A Chat with First Fragment’s Phil Tougas

Metal has always thrived through innovation. From the very moment Sabbath first played that almighty down-tuned chug, to the birth of thrash in Bay Area California just a few years later to marriage of hip-hop elements in nu-metal (to the disgust of many); metal has always refused to sit still. Quebec’s First Fragment – with their signature blend of jazz, neoclassical and flamenco to name a few – are keen to keep pushing the genre onward; we got chatting to guitarist Phil Tougas to explore the band’s latest epic, Gloire Eternelle.

1. This will mark your first full-length project since 2016, how would you say Gloire Eternelle evolves from what was established on Dasein?

Tougas : Gloire Éternelle is, in my opinion, better structured, better performed, better produced and more memorable than Dasein and TAE combined. I also find it more original. Dasein was a technical death metal album with neoclassical elements. Gloire Éternelle has its own subgenre and we can barely even classify it. We just call it Extreme neoclassical metal even though it omits the other genres we mix in. Dasein had great songs and crazy ideas executed with an over-the-top attitude, but ultimately suffered from an uneven flow and sometimes it was a bit of a blur.

This is not the case with this new album in my opinion save from a few sparse moments where I think we could’ve had even better results. I think our songs are more memorable mainly because they are no longer structured like before where 50% of the time, the riffs would not come back in the song. I am at fault for this weakness actually. Our former rhythm guitarist and co-founder Gabriel had the right idea with his compositions on Dasein. Whereas the songs I wrote like Gula, L’entité, Le Serment De Tsion, were actually very catchy but suffered from having very few repetitions. Evhron and Concerto were spared from this treatment though. On the new album, each song is structured around a central theme that contorts, mutates and varies into another motif and most of them have a straight-forward verse-pre-chorus-chorus construction with variations to keep the songs focused with a distinct direction.

What I can say though, is that it has one riff that comes back four times through the song in two different contexts and two different keys and the same progression underneath that riff is used for the intro and outro of the song respectively. It is safe to say the song is centred around that chord progression although there are two other re-occurring themes in the song. There is even a bridge part in the song that is used four times throughout the 19-minute duration of the track, played in three different keys no less. One cool thing about this song is that some riffs directly reference past riffs found on Dasein, much like how lyrics-wise, the songs on Dasein and Gloire Éternelle are connected. No matter how flashy and crazy the songs get, there is actually something to latch on into structure-wise.

The musicianship and the guitar performances on this album are also more colourful in my opinion. There are over 100 solos on this album so that would take me forever to break them down but I can say it combines a lot of ideas from the old school 80s AOR scene as well as the shrapnel records artist roster from the 80s and 90s combined with an European sensibility at times. They are better and more tasteful than all of our past releases combined. As for the riffs, each riff has its quirks and is played using a wide array of techniques outside of the usual tremolo picking/tapping/sweeping stuff found in this genre. Techniques such as Jason Becker-style slide-ins, Joey Tafolla-style upward slide outs, Marty Friedman-style half-bends, whammy bar accents inspired by Tony MacAlpine and Elegy’s Henk Van Der Laars, slided pinch harmonics, etc are very prevalent on this record.

These specific techniques are nothing new, but they are used in a context that helps make each riff shine in a unique, eccentric way. I am unable to listen to my solos on Dasein these days because my left-hand vibrato technique was poor at the time. I recorded that record in 2013-2014 so it was a while back. As good as these early releases were, they irk me at the same time. I got much better at the classical guitar too so Gloire Éternelle totally beats Dasein in the flamenco parts. They are better performed and better implemented. One thing I also need to add: Having Nick Miller putting down leads on the album really adds a new colourful depth to our music because I’d get bored of it if it was just my solos like on Dasein/TAE all over again.

I don’t want to bore myself to death so I decided “no more of that, and also no more guest guitar solos/gimmicks. Nick is there. Twin lead guitar time!”. His style is so unique. It’s rarely ever shreddy or fast, it’s just SUPER tasteful and diverse. His approach is much more modern than mine so the contrast is so nice. We also have our own way of doing harmonized sections in which I usually stick to a melody articulated a bit like Marty Friedman, while Nick plays an arpeggio sequence over it. Total Speed Metal Symphony / Cacophony worship! It is like two solos going off at the same time but both parts are interconnected as the melody follows the chord progression on which the arpeggios are based upon.

Another key difference when comparing Gloire Éternelle to Dasein: It is the FIRST release of ours to feature a permanent drummer. The drums on DASEIN were recorded by a session drummer and our very good friend Troy Fullerton of Severed Savior who lives in the USA. Having a drummer like Nicholas Wells who is close to us and directly involved in the band really is a game-changer for the band dynamic and the cohesion behind the music and it shows on this album. Although working with Troy was just as fun, you just can’t replace that. Nicholas went through a lot physically and emotionally on top of this too so he gets double credit on top of his immensely diverse performance.

Finally, the production on this record is just x3 superior to Dasein. That is not even up to debate. Hugues just really outdid himself in that regard. He always made a killer job with our past albums though and always let me produce them the way I want them to sound. 

2. Do you and the rest of the band have a general songwriting process or does it all happen in the moment?

Tougas : With the exception of Soif Brulante & Ataraxie which are co-written by myself and Gabriel Brault-Pilon, I wrote everything – guitars, bass, drums. Even vocal structures and even some bass solos. Certain songs are written in one day. Others are written over the course of several months, sometimes years. The aforementioned songs were composed between 2006 and 2018 for example. Dasein also had songs like these since the material on it was composed between 2004-2010. We recorded the album in 2013 so by the time we released Dasein in 2016, the songs were already old. I was 17-18 when I wrote Gula and these other tracks! Most of the compositions on Gloire are fresher this time though.

I don’t want to take the credit for everything though, because what happens after is another story: Once I send the material, everyone rewrites their own parts I assigned them. David writes all the lyrics, Forest writes his parts and solos around what I wrote, Nicholas writes stuff around what I wrote. Nick changes some notes in the lead harmonies I send over and writes his own solos etc. This makes the songs and the final arrangements WAY BETTER and much more varied. No fucking way I could’ve come up with what these guys ended up doing in the end LOL. This is why First Fragment could never be a one-man band.

3. What would you say you learnt from the writing/recording process of the new album?

Tougas: A lot of the stuff I wrote ended up changing on the spot with improvised versions of the same riff or solo. I stopped being overly reliant to guitar pro 5 (and fuck version 6 and 7 too). I don’t write my solos on that program either. Just outlines for harmonies. Improvisation is the best. 

4. What’s been the general reception to the singles so far from fans/critics?

Tougas: Fans absolutely loved the singles and think it is our best material yet. They are right. We’ve had good reviews for the entire album too, but most of the media and the rest of the metal scene/world cares little about the band of course, nothing new. Shit, we couldn’t even get funding from our government despite our international reach and the fact our album is all in french which is one of the more important prerequisites for this. The album has had some hype overall but there are so many bands releasing stuff right now and our music is aimed towards an even smaller audience than before. It is what it is! Can’t please everyone! 

5. Do you have any interesting/funny stories about the making of Gloire Eternelle?

Tougas : Making the album documentary with Ismael Mossadeq was definitely a great time. Otherwise, no funny stories. Only pain & loss (and financial issues). That’s the blunt truth. On my end it was all physically excruciating stress and anxiety. David’s father died during the recording. Nicholas’s father also died during the recording, almost broke his leg, got into multiple car accidents, etc. People say our music makes them happy. Good. We were not happy when we made it. Confident, but not happy. We all turned this into positive energy somehow though and it really strengthened the bond between us all. Life (and certain people) did not want us to make this album but we fought back. We have always been cursed and extremely unlucky but we always fought back.

6. How do you feel, on an emotional level, now the album has been completed?

Tougas : Accomplished. NO. ONE. in this subgenre has made an album as flashy as this one. No other extreme metal band has 30 bass solos in their albums and continuous, extended lead breaks that reach the 3-minute mark. No other tech death band has combined baroque, power metal, 80s metal guitar solos, flamenco, jazz, funk, neoclassical metal and even brief funeral doom and black metal parts (see In’el) into one album either. Shit I whole-heartedly reject the “tech-death” or even “death metal” classification when it comes to First Fragment now. And we are JUST getting started!

Archspire have won the fastest-metal-album-ever-contest, Dark Angel have won the album-with-the-most riffs-contest (though our count is very close), Crimson Glory has won the highest-falsettos-found-in-a-power-metal-album contest and Worship have won the most depressing-metal-album-ever-made contest (and no, it is NOT the band Warning!). Perhaps we have won the “flashiest extreme metal album ever” contest.

Ok I’m kidding. Who cares? Music is not a contest plus a shitload of people out there are better than me but hey, music always has an interesting edge when it’s done out of spite. Why do you think Demilich is so different from the rest of the finnish death metal scene? It’s because Antti was pissed at the rest of the scene in the 90s. Why do you think early Megadeth is such angry, fast music? Because Dave was pissed at Metallica (and high on cocaine)! Why do you think Rock & Roll and Punk was born? Because rockers and punks were pissed at society. One thing I’ll say though : The only people we try to surpass is ourselves. 

I also want to say that I’m relieved – I can now continue writing music for the CRESTFALLEN, DICYMERIAN, VOIDCEREMONY and CHTHE’ILIST records in the works. Maybe some ATRAMENTUS eventually too.

7. Is there a running theme/concept that goes through Gloire Eternelle?

Tougas : According to our vocalist David (who is single-handedly responsible for writing ALL the lyrics and concepts behind the band), the story partly revolves around a demigod named Canevas. This demigod lives in forced seclusion and solitude on a mysterious planet as an eternal captive to another demigod named Tsion’Il. The planet itself oddly resembles a past version of planet earth and Canevas is obsessed with the idea of escaping this prison-world through a portal in the sky as seen on the album cover. To reach his goal and fulfil his perpetual quest for self-transcendence and liberation, he must grow out of his orb-shell and undergo several stages of anthropomorphic metamorphosis to be able to brave the elements. First, he must go through an empty city and reach the ocean and plunge into its multicoloured waters. He does so after morphing into a hybrid between an aquatic animal and a humanoid-like being. Once he reaches the island, he enters another metamorphosis cycle yet again, turning into a beast-like creature with the physiology and appearance of a bear or a wolf. This gives him the ability to climb and brave a perilous and colossal mountain on this island.

After reaching its snowy summit, he eventually reverts back to a humanoid shape, this time however he grows wings in order to fly into the portal above the mountain and ultimately escape this prison-planet. But as he attempts to do so, he perishes mid-flight (a small reference to Icarus perhaps). It is worth mentioning that Canevas is actually immortal. Every time he dies, he is reborn inside the same orb he once resided in so he may attempt to make his escape once again thus perpetuating this endless obsession to escape the prison planet. And with every death, he sinks further into the depths of despair. Such is his fate : A never ending cycle of death and rebirth. A whimsical quest in an attempt to attain glory and transcendence – hence the title “Gloire Éternelle” which translates to “Eternal Glory” in english. Note that all of the lyrics on this record are poems ALL written in french – our native language. 

8. The released singles are breathtaking and give an impressive ‘first impression’ for Gloire Eternelle as a whole – what can we expect from the rest of the album?

That means a lot. Thank you very much. You can expect more swing riffs, more shred, more riffs, more grooves, even faster blast-beats, really unexpected metal subgenre blends and a LOT more Flamenco.

10. What does the music scene like currently in Quebec due to the pandemic? Are you able to get out and tour post release of the album?

Tougas : We are not. Shows are technically back on but you have to sit down to see the bands play, and venues only allow a limited number of attendees. I want us to tour Canada obviously, but if that shit keeps going we’ll just do that much later. We’re hoping to play in Europe again sooner than later, like we did with Obscura in 2019 or in the US until then. No offers have been made though.

Our fanbase is extremely widespread and dedicated but the bigger metal market is not aware of our existence yet even after 14 years so we’ll have to create MORE opportunities and work MUCH harder on spreading the word. Nothing will be handed to us on a silver platter and we must not be entitled. We have to be BETTER and work HARDER. One thing is certain: we can’t wait to be back on the road and hang out with our fans again.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these!

Tougas : Thank you for the interview. Gloire Éternelle comes out Oct 29 on Unique Leader Records. We are also doing a cassette release of the album through my own label Productions TSO because DYI reigns supreme. Be on the lookout for potential show announcements and for upcoming releases from VOIDCEREMONY, FUNEBRARUM, COSMIC ATROPHY & more.