The Willowtip Files: Capharnaum – Fractured

Pennsylvanian-based independent label Willowtip Records was established by Jason Tipton in the late ’90s. From humble beginnings, the label has stood the test of time, becoming one of the most respected and highly regarded record labels in the extreme metal scene. It takes something special to create a label with a consistently unfuckwithable roster of quality, innovative artists while retaining long-term integrity and durability. Willowtip is the self-proclaimed forward-thinking label, releasing a slew of modern classics and top-shelf albums that may have a lower profile but are more than worth your while. 

This feature focuses on a pivotal early period in the label’s history that had a huge impact on my own extreme metal tastes. As such, I am highlighting some outstanding albums released by Willowtip between 2001-2006. Some are lesser-known; however, I will argue are must-listen releases from the label’s early golden era. I will skip over a couple of particularly pivotal albums from the period more suited for Yer Metal Is Olde honors; otherwise, it’s open slather. Welcome to the Willowtip Files. 

There is an embarrassment of riches when considering the isolated timeline of The Willowtip Files as my shortlist continues to expand upon reflection. However, the 2004 sophomore album from American outfit Capharnaum was always high on the list and in no danger of being bumped or overlooked. Fractured followed up their promising, if slightly underdeveloped 1997 debut, Reality Only Fantasized, and found the drastically altered line-up now boasting the talents of Dan Mongrain (Martyr, Voivod), bassist Mike Poggione (Monstrosity), and Trivium frontman Matt Heafy before he hit the big time with his main band. The extra talents combined with brotherly duo Jordan Suecof (drums) and guitarist/producer/vocalist Jason Suecof. Although Fractured would prove the band’s final act, they managed to capture lightning in a bottle to create a modern classic of tech death in an era that featured a number of genre landmarks from the likes of Psycroptic, Anata, Spawn of Possession and Necrophagist.

Capharnhaum featured traces of Martyr, later period Death and Atheist in their DNA. However, they sculpted a unique identity that differed from their contemporaries. Sure the material features some mind-boggling technical chops, warped solos, and tricky time signatures, yet it wasn’t overly brutal, flamboyantly flashy, nor was it prone to bloated self-indulgence or neo-classical wankery. Fractured cut to the chase, unleashing a sleek, lean, mean machine of tightly coiled tech death and deadly efficiency. At a touch under a half hour in length, to this day, it remains one of tech death’s most tautly wound and to-the-point releases. The album’s complexity and progressive smarts are superbly complimented by a frantic and gritty thrash edge, hooky riffs, and streetwise attitude. Every song hits the mark, headlined by the staggering one-two opening punch of “Ingrained” and “Fractured,” both memorable powerhouses of knotty technicality, brain-scrambling solos, and tons of meaty riffage and thrashy overtones. The whole unit fires on all cylinders, though Mongrain and Jason Suecof’s guitar work, in particular, offers a consistently gripping source of entertainment and masterful musicianship, expertly welding tech, death, thrash, and prog elements into a melting pot of technical precision, shrewd melody, and raw aggression.

Heafy’s vocals may be a sticking point for some listeners as he doesn’t fit the traditional death metal mold as a vocalist, and his strained, hardcore-tinged style may grate for some. However, the passion and ferocity behind his vocals sync nicely with Capharnaum’s unique style, not to mention his knack for killer vocal hooks. Not content on sharing shred duties and handling production, mixing, and engineering tasks, Jason Suecof mixes up the vocal assault with gruffer, deathlier execution on the cutthroat efficiency of “Machines,” and blasty, brutal uppercuts of “Icons of Malice.” Fractured’s first half is unstoppable, yet the quality is sustained through to the finishing blows of the vicious “Scourge Trial” and closing “Refusal.” The latter highlights the excellent rhythmic swing and complex, creative patterns of Poggione and Jordan Suecof, bolstered by outstanding axework and solid vocals. Its last few minutes feature the only section of the album where Capharnaum gets really freaky and loses focus, albeit in a kind of fun way, through an extended, jazz-infected jam.

Fractured has stood the test of time nearly 20 years since it first graced the earth and stands as a watershed album of the early to mid ‘2000s era in the progressive and tech death scenes. The album’s enduring quality is even more impressive in the context of the era which spawned other timeless tech classics such as Epitaph, Cabinet, The Scepter of the Ancients, and Under a Stone with No Inscription. Metalheads with a penchant for techy tunes, complete with generous portions of thrash and prog, would be well advised to check out the catchy, warped brilliance of Fractured.

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