Creature – Ex Cathedra Review

Until now, I’d never listened to a symphonic metal record that had me trying to pinpoint which era of classical music inspired it. Symphonic metal bands are often credited with drawing from classical influences or training, but this rarely goes beyond incorporating traditional instrumentation of a symphony, often through synthesizers, as seasoning in an ultimately straightforward casserole of rock-based metal song structures. These orchestral flourishes rarely go beyond generic tropes of overt beauty or grandeur, either as counterpoint or compliment to distorted guitars. Not so for France’s one man avant-garde black metal project Creature. There have always been orchestral elements to sole member Raphael Fournier’s music, but on his third album Ex Cathedra, Fournier dons a powdered wig, paints a black mole on his cheek and fully embraces bombastic baroque influences.

A mere six months ago I wrote a TYMHM piece on the second Creature album Contes Funèbres, noting that while that album had a black metal base and clear elements of 70s prog, it also contained an anachronistic theatricality, like a corpse-painted staging of Les Misérables. If Contes Funèbres was broadway, Ex Cathedra is opera. Opener “Fugue en Sol Mineur” fittingly reveals Fournier’s sonic world with a synth build, a trilling flute and guitar arpeggios that crescendo before a (programmed) double kick drum and lurching riff accompany darkly chanted choral vocals. Horns swell in the background, including the signature trombone from Creature’s debut Inquiétudes. This transitions to a smartly sinister riff and blackened vocals more forceful than they were on the subdued Contes Funèbres. In fact, Ex Cathedra is a much heavier album, amping up the metal as well as the symphonic elements. But “Fugue en Sol Mineur,” after an impressive first half, also portends the album’s flaws. After a false ending, the track returns more scattershot, with booming drums, organs and more random horns and woodwind flourishes.

The meat of Ex Cathedra starts in earnest on third track “L’Odyssée Hyperpropulsée,” building a stretch of often brilliant songwriting that lasts through “Neo Habilis.” These four songs deliver on the promise of baroque symphonic black metal. “L’Odyssée Hyperpropulsée” opens with a martial march, ominously building to a heavy riff bolstered by horns and guitars that rise and fall almost spastically. Each piece of instrumentation moves both independently and in concert with the others, until Fournier’s newly forceful vocals enter, in French, defiant of international metal norms as always. Individual instruments are given their moments, such as the piano on “Involution – Expectations,” flute1 on solid instrumental “Note Anticosmique,” and trombone on “Neo Habilis,” but most impressive is the way Fournier uses standard black metal guitar tremolos to build both icy riffs and the kind of high energy, ascending passages reserved for violins in classical music. It’s an incredible stretch of music that would make the perfect soundtrack for beheading landed gentry.

If the rest of the album continued on this trajectory, Ex Cathedra would be something truly special. But after taking a couple tracks to hit its stride, the last few mark an exponential decline. “La Brièveté de l’Aphélie” and “Atlantis” have all the same moving parts as the album’s best material, but are compositionally less purposeful, at times unraveling completely. Meanwhile, “Le Roi Zogue” is decent, but its chuggier approach to riffing feels incongruent with the rest of the album. Speaking of, “Atlantis” blind-sides the listener with an absolutely head scratching moment when, apropos of nothing, Fournier drops a rap section—you read that right—into his increasingly aimless progressions. All this culminates in the longest and least enjoyable track on the album, “Ethernellement,” which takes ten minutes to do what it could have in three while also falling well short of the quality displayed before it. After the growing sense of bloat in “Atlantis,” it’s an unwelcome piece of flab to end the proceedings.

I get that criticizing something that draws from baroque music for its excess is borderline silly, so I’ll put it this way. The main flaw of Creature’s Ex Cathedra isn’t its maximalism or the 64 minute runtime, rather, the inconsistent songwriting that teases with moments of brilliance before cratering hard over the last third of the album feels disappointing. Despite this, Raphael Fournier has again given us a black metal record that’s unlike anything else out there. Ex Cathedra isn’t as good as it could have been, but it’s definitely worth your time.

Rating: 3.0/5.0
DR: 6 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: I, Voidhanger Records
Releases Worldwide: June 26th, 2020

Show 1 footnote

  1. Courtesy of guest musician Maria Grigoryeva.
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