Vince Wilquin: Guitar / Vocals / Saxophone
Hugo Florimond: Guitar
Valentin Pelletier: Bass
Clément Denys: Drums
With 2019's Rhizomes Of Insanity, France's Fractal Universe created one of the most musically, lyrically, and emotionally complex and compelling progressive metal works of the twenty-first century. The band toured the record hard, joining heavyweights Obscura in February/March of 2020, making for one of the last tours in the world pre-pandemic, and in doing so sated their faithful while winning legions of new followers. With its successor, The Impassable Horizon, they have gone even deeper, effortlessly following the trajectory they set themselves on to create an album that is riveting from start to finish. "We wanted to keep developing our musical personality and the natural sound we managed to get on 'Rhizomes'," says drummer Clément Denys. "It's a very versatile and complex album. Musically speaking, you will find catchy songs which are really direct, progressive and mysterious ballads with epic saxophone solos, and technical songs with intricate riffing." Elaborates vocalist/guitarist/saxophonist Vince Wilquin, "despite the record being even more diverse, dynamic and including more clean vocals than its predecessor, the overall atmosphere is also slightly darker and more melancholic." And with the introduction of Wilquin's newly honed saxophone skills to their live set, alongside working with Gojira's Christian Andreu on their stage scenery and production, once the band return to the road they are sure to be an unmissable act.
With the first riffs and ideas for The Impassable Horizon emerging in November 2018, before Rhizomes was even released, composition for the whole record took about a year, with the last six months before entering the studio in May of 2020 dedicated to vocal preproduction/arrangements and finalizing the guitar and saxophone solos. With a broad variety of sounds and styles sewn seamlessly together and some immensely complicated musicianship involved, it would be an understandable assumption that the band have to push themselves very hard to realize each song, but this is not necessarily the case. "I wouldn't say the writing process was particularly 'hard'. There's no urge to make things particularly 'complex' or whatever, it's just the natural way I write," says Wilquin. "Once I have a solid starting point - like a rhythmic or melodic idea, which is usually the most challenging part of the process - things usually build really naturally into a full song. Playability is not always a criteria when I compose, as I really try to avoid falling into my usual guitar 'noodlings' and rather try to write the music I hear in my head. In a way, you could say our music is written by a 'composer', rather than by a 'guitar player', so sometimes, the most challenging part is for us all to figure out how to actually play the music on the instruments." Denys also praises Wilquin's approach to writing parts for the drummer. "Vince knows how to write challenging and interesting drum parts, while remaining playable and really musical for me. I have to find the right way to do it, or sometimes rearrange it a little while keeping the main idea. In terms of skill, this new record requires more endurance, versatility and a new approach to my dynamics." The record is also a showcase for the staggering vocal range of Wilquin, who provides "ninety-eight percent" of all the vocals on there, singing and screaming in a breathtaking variety of styles, bringing out the emotion of each requisite part. "To me, it's really important that the vocal style fits the music as well as possible, and since the music has a huge dynamic and color range, so must the vocals. Thus, I've put a lot of hard work into it in these past years, even more so than on my guitar skills." With the throat singing audible on the background of "A Clockwork Expectation" and "Falls Of The Earth" supplied by guitarist Hugo Florimond and Wilquin's girlfriend Léopoldine Marcoux doubling some of his vocals, the band kept things in house pretty much right down the line, not looking to outside musicians. This is also true for the numerous saxophone solos that invigorate the record; having recruited Florimond's father to supply a solo on that instrument on Rhizomes, this time, the front-man was determined to do all of these himself. "I first picked up the instrument in late 2019, as learning it was something I had at the back of my mind for quite some time. Initially, it was something I wanted to do mostly for fun, but the more I fell in love with the instrument - and the more the others encouraged me to - the more I wanted to include it in the band. On top of that, all the saxophone parts I will now perform live as well, which will make a solid addition, and give a unique character to the band's performances."
Like its predecessor, The Impassable Horizon is a concept album with a dense and involved lyrical theme that though complex, has deeply relatable aspects to it, exploring the concept of death, and the relationship that we humans have with it. Working closely with good friend - and doctor in psychology - Arthur Massot, the band take a very philosophical approach to their subject area. "It partly draws inspiration from Heidegger's concept of 'being-towards-death'. In the philosopher's mind, the question is not 'What is there after death?' but rather 'What does it mean for us to be aware of our own finiteness, and how do we deal with it consciously and subconsciously?' 'The Impassable Horizon' is just that, it sums it all up in a few words." Stemming from this comes the like of opening track "Autopoiesis", the title referring to "the ability of a system to produce itself, in interaction with its environment, thus being able to keep a stable and organized structure. This track discusses the emergence of life - the 'organic' - that came out of the 'non-organic', and states that in many ways, there's no fundamental difference between the two." Then there is "A Clockwork Expectation", the track stating that it is "our 'consciousness' that makes us aware of our own finiteness, and that turns it into a 'gift' that we may rather have never wanted. The use of the word 'Pharmakon' in the chorus - a Greek word designating both a remedy and a poison - illustrates this paradox inherent to life itself." The video for this track, directed by Vincent Tournaud, was shot at Gouffre de Poudrey, France's largest equipped cave - "It was a unique and unreal experience to spend two days all alone in the extreme conditions - seventy meters underground, 7°C - of this otherworldly beautiful location." While the lyrical theme of "Symmetrical Masquerade" is "the hope humans have of a something, whatever its nature, after death. In that constant denial of the fact that death could equal the 'non-being', humans turn this anxiety into an expectation, even a deliverance. But there's always a doubt remaining. And the most distressing thing isn't the knowledge of the inevitable, but rather the fact that nothing's for sure." And this track is accompanied by an animated version by Costin Chioreanu of Twilight 13 Media, who has worked with the likes of Opeth and Leprous.
Drums were recorded at the band's own professional recording studio - Boundless Production Studio - in Florange, France, while the other instruments were tracked in their personal home studios. It was overseen by producer Flavien Morel, who has been working with Fractal Universe since the beginning and really understands the band's vision. "The sessions were good," says Denys. "We were not in a rush. This was the first record we entirely tracked in our own studios, so we were for example able to spend two complete days on sound-checking the drums, which was really comfortable." The most demanding aspect of tracking was - understandably - the vocals, which took as long to record as all of the other instrumentation combined. "Flavien really encouraged me to bring the vocal production to the next level: there are chorus sections where there are about thirty tracks of backing vocals, with every line quad-tracked, to make it sound really massive and 'chorus-y'." With mixing being Wilquin's favorite part of the realization process, the point at which the record really starts to come alive, he was happy to work closely with Morel, and the finished product is everything they wanted it to be. "It feels like the natural evolution of our band sound, keeping our distinctive trademarks and incorporating new sounds and ideas," says Wilquin, and adds Denys, "we hope the new album will reach new fans and please our current ones, which have been amazingly supportive even during the pandemic, and that it will bring the band to the next level."