Progspot #4: Creature, the Otherworldy Progression of Black Metal
What makes progressive metal so fascinating yet so contentious? Its inclination toward conceptual grandiosity and meticulously structured compositions turn some off from the style, but it is for these very same reasons its disciples are so obsessive and meticulous in their understanding of its compositions. Maneuvering its way into every subgenre, it emerges through myriad guises across the globe and time yet maintains no definite image or form; a creative force constantly focused on forward evolution inevitably transcends these boundaries.
Thus, the goal of Progressive Spotlight (or just Progspot) is to examine prog not as any concrete pre-existing category, subgenre, or style, but rather as an inventive, forward-thinking attitude toward the creation and presentation of music as art. Taking this more holistic approach, Progspot seeks to thoroughly analyze and dissect the cutting edge of innovative modern metal one specimen at a time, shedding light into their enigmatic corridors in order to understand their continued evolution.
A decades-old archetype of arcane knowledge, black metal has become one of the most thoroughly explored styles of extreme music to date. Though the subgenre has seen no shortage of technical, experimental, and avant-garde groups throughout its history, it is infused only in rare instances with a holistically progressive approach -- at least in the traditional “prog” sense -- and groups that achieve this bizarre emulsion are thus widely celebrated and typically awarded with legendary status. Lurking beneath the surface of this renown, though, a relatively obscure entity from France is working diligently and rapidly to redefine this paradigm; pouring in equal parts classic prog and black metal into its aural recipe, Brittany’s own musical phenomenon Creature is making strides to pioneer a futuristic but timeless style combination.
Creature’s music speaks for itself: packed with hauntingly dilapidated vocals, tight instrumental performances, and glorious synthesized instrumentation, the outfit becomes even more impressive when the one-man membership of the project is taken into account. Composed, arranged, and recorded by mastermind Raphael Fournier, Creature’s material stands as a compelling odyssey into cosmic musical realms.
Fournier makes no direct point of lending his music to widespread accessibility. His individual approach results in a series of curiosities unusual for the larger scope of black metal: all of Creature’s lyrics are written and performed in French, and his compositions are frequently centered more closely on synthesizers and electronically manipulated instrumentation than the hyper-distorted guitar tones endemic to black metal.Though his sound is squarely rooted in the aesthetics and textures of third-wave black metal, it touches upon facets of countless other styles, the most prominent being 1970s keyboard-heavy prog rock and grandiose neo-classical metal. Still, Creature never abandons black metal sensibilities even in these more outlandish moments but instead weaves those oddities masterfully into a more traditional black metal paradigm.
Fournier’s music could be tagged as blackened progressive metal as it represents a perfectly even split between the two styles. Unlike groups such as Enslaved or Emperor, however, these progressive elements did not arise as an expansion on a pre-existing musical identity, but as an integrally defining factor from the outfit’s conception.
Creature’s August 2018 first full-length Inquiétudes emerged from the inky void of nonexistence only ten months ago, a meticulous and thoroughly crafted debut, one that enjoys an eclectic range of influences all contributing to something much greater than the sum of their parts. Exploding with no trepidation, the album begins with a flare of horns and interstellar synthesizers, underpinned by decidedly black metal percussion and tonality. As the record progresses, it introduces motif upon motif of seemingly inexplicable concepts, with standout moments including the medieval folk of “Seul” and the almost oriental melodies of “Cruella” and “Stéréotype.” Also, with its majestic sense of whimsy, Inquiétudes is a journey into inner space and introspection, a journey into the core of one’s own psyche. Though its production is at times uncomfortably brusque and its vocals rattle through a strange filter, Inquiétudes is a sound and solid record, with remarkably few of the weaknessess that debuts sometimes invite.
With Creature's sophomore record Contes Funébres, however, Fournier has expanded the project's musical and conceptual scope even more drastically. Released only eight months apart, this sophomore effort largely proceeds in the same stylistic vein as Inquiétudes but is endowed with even greater grandeur and psychological adventure, diving headfirst into ideas only suggested on the former. Tied together into one unified work with a marked absence of aural discrepancies across its entire length, Contes Funébres is a focused expression of Fournier’s ineffable creativity; this sense of unity is apparent even in the record’s more massive tracks, with several compositions stretching beyond the nine-minute mark without ever abandoning their sense of motivation.
A solid achievement between the two albums involves Fournier’s vocal approach which, on the latest album, expanded not only by a greater range of texture but also a drastically increased sense of attention to technique and presence in the album’s mix. The integration of this record’s vocal lines hints at the overarching enhancement of Contes Funébres’s engineering and production, with an even more inclusive slew of atypical instruments integrated into its mix. Gorgeous moments of melody appear with an unexpected yet welcome sense of warmth, with standout examples including flute, grand piano, acoustic guitars, and even instruments such as koto and zheng.
Directly translated as “Funerary Tales,” Contes Funèbres adopts a more plodding and crepuscular demeanor than its predecessor, weaving together melodic and orchestral sections (complete with strings and rasping choirs) and dungeons of mechanically precise rhythmic maneuvers in odd time signatures highlighted by electric keyboards. At times, the album even soars to symphonic heights, such as in the introduction to its fourth track “La Disgrâce.” Despite its classical nuances, though, Contes Funèbres juxtaposes these traditional moments against bouts of digital manipulation, with bass and electric drums shapeshifting into dystopian strings and thunderous blast beats within the span of a single track.
This synthesis is most apparent on “L’Adversaire” and “Je Suis Malade,” which emphasize Fournier’s incredible knack for creating material that is simultaneously modern and strangely nostalgic, evoking images of both ancient Scandinavian forests and futuristic industrial hellscapes. Contes Funébres provides the listener with surprises which branch out into far-removed spaces before bringing themselves full circle to the record’s core aesthetic: an especially notable example of such is the introduction to the record’s ninth track “Le Sac de Vestiges,” which begins with a rather upbeat acoustic guitar riff before melting into rippling waves of folksy blackened prog.
I had the great opportunity to speak directly with Fournier concerning Creature’s compositions and his creative progress leading up to the present day. His thorough answers echo his close attention to detail, and reveal the eclectic array of influences which converge to inspire his interpretation of blackened progressive metal.
What are some factors that have pushed you toward composing black metal as opposed to other genres?
I started playing drums at age seven. In music school they told me I’d make some rock because I hit the drums super hard and fast. At home I tried to play Slipknot, maybe that's why! I started my first band at 12 and started composing for it in the meantime. It sounded like punk, punk rock, then I discovered prog music thanks to one guy Thibaut De Greffe, who came to be our new bassist and changed my vision of music forever. He showed me paths to experiment, new ideas of compositions, odd time signature rhythms, and pushed me to practice my instrument (guitar at this time) as much as possible, sometimes six hours per day. We had many projects like movie music, horror themes, concerts, and the band called at this time Infinity Dreams [laughs].
I think I like to make (not in music only) things that are fresh, that slap faces, are unusual because they shock people, but I try to do it in an elegant way so it can still be looked at or listened to easily. I’m sure that I can’t make any grindcore. So metal is a great way for this. Technical, brutal, has the potential to be beautiful; and more and more I discovered this world that hasn’t been digested by media (yet). Those are some good ingredients for music.
What is your greatest non-musical artistic inspiration?
I went to an art and literature high school, extended with an architecture school. (I’m currently an architect). So I necessarily studied all kinds of visual art deeply, associated with a lot of practice (painting, drawing, sculpting, and some more varied crafts). In this whole bunch of images and theory I’ve seen, I can clearly find some periods more inspiring than others.
I’d say first everything that people have made for gods. From Egyptians to Byzantines, Africa and Japan, and also closer to me the medieval european art until the Baroque. I don’t quite like modern arts; they don’t touch me as well, I think they are more futile and shallow. They usually don’t talk about life and time, scale of things. That’s a topic that is really important to me, almost haunting me. Death, and what after? Nothing. Getting old and you can not do anything about it, it’s tragic and everybody feels the same about it. If it’s so common, it shouldn’t be that strange, I don’t know why it’s such a strong feeling, and everybody should be okay to talk about it. I assume the arts that relate to this, directly or not, bring me more than daily life subjects. Secondly, art that describes other worlds, parallel things, fictions where you can always invent things that are more spicy than in real life. (I don’t give names on purpose, I would have probably given different answers on a different day).
Progressive and black metal are often very different, but you weave them together effortlessly. How do you balance the progressive and avant-garde elements in your music with the aggression of black metal?
As I grew up with progressive music as a base for composition, I knew all the classics by heart at 16, it’s kind of natural for me. I even used to re-write the songs I loved to understand them completely, so I can use the tools that other musicians that I respect used also. I discovered black metal with Gorgoroth as a teenager and it scared me. But the essence of it is quite deep, actually. I love the way this music can sometimes become so atmospheric that you’re kind of lost, without frames. I understood it in my year of exchange in a snow storm in Oslo. When I came back it’s like I learned a new face of music, another tool to use that I missed. And when I tried to develop this, it worked so well for me that I decided to make a whole project around it.
What are the greater philosophical/personal themes of Contes Funébres? How have these themes changed since your first record?
Contes Funèbres is not a concept album in its shape but in its theory. Like the first opus, it’s an introspection into people’s feelings, behaviours, what are all those bad things people do and feel, and why they do it. In Contes Funèbres it’s not that litteral, it’s a fiction of a character that leaves his world without goal, but is attracted by some unknown forces that bring him to another world. The story takes place in this other world. Many stories happen there (one tale per song). They allow me and eventually the listener to feel stronger things related to human lives through a fiction. Love, anger, madness, loss, peace and death -- the character discovers all of these and finally understands and accepts them.
Describe your process for creating music as a one-man project; does anyone ensue contribute to the writing/recording of your albums, or is it 100% you?
I take an album as a project and don’t see further than that during the creating process. I don’t want to have too much and lose control. I write everything first, on scores, from guitar riffs, rhythmic patterns, sounds, even just musical ideas. It’s based a lot on direct influences. I don’t think any musical idea can be stolen, because anytime you play it with your own instruments and manners it will already be disconnected from the base and be a new original thing. And also, all the chord progressions and rhythms have been tried before me, so I just pick the ones that seem to fit the ideas I have. I’ve been playing in a brass band in my architecture school, where I learned trombone. New tool, new use in the music. I like the sound of koto as well, I’ve put some in a lot of songs before Creature. I use it as a percussive melody. To compose, I pay more and more attention to what people say, why and when they like this effect or rhythm, how it’s affecting them, in order to produce it with my music. I make 100% of the composition, recording and mixing. You find however some covers of French pop, and lyrics taken from french romantic poets. And I had the chance to meet Perrine Neulet in my town in Vannes, who played the flute in “Depart II.” She’ll play in more than one song on the third album.
To sum up, I’d say that I stay focused song per song, for days, alone on it. Nobody knows and is able to see anything before the album release. It’s a long secret process, quite frustrating, because I’d like to exchange, discuss about it during the creation, but it makes it more precise also, it goes where I manage to push it. Sometimes I aim for something and I’m disappointed, sometimes a random pattern can become my favorite song, I never really know before putting it on scores. Last but not least, the use of choir. I can’t avoid it. Maybe I should try without! But since I started to write seven to eight years ago, it’s systematic. I think I like how varied it can be, low or sharp, bending and sliding notes, strong or soft, but still human voice! And I really like the choir tracks alone, it sounds like spiritual songs. I love the grain it brings to metal.
What is your overall musical vision for Creature? What do you hope to achieve in the years to come?
I started to look for musicians in order to create a show. I see it more than a concert, maybe closer to a play or a contemplative scene in movement. I really struggle to find people who want to play exactly what I wrote, and I think it’s not going to work. Anyways I have a full-time job and it wouldn’t be possible to make it really well. I’m currently writing the third album. It’s going to be a fiction again, not related that much on us, our understanding of the world. Some people gave me incredible feedback on my two albums, that push me to continue. It means it’s worked, they felt what I felt and we found a kind of beauty in all of this. But I’m really unsure about the result and always worried that nobody likes it anymore. I put a lot of energy in this project but strangely I don’t believe there is a use, or it’s going somewhere in particular. I’ll just do it until I can and until people are bored, for the sake of music and feelings themselves.
Anything else you want to tell the readers?
I didn’t mention it, but I am extremely influenced by video game music. I actually wrote the soundtrack for three roleplay games (just for me and my friends). So if you find some references, it’s not made on purpose but it’s real! I’d also love to extend the project to other things. For example, I’m planning to make a clip with a dance (yes, that’s true) so if anyone is interested to push the project further I’ll be totally receptive to work with that.
It is readily apparent that Creature’s beautifully intrepid music emerges not only from Fournier’s adoration of metal and art, but his commitment to pouring his entire being into the more philosophical themes therein. His compositions are conceived from the core essence of his spirit, and this sense of duty is more than obvious in the intricacy and devotion intertwined within the theory and execution of both Inquiétudes and Contes Funébres.
This one-man outfit perfects a special mixture of styles and textures, but perhaps it is because of his solitary nature that this idiosyncratic combination is possible. Whatever the reason, Creature stands as one of this century's most promising up-and-coming musical entities already overdue for a meteoric rise to prominence.