It’s easy to think of fantasy realms and fictional tales as first and foremost a source of escapism, but these worlds can only be created by those who exist within our own, and as art throughout history has thus shown, they have a unique ability to reflect life on Earth, commenting on society’s ills or pondering both the beauty and horror of the human experience. Some of the strongest fantasy does both and neither simultaneously, leaving room for the consumer’s imagination. This much is true of the debut album from Canadian outfit Atramentus, for as much as Stygian is an album, it’s also a story set in a fictional world known as The Perpetual Planes.
“Stygian can be perceived as a bleaker reflection of what the world is becoming, much like it can be perceived as something else entirely,” says Phil Tougas, the mastermind behind the band.
His dedication to the project is endearing, given that it has taken eight full years for the band to actually release any music. In 2012 one of his several other bands, Chthe’ilist, dropped their first demo, and have since become one of the most exciting names in modern death metal. In the same year, Tougas founded Atramentus, wrote most of Stygian and set to work on forming a band to record it. Eight years later, the album has only just seen the light of day courtesy of 20 Buck Spin.
“I wasn’t interested in making yet another bedroom funeral doom band,” he tells us. “So I stayed patient and waited to find the right musicians to make this record with. No drum machines. No programmed piano or synths. True funeral doom the way it was meant to be.”
It took Tougas six years to assemble the line-up he desired. Two of the other three, bassist Antoine Daigneault and guitarist Claude Leduc, also feature in the current Chthe’ilist roster, with keyboardist François Bilodeau and drummer Xavier Berthiaume completing the Atramentus line-up. Building this team proved to be an elusive task for Tougas, with the musician citing a lack of interest in the genre as an issue, but the wait was more than worth it. Though Tougas is seemingly the mastermind and chief strategist, he’s quick to note that this debut album is also the result of collaboration.
Save for some instances of spontaneous creativity in the studio, Tougas explains that the album largely stays true to his original vision. The first solo on ‘Perennial Voyage’ is a key example: “These notes are what I heard in my head when I was walking through the snow-storm I braved eight years ago, which sparked the first musical creation of Atramentus and later on, the concept behind the record.”
This intensely personal experience sparked the inception of the project, but when it came to enter the studio, the album was also shaped by the band members’ combined talent. Tougas himself was inspired by a renewed interest in epic doom bands, which he says affected the recording and creation of their aesthetic. Elsewhere, though, the frontman cites Bilodeau as the reason for the periods of dark ambient present throughout (most notably on the ominous second track), and explains that Berthiaume’s production style is the source of the icy black metal atmosphere palpable on Stygian. “Variety is key,” Tougas says. “And I think our varied tastes further embellished the product without ever diluting its core and how it was intended to come out when it was originally written.”
The music may be an assimilation of the members’ various musical tastes, but the fantasy world surrounding the album is the product only of Tougas’ fierce imagination. Though it is set within a mythos with its own lore and story, Stygian is also an example of the fact that fantasy is bound to the real world, and cannot exist without in some way facilitating its creator’s experiences and worldview. “Canadian winter storms, heartache and chronic anxiety fueled the creation of this record,” Tougas illuminates. Its themes therefore reflect these inspirations.
“Various emotional traumas, nightmares, sleep paralysis episodes, exposure to extreme meteorological occurrences, illnesses and strange encounters with the paranormal has fueled the inspiration behind the themes present throughout this record,” says the frontman. “But I instead chose to create an extensive lore and an epic tale to truly envelop the listeners in an impenetrable atmosphere of coldness and darkness, and to make them relate to a character whose mental and physical hardships metaphorically represent some things I have myself experienced.”
To truly explore these experiences, Tougas saw fit to create a vast story influenced by Greek mythology and Christian theology and eschatology. With this as a basis, The Perpetual Planes began to take form in his mind. He describes this world as a “futuristic, apocalyptic medieval setting on what is basically an alternate Earth with a different geological composition.” Tougas has done something similar with his other bands, and there are links between these worlds that suggest they in fact belong to a shared universe, but they all differ in that they live to embody the themes Tougas wants to explore in his music.
Let Tougas explain this world, and you’ll soon find yourself down a rabbithole: “The music of Atramentus itself and its darkened frozen melodies inspired me to create a more desolate extension of this fictional world and the saga of The Guardian Of Atros Kairn, a nameless and immortal knight condemned to walk a frozen and sunless earth for eternity after making a deceitful pact with the lesser gods Sharos and Carcophanex who would gift him the sun’s immortal essence and raise the howling black winds of Atramentus to bring death, doom, decay and endless cold upon The Perpetual Planes.”
If, like us, you found yourself lost halfway through that sentence, fret not. It’s in no way necessary to know all this. It does however give us the sort of insight into an album that’s rarely seen. Rather than Tougas explaining the specific events and emotions that inspired Stygian, we’re given a fictional story about a nameless knight forced to live an immortal life on a destroyed planet, and this tale serves to magnify the album’s themes and motifs.
At times, of course, this world is even harder to understand, particularly as Tougas explains The Guardian Of Atros Kairn’s saga in long, breathless sentences: “Through his endless solitude following the death of the sun and of all life itself in the grip of endless winter, The Guardian Of Atros Kairn journeys through a world of ice, endless blizzards and desolated castles and citadels of frozen cobblestones that lay silent and barren in the perpetual shadows of colossal deities of death and darkness, whose thunderous voices are able to level entire oceans and make the earth tremble.”
Even as Tougas delves into these meandering explanations of a world that seems so much more boundless than our own, the common topics seem to be those with which we can all relate – remorse and shame, anxiety and fear, loneliness and isolation, existence and mortality. It is a monolithic album with an evocative, ruminative aura, somehow calling to mind mythologies too vast to comprehend whilst simultaneously feeling uniquely in tune with the existential vulnerability of being human.
“I wanted to create the kind of music that made others feel what I felt at the time of the creation of these songs,” Tougas reveals. “I wanted others to experience my pain and my sorrow and make them use this pain to reflect upon themselves and their views on life, death and the decisions they will take on how they will live their life and go through hardships. Funeral doom metal is ultimately music for those that are scared yet ready to face their sorrow and pain and experience these fully.”
Stygian is then a guiding light to those who are struggling, particularly during this exceptionally bleak period of history. Miserable music can often paradoxically be the most uplifting, after all. But you have to then wonder what role the immersive fantasy world created for this album plays in delivering this message.
Perhaps it is simply an important part of Tougas’ creative process, which is meticulous in its detail but also full of metaphor and poeticism. He explains that he likes to ensure that each section of lyrics fits the mood of each riff, so that listeners can interpret a certain emotion from the words alone. “The riffs, atmosphere and music can do that on their own for sure, especially during instrumental bits, but I think this is my favourite way to do things because it gives me the ability to dictate the direction and the flow of the story and how the colour of the music is perceived.”
Tougas even writes pieces of lore or information that are intended to be read during the instrumental periods of an album. “It adds a certain weight to the riffs,” he explains. “The way that I see it, putting a Chthe’ilist, Atramentus or Eternity’s End CD in your sound system is like crossing a portal to another dimension, and these words will only help the listeners, letting themselves become assimilated into an ever-growing world.”
This desire to create other worlds in which people can lose themselves began as a teenager, Tougas tells us, and he later saw fit to incorporate it into his music. “I was already interested in writing fantasy/sci-fi stories at that time and although my first attempts were pretty clumsy, it paved the path to what I would do later. I think music and storytelling go hand in hand and so I found within myself the inspiration to bring back this passion I used to have, but only many years later. It was natural that I would eventually start combining this passion with my music to build worlds, one album at a time.”
An interest in fantasy and worldbuilding will often lead to a career as a writer, but through music Tougas has found a less conventional way in which to inhabit the role of storyteller. Atramentus might just be his most well realised combination of fantasy worldbuilding and musical storytelling yet. The average listener won’t know about The Guardian Of Atros Kairn or have any idea what The Perpetual Planes are, but these things exist in Tougas’ mind, and they helped him shape one of the most powerful funeral doom releases to grace the metal scene in some time. It’s an album with a grand concept but one that’s informed by existence on Earth at this exceptionally turbulent time. As such, Tougas’ creation is not one to escape into, but one to help you confront your own vulnerability.
“The message of Atramentus is ultimately to contemplate and come to terms with your own mortality and face your biggest fears, whoever you are,” the musician tells us. “Therefore, I must admit that it is ultimately impossible to escape from the struggles of the real world in this context. We live in a world of death and fear. My work will often remain somewhat inspired by real-life occurrences, as much as my desire is to create music as a form of escapism and paint these occurrences metaphorically.
“I believe anyone can relate to The Guardian Of Atros Kairn in their own way, whether it’s his fear of death and loss, his desire to spit in the face of fate and the gods, the cruelty of an existence that bestows death and pain on us, or his regrets and desire to join his kin in their eternal icy slumber after the realisation that nothing is meant to last forever in this plane of existence and that we should aspire to live life to the fullest despite the knowledge that all must end one day, or the overwhelming dread felt in the face of boundless eternity. That’s up to you to figure out what to make of it all.”
Stygian is out now on 20 Buck Spin. Order here.
Words: George Parr