Crying Sword, Crimson Snow: ATRAMENTUS - Stygian Review

In the most funeral doom move in recent memory, guitar wunderkind Phil Tougas unveils a chilling epic literally lost to the tundra of time.

Words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly):

The year of our Lord 2020. It goes without saying that when we are asked about it by our future children and grandchildren, you will have no reservations in calling it quite possibly THE SHITTIEST YEAR ON RECORD. The worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 effectively hit the brakes on the entirety of the planet and at this point in time, has killed countless thousands. If you were living in the United States as I am, you watched firsthand as police brutality and racial inequality ripped the hearts out of everyone in the nation on top of all of that. In times like these, I often think of a quote by YouTuber Todd in the Shadows when he did a video about the Bush administration’s involvement in the Middle East post-9/11 and the impact, or non impact rather, of MADONNA’s American Life (2003) album. His statement, “At least we will get good music” is a quote that so far has rang true throughout all of this. 2020 has been a year that despite the lack of touring by any artists, creativity has flourished as many artists have recorded and self released records from quarantine or ones they had put their hearts into during the preceding couple of years. But there’s one album that only one word can describe its arrival into this year and that word is resurrection.


As someone who ascribes fully to Christian theology and it’s teachings, the term resurrection is at the very core of our doctrine and belief in the Risen Jesus Christ. Lets look at the word from a secular standpoint. A glance at any standard English dictionary would point out that it is the revitalization of something, to especially bring back from death to life or immortality, if you will. That is exactly what can describe the arrival of Stygian, the debut full length record by Longueuil, Quebec-based funeral doom quintet ATRAMENTUS. At the very center of the band is frontman Philippe Tougas, arguably the busiest and hardest working musician in heavy music today. In the last decade, Phil has been at the forefront played in or had a hand in the creation of bands such as CHTHE’ILIST, ZEALOTRY, FIRST FRAGMENT, SEROCS, EQUIPOISE, COSMIC ATROPHY and FUNEBRARUM just to name a few. He has an extensive mental library of the most insane guitar passages ever committed to tape in the underground and he’s got one of the most horrific harsh vocal performances you’ll ever hear (check out CHTHE’ILIST’s Into the Vaults of Ingurgitating Obscurity if you don’t believe me). While most of these projects lie firmly in the death metal or technical metal camp, Tougas has a lesser known love of all things doom. He’s a massive fan of cult American doom metal heroes CIRITH UNGOL and also an aficionado of classic funeral doom. It’s the passion for the slow and low that ultimately led to the creation of ATRAMENTUS as a whole. This is where the story gets interesting.


While the band initially formed around the talents of Tougas on guitar and vocals, his CHTHE’ILIST bandmates Claude Leduc on guitar and Antoine Daigneault on bass along with François Bilodeau on keys and dark ambient sounds and GEVURAH’s multi-instrumentalist Xavier Berthiaume on drums, the creation of Stygian itself was a work in slow motion. The band formed sometime around the late 00’s and early 2010’s and set to work with recording this album, which just so happens to be a concept album. The group recorded the album late in the winter of 2012 and in autumn of the following year, and then...nothing. My guess is that every member involved simply became too busy with other projects, especially our main man Phil. In the most funeral doom thing since Max Varnier (RIP) taking his lyrics to heart in the worst way possible, Stygian was tucked away in the dark and frozen chasm it was birthed from. Many other albums came and went in the netherworld of funeral doom, yet it seemed that this would lay dormant forever, never to see the light.


Yet like most of what’s happened this year, the universe had other plans. Eventually, 20 Buck Spin would sign the collective and see to it that in this terrible, awful, no good, very bad year that we receive a monument to pure misery akin to slicing our veins with the coldest, sharpest steel. But just how has time and a resurrection factored into the complex work of art that is Stygian? Well, it just so happens that we can heed the words of CROWBAR and that time truly does heal nothing. While this resurrection has taken place, the wounds remain deep, cold and like the existence of the soul shaken knight in our story, they are also eternal.


While I would normally love to dive directly into the lyrical content of a concept album, especially one with a story as instantly enthralling as this, I must focus solely on the music and the emotions weighed upon the listener. I must also concede that Stygian’s lyrical content will incite heartache in one individual that will not be experienced by another. However, I will comment that the story that takes place throughout Stygian is loaded with a captivating amount of dense and rich lore that allows you to immerse yourself in the world of ATRAMENTUS.


While reading the story, it may seem that it follows a more nihilistic take on the formula Joseph Campbell describes in his timeless work 'The Hero with a Thousand Faces' (1949). The tale also has hints of Milton, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Alighieri, the Poetic Eddas, the Old Testament and The Silmarillion. Quite a lot of literature and a varied imagination went into the creation of this epic of pride, malice, sorrow, loss and isolation. It almost feels like reading a full-fledged fantasy horror novel, but in the context of browsing a lyrics sheet. If you are able to score a vinyl copy with the insert, I HIGHLY recommend reading the opening lore before pressing play. We all know what we’re here for and that is the musical side of this colossus of frigidity and dread. So how exactly does Stygian fall into the world with the amount of heft that it does? Simple, it crumples you into the smallest of organisms through it’s gargantuan guitar riffs, methodical rhythm work and a vocal performance that is second to none.


Our tale begins with opening track From Tumultuous Heavens... (Descended Forth the Ceaseless Darkness) making an arrival with a seismic pounding of grand piano keys. They work to serve as an almost cosmic clock signifying the end of existence, much like COVID has. Then, Tougas drags his trademark roar into the soundscape, letting it off with a snarl phlegm laden enough to elicit loogie spitting in the listener. The track builds on it’s glacial base of piano and keys with towering passages of guitar while Berthiaume gives some delightful slow paced double kick. Vocals enter and the void opens wide, which is where TYRANNY tread so long ago, while the backing music sounds more in line with THERGOTHON from their demo material as the track crescendoes semi triumphantly. Plaintive chants hint at minimal streaks of light, but it remains all too fleeting as the organs swell. This is an aspect that I feel most funeral doom bands try to shoe horn but here, ATRAMENTUS know how to play the atmosphere card. Tortured screams are a welcome addition to the doleful lurch on display before keys and some ambience return. It almost feels like the hellish equivalent to an album like STORMCROWFLEET in this respect while also staying strictly within it’s own artistic bubble. Soft yet urgent vocal lines connect masterfully before the bellows return like sheets of ice crashing into an unforgiving ocean. The track slowly rides the waves of this crashing as the keys swell like wintry blasts, Phil’s vocals carry and the drums lead us into a miasmal wasteland that drips with suffocating density. It almost feels like the collective dying heart beat of every last living creature in the story.


Ambient tracks must not be half assed in a genre like funeral doom. This is where ATRAMENTUS succeed yet again. In Ageless Slumber (As I Dream In the Doleful Embrace of the Howling Black Winds) is some of the most bone chilling dark ambient this side of LUSTMORD. The frightful keys meld alongside the knight’s shivers, short breaths and sobbing amidst the unbearable cold of an eternal winter. Cries from beyond the glacial realm echo through the ears of the listener as pure dreadful ambience squashes all hope of feeling warm or sane. It builds to a fever pitch akin to the work of BOARDS OF CANADA before the startling gasp of the protagonist shocks the listener back to wherever they may be.


When we come to the last track, nothing can truly prepare you for what you’re about to hear. Perennial Voyage (Across the Perpetual Planes of Crying Frost & Steel-Eroding Blizzards) begins firmly in the vein of an album such as QUIETUS with somber clean guitar lines. You can feel the icicles forming around you and your breath getting shorter. Phil then enters with what I call his “Predator” vocal delivery. He uses this technique extensively with CHTHE’ILIST and here, it adds an otherworldly darkness to an album that is rife with darkness. Soon, the other members join and the band go full SKEPTICISM with organ swelling delicately in the foreground so as not to detract from the gale force riffing. A solo arrives that seems straight out of the MOURNFUL CONGREGATION playbook yet feels much more methodical and malevolent as it peaks and valleys like the glaciers surrounding our protagonist. Usually, a solo is meant to convey triumph, but here there is no triumph if but for the very darkness and frigid cold felt by the listener. The feeling of desolation continues as Phil whispers like Mike from YOB while the guitars careen through and start to sound like a doomed out version of Criss Oliva and Eric Johnson. We are then treated to a ghostly choir that weaves a spell of unholy chilling within the soul of the listener. Piano follows closely behind while the “Predator” vocals join with the choral chant and yet another elegiac solo descends like sleet in slow motion. The EVOKEN-esque guitars take center stage once more alongside organ, bass guitar and distant chanting in some far off cosmic temple. The track continues it’s lumbering dirge forward towards nothingness and we are even able to physically HEAR this lumbering as footsteps coalesce with chilling dark ambient that sounds slightly similar in tone to the opening of KING CRIMSON’s Starless and Bible Black (1974) before growing more expansive in atmosphere. Slowly, the hellish choir of the frozen realms arise from the permafrost in a swelling motion. Grand piano keys ring out with clean guitars to create more stray and haunting tones. The track builds further to an apex of pure darkness before another solo is gifted to us, this time with a little bit more flourish than the last couple. And then, the track does the unthinkable and goes FULL BLACK METAL. I shit you not, this part dropped my jaw through the earth’s crater when it hit and it was unlike anything I could have anticipated. It was a surprise, but a welcome one to paraphrase a certain chancellor from Naboo. After this blast of icy cold evil, winds whistle and the track fades into the cold unforgiving darkness from which it was resurrected.


It goes without saying that funeral doom has experienced a massive surge in popularity hitherto unknown. Who would’ve thought that bands like WORSHIP, THERGOTHON, AHAB and SKEPTICISM would FINALLY be getting the recognition and love they should have been receiving? Well, now we can add ATRAMENTUS to this list of distinguished pioneers of darkness to the ranks as one of the best. Yes, with a single record that almost never came to light, ATRAMENTUS have firmly placed themselves into the funeral doom pantheon as masters of the funereal craft. Stygian is a monument to suffering in a year where the entire planet has had not a single pumping of the brakes in terms of tragedy. No other record this year will quite capture the pure, undying dread we have a experienced as a world community like Stygian has. When this pandemic will end we may never know, but rest assured that ATRAMENTUS have caught lightning in a bottle and through their own exorcism of pain and suffering have given this shaken world something to be fully resurrected by when this horror is over. Thankfully, we won’t end up like the knight in the story, but now we understand from this record’s content and the situation at hand what funeral doom truly means in a world that for all intents and purposes has left us alone, shaken and frozen with fear. Solitude never felt this bone chilling.

Stygian arrives on August 21st via 20 Buck Spin. Order your copy of the record HERE.

Cover art by Mariusz Lewandowski

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