In a recent interview with Invisible Oranges, Atramentus mastermind Phil Tougas (a metalhead’s metalhead by any account, as he also plays in Chthe’ilist, First Fragment, Cosmic Atrophy, Funebrarum, and Eternity’s End) described the artistic intent of Stygian as to form a marriage of the all-consuming melancholy of funeral doom with the sweeping grandeur of traditional heavy metal and epic doom metal. In discussing the sound of Stygian, Tougas described the debt he owes to bands like Solstice and Atlantean Kodex, saying that one of the largest influences of Atramentus comes from the ability of “epic doom bands and even heavy metal bands… to further feed the imagination of the listener, to paint vivid landscapes in one’s mind.” That is to say, Atramentus aim for something that could be described as “Peter Jackson’s Antithesis of Light” or “Andrei Tarkovski’s Beyond the Crimson Horizon,” a fusion of moods and aesthetic styles that bring immense tragedy and daring heroism together to form something that uses the personal to drive the knife of desolation ever deeper.
This type of genre convergence is in itself far from a new concept: one can go all the way back to the Greek tragedies and myths, like that of Prometheus or Euripides’ take on the story of one of the West’s most persistent mythic characters in Herakles. Like these tragedies, Stygian ends with main characters damned to desolation, eternally punished for deeds that are only half theirs in agency. Also like the tragedies of Greek myths, Stygian builds on a world that already exists: multiple of Tougas’ bands – Chthe’ilist and Eternity’s End – share a lore with Atramentus that informs the conceptual foundations and the lyrics.
Atramentus begin at this world’s end. Stygian opens in medias res as our main character, a nameless knight, has just conquered a mountain of extraordinary height, upon which sits a temple that enshrines the sword of the Sun God. As he uses the sword to steal the Sun God’s immortality and claim it as his own, the dark gods of Tougas’ world take this opportunity to plunge the universe into an endless blackened tundra. As the band’s own descriptor reads, “Granted immortality through the gift of the God’s sword, the nameless knight eventually witnesses the death of the sun and the end of all life on Earth… he is left to wander amongst the ruins of a now frozen earth under a sunless sky for eternity… enduring perpetual physical torture while haunted by the memories of his past life and everyone he once knew buried under miles of ice.” Stygian is as lachrymose as it is grand, as apocalyptic as it is vast.
Musically, there’s less to talk about that’s specific to Atramentus’ take on funeral doom. That’s not to say it’s bad – quite the opposite, in fact! – so much as to comment on the fact that this is, for the most part, a dyed-in-the-wool funeral doom metal album. For newcomers to this niche scene within a niche scene, which has only received a real spotlight once or twice in the last few years courtesy of stuff with extrascene appeal like Bell Witch’s magnum opus Mirror Reaper, funeral doom operates under the core conceit of being, in a word, oppressive. Everything is glacially, painfully slow; funeral doom songs tend to run well past the ten- or even twenty-minute mark with ease. The drums are typically thunderous and, although slow, played with aplomb, and funeral doom is a genre where it’s more than common to hear plenty of clean guitars and keyboards.
All that is to say that funeral doom is a genre where the production and the songwriting are inseparable in a way beyond most metal. That production all serves the fundamental purpose of developing a singular, overwhelming atmosphere, and it’s around this overwhelming sense of tone and mood that the slow guitars, booming drums, and organlike keys coil and cohere into one of metal’s most fascinating subgenres. It’s this same sense of atmosphere where the media joins the message and Tougas’ storytelling fuses with the music of Stygian. Atramentus employ the vast, sweeping, sonic cathedrals of funeral doom tracks to build an immense and cinematic atmosphere that fits the grandeur of the story the group is telling.
The structure of Stygian is also worth dissecting briefly. The band showcase an interesting duality on the record that speaks to the disconnected nature of how these songs were written (roughly a year apart in different seasons): “I: From Tumultuous Heavens…” is a plodding, lumbering nod to the dripping sarcophagal doom of Evoken or Skepticism, all reverbed-out guitar leads ringing desolate over trudging chords of bone-crunching gravity; while “III: Perennial Voyage” draws far more from the experimental inclinations of Esoteric and the ornate filigree that characterizes the haunting leads of Mournful Congregation.
Fascinatingly, there’s the occasional solo here as well, and while nothing aims for the intense technicality records like Dasein have shown Tougas and co. capable of, they add quite a bit of texture to the music of Sygian and serve as signposts within the tracks for moments of heightened relevance. The middle track, “II: In Ageless Slumber,” is a short dark ambient interlude that bridges the moods of the two main pieces, and it does a commendable job in this regard. It’s not going to win any awards, to be sure, but it’s a good palate cleanser and ends on a note that segues perfectly into the bleakness of “III.”
In all, Atramentus don’t seek to reinvent the wheel of funeral doom on their debut, but rather to present a thoughtful and compelling take on one of metal’s most fascinating niche subgenres.Those who already find funeral doom too slow, too lethargic, or too self-aggrandizing will find little to sway them in Stygian, but fans of the genre should appreciate how the conceptual aspects of the record lead Atramentus into drawing out a less-than-common side of funeral doom.
Additionally, anyone wanting for an entry point into funeral doom could do far, far worse than this record: Stygian is easier to follow and digest than some of the genre mainstays because of its comparatively short running time, and the diptych nature of “I” and “III” works well as a survey of the sounds one hears in funeral doom. There’s clear and immense love for the style that’s present throughout the record, paired with an excellent dedication to proper craftsmanship, and that’s never not going to be a winning combination. It feels melodramatic to call Stygian an immediate classic, but if Atramentus are capable of keeping this momentum going, expect to hear their name alongside the genre mainstays sooner rather than later. Hail true Quebecois funeral steel.
P.S. If you can get this album on vinyl, I highly recommend doing so. The liner notes are exceptionally well-written and reading the story of Stygian alongside the music makes for one of the most immersive listening experiences I’ve had in quite some time.
Stygian is available now via 20 Buck Spin.