvain Marcoux and Stephane Provencher quit the band within a week of each other.
It was a good friend of Provencher’s, the drummer of the band Blylock, who suggested the name “Gorguts”, which was kept by the band.
With the European Tour to promote The Erosion of Sanity looming large, Lemay brought in his friend, guitarist and vocalist Steeve Hurdle of Purulence and former Sadistic Visions drummer Steve MacDonald, for the tour. As a part of the Tour, they played shows alongside fellow Canadian black metal stalwarts Blasphemy, from late March to late April, 1993.
Interview with Gorguts after the European Tour (in French)
Gorguts – Live in Freiberg, Germany, 28th March, 1993 (full set)
When the band, comprising of Lemay of the original line-up with the three new members, came back from the tour, they were greeted by a letter from Roadrunner Records, stating that they had been dropped from the label. It was Lemay’s belief that the label wasn’t prioritising Gorguts anyway, favouring acts like Sepultura and Fear Factory, failing to promote their album properly.
Steeve Hurdle, who had left the band after the tour to rejoin Purulence, unsatisfied with his band’s progress, permanently joined Gorguts a month later. With this line-up of Luc Lemay, Steeve Hurdle, Steve Cloutier and Steve MacDonald, Gorguts started writing Obscura in the summer of 1993.
The songwriting duties on Obscura were shared by Hurdle, Cloutier, MacDonald who were the primary writers in their previous bands, and Lemay, who had written Gorguts’ previous two albums. Aware of the onslaught of metal bands with the traditional death metal sound at the time, the band decided to make a deliberate departure from their sound in Considered Dead and The Erosion of Sanity, which they felt was in the same vein.
Thus, they issued a manifesto among themselves :
no fast picking riffs, no tremolo picking, no power chords, and no Slayer styled 1/2 skank beats.
Compositional elements would include either slow, heavy riffs or blast beats. It was also important that they could play each other’s riffs without looking at how the riff was played. This was done deliberately to shift the focus from writing riffs that were technically impressive, as in The Erosion of Sanity, to simpler riffs that were sonically more impactful.
“So we are not gonna be judging the music ideas on, “Oh, wow, it’s very impressive. It looks very technical.” I want when you can hear this riff once and say “Holy fucking shit, that’s massive.” It’s like two fucking chords but very dissonant. The way it’s put together is like holy shit, but it could be the most simple riff to play. So we really wanted to have our ears be the only judge with the composition of material.“
“… So the energy in the songwriting went in a different department. It was really into the effort to make it dark, to create something special. It’s like a very experimental drawing. You don’t need to do a million lines to have something. “Wow, he just fucking nailed it with a minimum of a pencil stroke.” That’s when a craft, after many, many, many years, like painter, carver, whatever, that’s where it comes together. But that takes a lot of time. So I was seeing the death metal writing the same way, make it efficient, going somewhere.” – Luc Lemay
The above limitations to the compositional philosophy resulted in a sound that incorporated dissonant harmonics, pick-scrapes, heavy passages of hammer-ons and pull offs and unusual chords. It was the intuitive, organic output of musicians collectively pushing themselves outside their comfort zone to create a new musical language.
“Because, if you stay in your comfort zone, it takes forever just to incorporate a new thing in your sound. But if you force yourself not to use everything that you’re comfortable with, then you have to create yourself a new language that you’re happy with. So it forces you to explore, to touch the instrument differently, and approach the music differently as well, to get new sounds out of it.” – Luc Lemay
Luc Lemay and Steve Cloutier talk about their songwriting philosophy
Initially, the members weren’t used to writing music with each other. After playing each other’s riffs during rehearsal, the band would take a week to write new material. Then, they would get together, play the new riffs to each other and the best musical ideas were explored for the songs. Once the arrangement of the riffs was decided, and as they became more familiar with each other, it took about two to three days to flesh out a song. The first song to be completed was “Rapturous Grief”, which took about a month to write.
It’s interesting to note that Lemay was exploring the violin between 1993 and 1995, and the viola from 1994 to 1996, before joining a music conservatory to study composition for four years between 1996 and 2000. The songwriting for Obscura was mostly completed by November 1994, so while his experience at the conservatory had no role to play in the making of Obscura, his experience with the viola lent itself to the second track of the album, “Earthly Love”.
Steeve Hurdle was the major creative influence behind the concept and the lyrical themes in Obscura. Lemay also credits him for coming up with intricate and experimental riffs for the record.
He was heavily influenced by the works of Indian spiritual guru, philosopher and mystic Osho. The central concept in Obscura is that of the “sukshma sharira”, a Sanskrit term translating to “subtle body”, explored primarily in the Vedantic and Buddhist schools of Indian Philosophy. ‘Subtle Body” is the title of the seventh track of the album and the Sanskrit term is directly referenced in “The Art of Sombre Ecstacy”. This was most certainly a departure from the conventional death metal lyrical themes at the time.
In the Karmic cycle of birth and death, the subtle body differentiates itself from the physical body as that which continues along this cycle, while the physical body is left behind at death. The subtle body carries impressions of our actions, desires, intentions, passions, memories – carries it forward to our next birth. The only way to release ourselves from this chain of rebirth is to attain enlightenment or realisation.
The lyrics, written by Hurdle and Lemay, were reflective of the abstract nature of this concept. While Lemay’s lyrics on Considered Dead and The Erosion of Sanity were in the form of small stories, those on Obscura were poetic, and more representative of thoughts, than narratives. The vocal duties were shared by Lemay and Hurdle as well, both bringing their respective lyrics to life.
Having completed ten songs by November, 1994, Lemay began sending the pre-production tapes to labels. Initially, a deal with the label Red Light from Chicago seemed to materialise but fell through, when the label went out of business. A dialogue was also in place with Hypnotic Records, Ontario, but that fell through as well. Other than that, labels were unwilling to engage with the record and sign them on.
“I remember sending cassettes to labels in the hope of getting a record deal. They didn’t know what to do with the music and most of them never replied at all. Nobody liked it.” – Luc Lemay
Undeterred, the band decided to write two more songs. These turned out to be “Nostalgia” and “Obscura”. The songs were written to push the new material to an hour’s duration, so that they could reward fans who were patiently waiting for their return.
“’Obscura’ was the last song we wrote. I think it’s the one that has the most awkward geometry and set up the colour and the tone for the whole record, because if you listen to the record without this song, I think it would have a different angle. That’s really the accomplishment of the language we were aiming for, the picture we had, and I really think we achieved what we wanted to hear because we wanted to do the music that we as musicians would really surprise us.“ – Luc Lemay
Gorguts – Obscura (live) 1998 at the Whisky A Go-Go, Hollywood, California
With no labels showing interest, Gorguts, who were based in Sherbrooke, Quebec moved to Montreal in 1995. Six months after the move, dismayed by the lack of response, drummer Steve MacDonald quit the band. After Steve’s departure, the band was essentially without a drummer for the next year.
In 1996, through a response to their advertisment in a newspaper, Gorguts recruited drummer Patrick Robert who, proficient in jazz fusion, was also in Montreal at the time.
Patrick Robert had to decipher the drum parts written by Steve MacDonald for the record through pre-production and rehearsal tapes. While he did stay true to the original parts to an extent, he embellished some of them as well.
“So there are some differences in what I do. For example, in “Rapturous Grief“, I think around the 3:15 mark (I checked to make sure), I play this double-strokes pattern between the ride and snare with the double-bass going on under. The original from Steve was the same blast beat throughout the section.” – Patrick Robert
Unknown to Patrick at the time, he was playing the songs at a faster tempo during rehearsals as well as on Obscura.
“I met Steve M after I was out of the band, he said they were faster so he had to speed them up! I was like what? I thought they were the right tempo. That’s when I figured out that the rehearsal tape was playing faster in my tape machine.” – Patrick Robert
As a result, all the songs on the record are faster than their original pre-production versions. Notice the difference in tempo between this video of Gorguts rehearsing the aforementioned “Rapturous Grief” in September, 1993 with MacDonald and the official track on the album, with Robert.
In 1997, three whole years after completing Obscura, Gorguts received royalty payments from Roadrunner Records. With labels still unwilling to sign them, they decided to record the album on their own, considering that it would be easier to get a deal with the mastered record. In August, 1997, they entered Studio Victor to record the album with Pierre Remillard, whom Lemay and Hurdle had worked with previously as well.
Finally, as they were recording the album, a deal was made with Martti Payne of Olympic Recordings.
Obscura was released on 23rd June, 1998, through Olympic Records.
Luc Lemay – Guitars, Vocals, Viola
Steeve Hurdle – Guitars, Vocals
Steve Cloutier – Bass
Patrick Robert – Drums
Obscura – 4:04
Earthly Love – 4:04
The Carnal State – 3:08
Nostalgia – 6:10
The Art of Sombre Ecstasy – 4:20
Clouded – 9:32
Subtle Body – 3:23
Rapturous Grief – 5:27
La vie eat prélude… (La Mort Orgasme) – 3:28
Illuminatus – 6:15
Faceless Ones – 3:50
Sweet Silence – 6:45
“We jammed these songs for four years without writing anything else in hopes that someone would call us or something. I remember I sent some tapes to record labels and they didn’t even write back. They were not even interested. We didn’t know it was ever going to come out.“
“We were so pumped about the music and we were so enthusiastic and we just didn’t get it. It wasn’t an ego trip or anything but we were asking ourselves, ‘Why’? We wrote the thing so for us it wasn’t that complicated, in another way it was actually way easier to play than ‘Erosion Of Sanity’ because it was all open chords and this and that. We just didn’t get why it didn’t interest anybody. But we never said to each other let’s give up… I thought to myself, ‘We got that in the drawer so when it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.’” – Luc Lemay
It’s imperative to note that Obscura was not an overnight success. When it came out, it was well received by only a small batch of people. Others, much like the aforementioned labels, didn’t know what to make of it, considering their previous work to be their best.
After two shows, Patrick Robert was removed from the band, and Steve MacDonald was brought back into the fold. After two tours, Steeve Hurdle quit the band in July, 1999, and Lemay brought in Daniel Mongrain vocalist and guitarist of the band Martyr. However, things didn’t work out between them, and he subsequently left after recording From Wisdom To Hate, which released on March 6, 2001.
In 2002, drummer Steve MacDonald, who was battling depression for several years, committed suicide. Shaken by the loss, Lemay decided to end the band, and committed himself to woodworking. Steeve Hurdle who went on to form Negativa, in 2006, with Lemay, Roberts and members of Augury and Ion Dissonance, died in 2012 from surgical complications. It was his suggestion that Lemay create an album to mark the 20th anniversary of Gorguts, that lead to a new line-up, with Colin Marston, Kevin Hufnagel and John Longstreth, and subsequently Coloured Sands in 2013.
It was in the spell between 2002 and 2013 that Obscura went on to become a death metal classic, an enigma in its own right. Its immensity, creativity and innovation went on to directly influence bands such as Deathspell Omega, Ulcerate, Gigan, Pyrrhon, Baring Teeth, Artificial Brain, Nero Di Marte, Teramobil, Sunless, Anachronism and many others.
The concluding passage from Kronos’ article exploring Obscura, on Angry Metal Guy perfectly sums up its legacy :
“Like any other album, you have to hear Obscura for yourself to get the full experience. But to understand why it has been so incredibly influential and why it’s so revered, you need to listen to it many times; I don’t think anyone loves this album on their first listen, and even fewer understand it — I know I did neither…Yet there is another way to enjoy Obscura, one that’s possible with very few other works; you can listen to it within other great albums. You can hear it in Nihil Quam Vacuitas Ordinatum Est, you can catch hints of it in Incurso, recognize its imprint in Intransigence, Abyssal Gods, Labyrinth Constellation, and Ghost Chorus Among Old Ruins. Wherever death metal is forward-thinking, intelligent, and daring, Obscura is there, too.”
Rest in peace, Steeve Hurdle and Steve MacDonald.
Interview by Dale Roy with Luc Lemay – Canadian Assualt, 1998
Exclusive Interview With Patrick Robert, Drummer Behind Gorguts’ Obscura – Agoraphobic News, 2017
Tribute to Gorguts’ Obscura – 20 Years Of Dissonant Death Metal! – Agoraphobic News, 2018
Rewriting The Extreme Metal Language : In-depth Interview With Gorguts Mastermind Luc Lemay – Metal Assault, 2016
God of Dissonance – Interview With Luc Lemay Of Gorguts! – Agoraphobic News, 2016 (features the hilarious story of how Lemay tried to recruit a drug addict to model for the Obscura album cover)
Album Anniversary : Gorguts’ Obscura turns 18 – Metal Insider, 2016
Classic Albums Revisited : Gorguts – ‘Obscura’ – Zero Tolerance Magazine, 2012
Interview : Luc Lemay (Gorguts) – Invisible Oranges, 2016 (My favourite interview)
Interview: Luc Lemay of Gorguts – Invisible Oranges, 2013
Remembering “Big” Steeve Hurdle – Invisible Oranges, 2012
Sombre With Pride – Tribute To Big Steeve Hurdle Of Gorguts/Negativa – Agoraphobic News, 2016
A Path Beyond Premonition : An Interview With Luc Lemay of Gorguts – popmatters, 2013
Interview with Stéphane Provencher, Gorguts – Tough Riffs, 2016
Reduced to Silence : An Interview With Gorguts – teeth of the divine, 2013