Sunday, May 18, 2014

Gris - À l'âme Enflammée, l'äme Constellée... [2013]

Though the notion of lengthy musical journeys has often had a magical kind of appeal to me, so few bands actually possess the ability and flair to mete out the level of color, intrigue and hooks required to keep the listener at the edge of his/her seat throughout the in time the prospect has dissolved into a weary, fruitless idea. The problem is that despite so many bands plunging into the same otherwordly sounds and emotional undercurrents, very, very few can produce a layer of musicality that not just worthwhile but also memorable enough to firmly seat itself in the listener's subconscious. Granted that, there's extensive scope of sounds one can choose from; whether it be a soundscape of daemonic sufferance, swelling bucolic beauty dawning upon a rustic, natural expanse, or, as the Canadian label Sepulchral Productions has grown so fond of, ebbing and flooding tides of anger, repentance and gnawing sorrow conveyed in various ways... The Quebecois have now a wide belt of offerings in which they can present this particular form of music, with some of my favorites over the years being Neige Eternelle and Sombres Forets, but their countrymen Gris, with the follow-up to the highly acclaimed ''Il Etait Un Foret...'' has won me over almost effortlessly compared to its counterparts.

To be sure, Sombres Forets' last two albums were erudite and brilliant showings of what Quebecois black metal can take the form of when confined to an icy, uninhabited landscape, with orchestral and acoustic motives almost as overwhelmingly terrific as the guitars, but Gris beats them all... It's rather ironic how among all the label's releases I spun the Gris record last - and I'm aware of the grave mistake. The album is a megalith in its own right, split into two individual 40-minute CDs with 5 tracks each, but there's so much to feed from and harness into one's own emotions that I find it difficult to put it in the same context as the other bands with their purportedly ''megalithic'' albums. With the axiom of atmospheric black metal and acoustic sentimentality firmly established and accepted, Gris wastes no time in applying its non-metal influences into a peripheral metal record. The dust-caked paean in its ceremonial stance may serve as some indicator on what the record has in store, but even the beauty of the statue is merely a fragment of the bliss that awaits in the arms of the record's woe-torn arms...

The music, bound to evoke a feeling of reveries and haunting illusions in the listener, naturally retains a suitable length, but acoustic and ambient interludes protrude from every square corner of the album; and we're not just talking simple acoustic interludes and cheesy outros/intros. The guitars start creeping up with elegiac beauty, subtly accompanied by orchestral sounds and even female vocal samples occasionally popping up; but the really plangent sound is derived from a series of screaming, folksy violins snapping loose at arbitrary points. Imagine the crepuscular charm and coaxing effect of those marvelous violins! Embittered little children wailing over their lost mother. A group mournful angels with their teardrops slowly falling on mankind. And Gris, unlike so many other bands which try to incorporate similar styles, does not tussle and overdo the musicality of the violins and acoustic guitars. Everything is nearly immaculately balanced, coordinated, yet plangent and natural. With the opener ''L'aube'' already delving into cavern of stars and sorrow in a brief of 4 minutes without the real bulk of the album even giving a hint of its existence, ''À l'âme Enflammée...'' already makes the statement that it's here to linger.

And once the phenomenal ''Les Forges'' ends, the listener is sufficiently enthralled and addicted to eagerly make the remainder of the album. It's true that the tracks that make up the bulk of the record, being lengthy, invest more or less the same patterns of chord progressions and swells, but this hardly seems to matter with the orchestral work looming over the guitar riffs. And, in addition, the riffs are still diverse enough to bloom into any one of traditional post-rock riffing, progressive black metal, or just crude, dauntless raw black metal, taking any form of the genre as long as it hovers in the realms of sheer, unrelenting pain and emotion. What I love about the guitars it that they seem to avoid both the primordial posture that retrogression has so unabashedly promulgated, and the metallic sound that many modern black metal acts give in to. You can hear the distortion well enough, but it doesn't meander or buzz around as if melting away as the carnal, guttural barks of the vocalist sear through. Speaking of which, the vocalist is just as terrific as any other component of the album. His raw howls are not just wretched, but charged with the same emotional exactitude as the guitars and the unnervingly surreal violins... and they even rarely seep into the acoustic interludes. The idyllic, yet grief-stricken approach of the album is not a hard pill to swallow if you're used to acts like Forteresse, Monarque or Austere, but I'm nonetheless enamored by the poetic grace of the lyrics which befit the music, even if my French is a bit shaky:

Nous venons d'avant
Les mondes effondrées
À jamais vivants
Des rythmes d'avenir.
Le fruit de toutes les ténèbres,
Dans nos yeux, a inventé
Un jardin de diamants.

" Ô Petite Humanité,
Qui crève dans l'aube des jours,
Tombées, comme une flamme silencieuse,
As-tu dévoré tes rêves ? "

So, to return to my chastisement of bands who use music as a journey with their bombastic, hour-long single-track albums I stated in the opening paragraph, Gris is indeed one of the few who can achieve structural cohesion and captivation at the same time. The first part isn't hard to do. I'm sure anyone out there can stack four 15-minute monoliths into a CD with ambient effects of acoustic compositions jutting out in between, but, again, few can make the journey worth taking. The endless praise over Agalloch, the inexplicable adoration for funeral doom with its bantering pointlessness - it all seems so dull that Gris' achievement with this album would be some consolation for what the aforementioned failed to achieve... It's not perfect, sure, but I'd rather let my body be swept away by the doomed beauty of this record than any funeral doom band any day. Not just that, but the record's conceptual approach is a viable alternative to the rural appreciation of its countrymen. A Quebecois masterpiece for the decade to approve and bath in. Go ahead, cleanse your sins.

Les Forges
Seizieme Priere
Une Epitaphe de Suie

Rating: 90%

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