Fractal Universe – Rhizomes of Insanity & Rhizomes Live

Out now on Metal Blade Records

Live albums in 2020 is a curious prospect. With youtube being host to thousands of hours of live footage from the farthest reaches of the international music scene, spending label money to mix and release an official recording of a live performance seems meaningless. This is nevertheless what Fractal Universe has done with their 2020 release on Metal Blade Records, Rhizomes Live. Corresponding with their stint opening for Obscura throughout Europe this month, Rhizomes Live is a live performance of their 2019 album Rhizomes of Insanity in full. As a preliminary to seeing them perform in Oslo on March 4th, I am taking a look at both versions of Rhizomes.

            Fractal Universe is a technical, progressive Death Metal band from France with an album and an EP to their name, apart from the releases discussed in this review. Having a clean and modern sound, the band is situated on a separating line between classic technical Death Metal (Obscura, Gorod) on one side, and more groove-based 10’s bands on the other. The tapestry of their sound is highly detailed and includes lots of little digressions into satellite-genres without cluttering the bigger picture. Minimal djent-chugs, Tool-like landscapes of clean guitar and rolling toms, and Melodic Death Metal riffing all find little corners to snuggle into on Rhizomes, all held together by the uniform and spit shined production. 

            The level of detail on this album is baffling, pertaining to both the construction of ideas and riffs, and the bigger soundscapes they find themselves in. Being immensely proficient on their instruments, the band sculpts immaculate riffs and combines them with compositional fervour. This rich mosaic is facilitated by the production, which leaves ample space for the pieces to interconnect, while still having a somewhat sterile, Axe-Fx-ish sheen. Despite the daunting breadth of elements fighting for attention on Rhizomes, Fractal Universe never loses track of the song. The structures are neatly shaped, reining in the creative chaos to fit into well-known frameworks.

            The songs vary from relatively pure-blooded Technical Death Metal tunes like “Flashes of Potentialities” and “Masterpiece’s Parallelism”, and more MOR modern metal like the opening track and “Fundamental Dividing Principle”. Despite this perceived divide, there are no single tune that adheres completely to either category. “Flashes…” features verse vocals reminiscent of Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse, and “Oneiric Realisations” has a bridge section all awash in prog and vocoders. “Rising Oblivion” scampers onto the scene like a mountainous cyborg polyrhythmically scanning a ravaged city for signs of life, and “Architectural Aberrations” drops a shamelessly st00pid breakdown on us like said cyborg discovering only a few scattered flocks of Veil of Maya fans.

            The album has a mild pacing issue, in addition to accumulating some redundancies over the span of its runtime. Each song is jam-packed with different ideas competing for space, but their variety is hemmed in by song structures that generally follow similar progressions. After six songs of technical metal interspersed with crystalline soundscapes ala Cynic, the constant shifting between the two starts to feel a bit played out by the time “Madness’ Arabesques” noodles out of the speakers. This problem translates onto the macro plane, as the album’s arc suffers from the interchangeability between the songs. 

            At least the closing “Chiasmus of the Damned” manages to conjure an air of finality, providing the album with a convincing conclusion. Rhizomes of Insanity as a whole shows tremendous promise, highlighting an upgrade in both the sound and material from earlier entries in the band’s output. With a few more stand-out ideas and a more engaging album structure, they might be able to compete with their more seasoned tour mates in Obscura. Rhizomes of Insanity is still highly recommended for tech-nuts, containing enough twists and riffy conundrums to keep your Guitar Pro 7 window aglow for weeks.  

            Rhizomes Live is a release that constitutes a complete enigma to me. One might suppose that live albums should either provide some alternative perspective on studio material or show off the organic interplay and happy accidents of a live performance, but …Live doesn’t really do any of them. Fractal Universe’s style of music is too tightly coiled to lend itself to live tinkering, and the musicianship of the guys is so advanced that the playing is close to identical to the source material. Even the vocals –usually subject to change from studio to live stage in underground metal- are performed meticulously, resulting in the only difference from …Live to the studio album being one of fidelity. If anything, the release seems to only exist to tell the world that “oui bois, we can perform this shit live”. Even though I enjoy the listen, I would much rather listen to Rhizomes of Insanity with its spacious and punchy production. That being said, I do look forward greatly to seeing them in March!

Rhizomes of Insanity: 7.0/10             

Rhizomes Live: 4.0/10