Artist: Fractal Universe
Album Title: The Impassable Horizon
Label: Metal Blade Records
Date of Release: 25 June 2021
Another review that comes to you a little time after the release date, but one that has most definitely benefitted from the increased breathing space away from the pressure of publishing prior to hitting the shelves. I say this because I was initially rather ambivalent about the material on ‘The Impassable Horizon’, by Fractal Universe.
‘The Impassable Horizon’ is the third full-length release by Fractal Universe, a French quartet, who formed back in 2013, and who sit somewhere within the progressive, technical death metal subgenre. Up until now, I’ve had a passing interest in the band, but their previous efforts have not ever stuck with me enough to find their way onto the digital pages of manofmuchmetal.com, or their CDs into my collection. I thought that this third release would head the same way at the outset, but as it turns out, I was wrong.
For a start, there is more than a mere smattering of saxophone within some of the compositions here. Anyone who knows me, knows my thoughts about the inclusion of such an instrument in heavy metal. I’m getting more broad-minded, but I still cannot fathom why anyone would want a sax blaring out when you could have a guitar solo or embellishment. I know that many will argue that it offers another interesting dimension, another layer, and another texture to the music. But when you don’t really like the sound of the instrument in the first place, and much of its output tends towards the discordant, these arguments are difficult to get on board with, despite their merit to the less narrow-minded amongst us.
Inevitably then, when I started to explore ‘The Impassable Horizon’, these sax moments would stick in my mind for all the wrong reasons. But, with repeated listens, I started to notice all the intricacies, all the little moments of subtle melody, all the intricate time signatures, rhythms, grooves, and suddenly the saxophone moments became less important. So much so, that I have found myself properly falling for the charms of this album and have had it on frequent rotation over the past couple of weeks.
The ferocity that you might expect from a tech death metal band is evident right from the word go, as the Gallic quartet, comprised of guitarist/vocalist/saxophonist Vince Wilquin, guitarist Hugo Florimond, bassist Valentin Pelletier, and drummer Clément Denys come out of the gates swinging. Double pedal drumming, walls of sound from the combined might of the guitars and swathes of keys, and a complex but ear-catching lead guitar line form the opening to ‘Autopoeisis’, a song that gets better every time I hear it. The technicality is impressive, with an ability by all four to vary the pace and intensity in a heartbeat. But the technical prowess is cleverly and smoothly blended with intriguing melodies that contain more hooks than initially thought. I also like the way that the vocals flit from menacing, angry growl to a soft, clean delivery that increases the impact of the melodies and acts as a great counterpoint to the complexity of the musicianship.
The high quality continues with ‘A Clockwork Expectation’ which remains heavy and abrasive, but almost entirely ditches the growls in favour of clean singing. At points, I’m reminded of Darkane strangely enough, but these are fleeting moments. It’s the first song to feature the sax, but because the melodies, contrasts, and rhythms are so strong, I can just about let them go. The moments of serenity are gorgeous and well-placed, helping to counteract the off-kilter, djent-like riffs and rhythms that also play a part within the composition.
It’s much the same story as the album progresses too, with almost every one of the eleven tracks delivering high quality progressive and technical death metal, whilst fully keeping my attention. And that’s down, primarily, to the fact that each composition, whilst complex and occasionally rather challenging, also offers a hook, a melody, a clever groove, or something to keep me coming back for listen after listen. ‘Symmetrical Masquerade’ for example, marries some soothing, delicate sounds, dominated by a pulsating bass heartbeat, with flurries of abrasive speed and competing textures aplenty.
What I also admire greatly is the way that Fractal Universe are able to pull all these ideas and textures together in a manner that is not bloated or over-indulgent. The majority of the tracks last between four and five minutes, with only one touching eight minutes. That song, ‘Godless Machinists’, is the album’s finale aside from an acoustic epilogue, but it deserves every second of it’s extended life, moving effortlessly between a multitude of disparate ideas, culminating in one of my absolute favourite, beautiful melodies on ‘The Impassable Horizon’.
Other moments worthy of note are numerous, although I’m a big fan of the out-and-out muscular presence of ‘Falls Of The Earth’, and the blitz of swirling, warp-speed complexity of ‘Withering Snowdrops’ that’s coupled with an insanely catchy chorus, so bright and breezy that you can’t help but get caught up in it. And, being a black metal fan too, I like the nod towards this genre that can be heard in the echoes of ‘A Cosmological Arch’, thanks to possibly the fastest blastbeats to be heard on the record, alongside some spiky riffing and a whole lot more besides.
The biggest compliment I can pay to ‘The Impassable Horizon’ is that I look forward to listening to it each and every time I get the opportunity. So much so, I have not stopped playing it, even when presented with a promo for the new At The Gates record. And what’s more, each time I spin it, something new catches my ear, keeping the experience fresh and exciting. I hope that speaks volumes for the high regard in which I hold this album. After flashes of promise, Fractal Universe have delivered the album which has finally turned me into a fan. Complex, heavy, multi-faceted, and intelligent, ‘The Impassable Horizon’ is a very fine release indeed.
The Score of Much Metal: 92%
You can also check out my other reviews from previous years right here: