I like to consider myself a student of musical expression, constantly exposing myself to new forms and styles and thereby expanding my knowledge base for later application. This rationalization makes me feel better about my alarming lack of musical ability, but every now and then my insignificance is thrown into stark relief by the new acts I discover along my path. Case in point, France’s Exanimis: four ex-students of the Music Academy International, whose shared passion for technical death metal and classical orchestrations has led them to record a breathtaking debut, Marionettiste.
While the obvious associations with Fleshgod Apocalypse and Septicflesh are inevitable, what does shine through is youthful exuberance and willingness to trespass beyond the established boundaries of the symphonic death genre. In the case of Exanimis, the more abstract arrangements with a greater appreciation for staccato phrasing (“The Wrathful Beast” typifies this) demonstrate an intentional break from the soaring, cinematic soundscapes their primary influences are famed for. That said, there is still more than enough ‘imitation as flattery’ spread across the record to satisfy an older audience, too – such as the stirring “Stampede of the 10,000” and its Lord of the Rings fantasy theme playing up the traditional metal tropes.
The official playthrough of “The Wrathful Beast.”
My personal favourite on Marionettiste would be the grand Guignol melodrama of “Cogs, Gears & Clockworks.” Its avant-garde approach and carnival atmosphere recall a band I consider one of the unsung heroes of extreme metal, Arcturus: even Exanimis’ fondness for masks echoes the theatre of Norway’s ‘supergroup’ of steampunk sideshow spacefarers. This feel for the visual side of the spectacle translates very well into the album art, too, masterfully supplied by Loïc Muzy.
Another highlight would be “The Slow Flow of Spume on the Shore,” where folk melodies and acoustic passages lend a completely different feel to the closing end of the album – but this is, unfortunately, followed by the sixteen-minute “Cathedral.” A well-named track, indeed, as it is massive, imposing and, ultimately, a touch on the empty side. Despite its technical achievement, it is next to impossible to maintain engagement throughout the song. Thankfully, the third instrumental interlude (“Epilogue du songe après le cauchemar,” or “Epilogue of the dream after the nightmare,” following a Prelude and an Intermission on the same theme) is a short, beautiful and masterfully performed classical closer that sweeps away the dust of the previous monumental undertaking.
The official music video confirms these observations, visually and aurally.
In Marionettiste we see and hear actual students (not self-proclaimed pretenders like myself) researching and learning from past masters of the craft, which in itself is an excellent and commendable tactic, but there are nevertheless several pitfalls to student-dom: first and foremost, lack of experience. The album itself is an excellent undertaking, make no mistake, but it does read as a technical exercise more than an authentic emotional outpouring. Secondly, and this is common to almost any student endeavour, a lack of focus. An end goal is in sight, but the path taken to get there is a meandering one, replete with pitstops, tangents and divergences. Thankfully, addressing the first will undoubtedly solve the second and the follow-up to Marionettiste will be a thing of beauty.
Marionettiste Track Listing:
1. Prélude du songe avant le cauchemar
2. The Wrathful Beast
3. Throne of Thorns
4. Stampede of the 10,000
5. Entracte du sommeil pendant le cauchemar
6. Cogs, Gears & Clockworks
7. The Slow Flow of Spume on the Shore
9. Epilogue du songe après le cauchemar
Run Time: 1:05:51
Release Date: March 5, 2021
Record label: Klonosphere / Season of Mist