Review Summary: An incredibly strong orchestral death metal album with a brainy progressive edge.
Marionnettiste is the debut album of the young symphonic death metal band Exanimis. Graduating from the "Music Academy International" in Nancy, France, these former students took it upon themselves to construct one of the most ambitious orchestral death metal albums of the recent decade. I do not say this lightly, this album hits most of the categories one might look for in a good progressive metal album: solid production, virtuoso/technical musicianship, ambitious songwriting and varied song structures, good dynamics, solid rhythm and pacing, colorful aesthetics, and a creative album concept. I can certainly see why the critical praise this album has been getting is justified.
As you can see by looking at any of the band's music videos or band photos, this group went all out on gathering up a unique aesthetic. Their spooky, gothic puppet look is something that is very intriguing and a great way to draw in an audience and separate themselves from the rest of their death metal competition.
This is an album about a nightmare, specifically someone dreaming about marionettes and gothically mechanical monsters coming to life and chasing them through some ambiguous medieval setting. One can appreciate the themes this band focuses on: the duality between living beings and mechanical objects. The marionettes are mechanical objects that were made to be controlled by the puppeteer but are now alive and lurking. Of course, this is happening in a nightmare where the brain is the real mastermind orchestrating the whole thing during the dream state. Little do people's half-conscious dream selves know, but the worlds constructed around them in dreams are kind of like theater stages that the brain makes to control them like puppets. The brain is a mechanism after all. Does this make us mechanisms? Stay tuned to the future of neuroscience which may or may not ever find us an answer.
Nonetheless, it would be improper of me to discuss this album too much without acknowledging where its musical influences come from. Obviously, Exanimis has taken notes from other orchestral death metal bands such as Septicflesh and Godflesh Apocalypse which have both used grand-scale orchestral elements to heighten their sound with great success. However, as weird as it is to say, neither of these bands have used these orchestral influences along with other elements that would make them fit into the "progressive metal" category. In contrast, what propels Exanimis ahead of its predecessors is that they really take advantage of their academic music background and write their songs with a more nuanced level of creativity. This album showcases the full prog package, multi-part songs, tempo shifts, odd time signatures, and technical guitar solos galore.
A lot of the heavier moments in this album remind me a lot of Deconstruction by Devin Townsend with how the riffs, double-bass drums, choirs, and keyboards are layered together, though this album does not go as electronic and processed sounding as a lot of Devin's material tends to go. Marionnettiste maintains a lot more of a traditional and gothic sound when it comes to their symphonic elements which is a plus for a lot of people who get turned off by overproduced music.
Some of the songs where Exanimis show off their musical chops most are the tracks "Cogs, Gears & Clockworks" and "Cathedral" which showcase an immersive amount of instrumental sounds, including an operatic choir, organs, piano, and bells of various sizes. They do not just throw all these elements together in a way that seems arbitrarily ambitious either; the impressive songwriting in these songs shows how the band can put all these unconventional elements together in a way that makes the songs captivating and flow naturally.
Now, time to talk about the downfalls of the album. Though the symphonic, keyboard, and miscellaneous instruments are well composed, some of the traditional metal instrumentals can be somewhat lacking at times. Originally, I gave this album a lower score because I had felt as though this album had very few riffs. Well, this is not entirely true. There are quite plenty of, often, good riffs on the album. It's just that most of them are fairly chuggy and one-note for a metal album of this caliber. Additionally, the drums and the bass almost never get attention in the spotlight and are essentially always in the background of the composition. I would also say the growls could be a bit more full and textured, and the cleans need a lot of work as well. This is essentially a very guitar chug, death growl, and symphony centered album. It would be much more complete if the bass or drums were more developed and mixed more evenly. In future albums, these changes would certainly make the album more well-rounded and would bring up to the quality with some of the best.
That all said, this is still an amazing album. I very much would like to see this band succeed so that I could one day have the opportunity of watching them play these songs live. This seems like a band that would put on a visceral live performance with the strong aesthetic qualities in their costumes and their music. Also, to see them play some of these technical and complex compositions live would be a treat in itself.