(DGR wrote the following extensive review of the new album by the French progressive death metal band Fractal Universe, which will be out on June 25th via Metal Blade.)
There are times when one can feel like some sort of mystic far-seer when it comes to an album release, hovering over whatever magical talisman grants them vision into other realms, timelines, worlds, various 7-11 bathrooms, and so on, and able to see an album like some sort of organic creature, as if it were a living plant, sparked from the seed of an earlier being, and you somehow feel like you can follow that trail all the way back to its genesis, point to it, and say “This, this right here, is what created this exact moment in time”.
Of course, given how music is written and that most musicians are more likely to have an idea come to them in the shower than any concrete expanding upon specific concepts, you’d mostly be dead wrong on that early prediction. Yet in the case of Fractal Universe‘s latest Metal Blade offering – the being known as The Impassable Horizon – it is difficult not to pontificate on what songs bore fruit from the group’s prior release and how it might have led to this one.
In this case, there is one song in particular on the group’s 2019 release Rhizomes of Insanity that seems to have grown into its own fifty-some-odd-minute album, and that song is the angular and prog-worshiping song that arrived near the end of that particular release, “Fundamental Dividing Principal”.
The thing with Fractal Universe and their third full-length release is that they are a group for whom the axiom “there is nothing new under the sun, we all stand on the shoulders of giants” applies with an almost comedic level of accuracy. They’re one of those bands where you can listen to a handful of songs and know immediately whose sandbox they’ve been playing in. Since the release of Rhizomes Of Insanity and even more so with The Impassable Horizon, Fractal Universe have been hewing closer to the sci-fi prog-death blueprint that Alkaloid have made their own.
Considering how well Alkaloid have fared around these parts though, you could pick a worse genre sphere to declare as the one you also want to play around in. In the case of Fractal Universe that also translates into adding a fucking ton more saxophone, because if heavy metal has loved anything in the past decade or so, it’s been finding ways to make sure we can get a proper saxophone tearing its way to the forefront amongst the death metal pyrotechnics happening behind it. Hell, this band’s fellow Frenchmen in the spacey-black metal group Sol Draconi Septem couldn’t even help themselves on their latest release Hyperion.
Where The Impassable Horizon starts and where it winds up traveling can be unexpected, in part because Fractal Universe kick events off with a fairly traditional opening gambit for an album that works very hard to cover as much ground as possible. “Autopoiesis” is a heavy crusher of a song in comparison to the prog-death-avante-garde-jazz-infusion maelstrom that follows. It lays out the heavier side of Fractal Universe for the world to see, all the overstimulating blastbeat battering up front with plenty of guitar-annihilating to follow.
The Impassable Horizon plays out like one giant work over its ten tracks and “Autopoiesis” is the song meant to blow the doors off the building right from the start. Especially when you compare it to the slower brooding of the handful of songs that follow, it’s quick-cutting and very to the point. In other words, if you want to hear Fractal Universe play the part of bulldozer for an entire song, then The Impassable Horizon‘s opening track is one of the better examples. This style later gets folded into a much bigger mass of styles that make up the wider expanse of The Impassable Horizon.
One of the lead singles for the album was “A Clockwork Expectation”, the track that immediately follows “Autopoiesis”. That song is the one where The Impassable Horizon exists in microcosm. For its five minutes it spells out most of what the album will do as a whole, including the aforementioned multitude of saxophone work. It’s mostly clean sung, filled with angular guitar work and odd-directioned rhythms, and all sorts of out-of-left-field drumming. It is also, for lack of a better term, a fascinating song.
Even though you can see every single gear turn and each background element of what makes the Fractal Universe machine work, they demonstrate throughout the whole album just how good they are at working with those building blocks. In fact, much of “A Clockwork Expectation” colors in the framework of the following four songs, so that “Interfering Spherical Senses”, “Symmetrical Masquerade”, “Falls Of The Earth”, and “Withering Snowdrops” all feel like they’re part of one larger movement. They’re all variations on an overarching theme, with “Falls Of The Earth” and “Withering Snowdrops” being the more aggressive approach while “Interfering Spherical Senses” has one of the strongest vocal-hook/guitar-melody combinations on The Impassable Horizon.
The album’s longer adventures lie in the back half of its track listing. Every song clears the four-minute mark with ease and the album’s final song – “Godless Machinists” – sails well over eight. This means that “Black Sails Of Melancholia” winds up being a weird demarcation line from the front half of the disc, with its softer intro into immediate saxophone solo work. With “Withering Snowdrops” closing out the initial opening suite of songs, “Black Sails Of Melancholia” winds up as an opening movement for the next few wanderings through the fused dimensions that Fractal Universe are crashing together. When you consider that “Epitaph” and “Godless Machinists” are both united by having some of the heavier moments on this album, it truly does feel like the whole disc is tying itself together.
Of course, with “Godless Machinists” you have eight minutes plus of time with Fractal Universe and they make full use of it. If you’ve been wandering through the already angular worlds present here and thought “Alright, this has been pretty ambitious, now play it out on a grander scale”, then “Godless Machinists” closing the whole affair out is perfect for you.
The interesting thing about Fractal Universe‘s latest prog-metal exploration is that despite the ever-present sense of knowing everything the band are doing and where they’re drawing from, it remains a fascinating disc. The fact that most of its songs contain echoes of the style of writing that gave us the strongest song on their previous disc – the previously mentioned “Fundamental Dividing Principle” – helps a ton, but just listening to the band expertly play within a weirdly well-established blueprint makes The Impassable Horizon an adventure.
Much like Irreversible Mechanism‘s album Immersion, there is an element of “Yes, I know everything you guys are pulling from here and can identify at least three to four bands that you play dangerously close to”, yet the part where the magic fades away and you can see the man behind the curtain never really happens. It’s just this oddly angular, incredibly ambitious, well-written slab of about six or seven different genres all crashing headlong into each other. You can see how usage of the term avant-garde would be tempting here. As a whole though, The Impassable Horizon feels like a much more confident take on the direction where Fractal Universe started heading on Rhizomes Of Insanity, and it is an album that comes with an easy recommend.
Especially if you enjoy the same spacey-weirdness that Alkaloid get up to.