[19 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For those of us who spent our teen years in the ‘80s, when it came to musical taste, metal and post punk/goth were completely separate. Back then, although us headbangers tended to get along with the more goth-oriented kids primarily because of our collective choice to live outside the norm, eschewing the nauseating inner sanctum of high school, when it came to music, it was either/or, and if we chose to dabble in other sounds (like my own obsession with Bauhaus and Love and Rockets back in 1985-‘86), it was done so with a surreptitiousness that, looking back today, was absolutely comical.
Still, that’s how it was; we thought the Cure were wussies, Cure fans thought Metallica were a bunch of alcoholic hesher thugs. Few if any would dare admit to being a fan of both.
Close to 25 years later the metal scene is completely different. While the rigid, formulaic side of metal is still a vital part of the music and its culture, many bands draw heavily from music outside the genre and lately, much of the more adventurous advancements have come within the black metal realm, as a new generation of artists have found a common ground between grim, atmospheric extreme metal and the equally moody, melancholic strains of ‘80s post punk, goth, and darkwave. At the forefront of this recent wave is French artist Stéphane Paut, aka Neige who, with his much-acclaimed bands Alcest and Amesoeurs, so ingeniously blurs the lines between the seemingly disparate sounds, that they completely defy categorization. And unlike us idiots in the ‘80s, he is an unabashed fan of both genres.
“I think that these two genres can be mixed in a really interesting way,” he explains. “Both can be cold and melancholic, serious, and made with the strongest of passions. I encourage people that don’t see this connection to listen to Pornography by the Cure. This album is one of the darkest rock records ever. Or even maybe the mystical and insane If I Die I Die by Virgin Prunes, which is one of my all time favorite records.”
Along with guitarist Fursy Teyssier, bassist/singer Audrey Sylvain, and drummer Winterhalter, Neige heads in a much gloomier direction with Amesoeurs compared to the more innocent-sounding Alcest, and the 2006 EP Ruines Humaines served as a tantalizing introduction. Starting off with a pair of very effective exercises in raw, primal black metal, Neige unleashing tormented screams, the record takes a sudden, stunning turn on the closing “Faiblesse Des Sens”, in which the considerably more dulcet-voiced Sylvain takes over on vocals atop an arrangement that doesn’t hide the band’s Joy Division obsession one bit, right down to the melodic, Peter Hook-style bassline.
“My relationship with [Joy Division] is really strong indeed, and anyway this is more than a band for me, they became a part of my existence,” Neige says. “This is the only music I discover again each time I listen to it, like if it was the first time I ever listened to them. It is so abyssal, full of mysteries, like an unfinished painting. I wonder often what would have they become if Ian Curtis were still alive. Maybe something not so legendary or maybe they would have composed other fantastic albums.”
Proving that the EP’s abrupt shift in style was far from a one-time thing, Amesoeurs’ much-anticipated eponymous debut full-length not only continues where “Faiblesse Des Sens” left off, but it sees the band emerging with a more fully-realized sound, metal and post punk sometimes colliding, sometimes interweaving, the tension created between the two sides always riveting. Interestingly, the songwriting process was not so much a collaborative effort than a case of three musicians working separately and coming up with eleven cohesive pieces of music that are all consistent with the band’s overall themes of loss and isolation in an increasingly soulless, urbanized world.
“We worked at home, each of us in our flat and we composed our songs,” explains Teyssier. “It was interesting and really fitting with the concept of the new album which is about different points of view about the modern world. I love the sound, the atmosphere, the choice of the songs etc.
IWRESTLEDABEARONCE, It’s All Happening (Century Media) Rating: 7 The maniacal “Smells Like Kevin Bacon” a big sleeper hit last summer, the Shreveport, Louisiana Hot Topic darlings found themselves riding a big wave of advance hype well before their debut full-length was even recorded. Now that’s it’s finally here, not only does it render the inevitable backlash pointless, but it’s a major improvement over their 2007 self-titled EP. Its maniacal arrangements fitting somewhere between the electro-grind of Genghis Tron, the crazed jazz cadences of Unexpect, and the genre-hopping madness of Between the Buried and Me, this uproarious album is smart enough to let the album’s many hooks dominate when called for, vocalist Krysta Cameron all but stealing the show with a voice that inexplicably elicits comparisons to Bjork and Kate Bush. Stodgy metal purists will hate this vehemently, but the rest of us will be having too much fun to care less.
Hacride, Lazarus (Listenable) Rating: 8 One of the most reliable yet underrated bands in all of metal doesn’t waste any time displaying their ambition on the follow-up to 2007’s superb Amoeba, opening with a monstrous, 15 minute epic, but as impressive as “To Walk Among Them” is, it’s the shorter tracks like “A World of Lies”, “My Enemy”, and the instrumental “Phenomenon” that leave us wondering why these French progressive greats aren’t spoken in the same breath as their similar-sounding countrymen Gojira.
Ulcerate, Everything is Fire (Willowtip) Rating: 7 Chalk up another score for Willowtip, as the classy death metal label has released a real gem in the form of the New Zealand band’s second album. Firmly rooted in simple, suffocating death metal, yet willing to venture further and incorporate dissonance and expansive, atmospheric passages, the foursome shows enough restraint to ditch the brutality and let the music breathe every once in a while, songs like “We Are Nil” and “Tyranny” benefiting greatly.
I think that we really reached the goal we had in mind when we created the band. I’m just a little bit frustrated not to have composed more songs. But I was too busy with my work.”
“The recording of the new album went perfectly,” Neige adds. “We recorded it in the studios of Markus Stock (Empyrium), and since he is really talented and attentive it was easy for him to reproduce the sound we were looking for; something quite midrange, with not much high frequencies and obviously very eighties influenced.”
He continues, “ believe Joy Divison would have been less interesting without [producer] Martin Hannett’s work, less exceptional. That’s what still makes them sounding so avant-garde and separate from all the bands of rock history. He didn’t influence us with concrete elements but more in his curious and adventurous approach of sound. Moreover Fursy in his way of working likes to try different sorts of strange sounds and arrangements. So we tested many things to improve some passages.”
Although Amesoeurs is so consistent in tone that one can hardly tell who specifically wrote what track, Neige is quick to point out the differences between his methods and those of his longtime collaborator and best friend Teyssier. “Our composition habits are totally opposed. He is much more spontaneous and adventurous than me, and likes to work a lot on the sound and the form. As for me, I am more into the melodies themselves, the essence of the music without all this sound aspect. So we equilibrate each other very well.”
For Teyssier, who in addition to being a musician is also an accomplished illustrator and animator (see his beautiful short “Tir Nan Og” for an example of his visual artistry), his approach to the songs on the new album, specifically the bracing opening track “Gas in Veins”, is more cinematic than anything else, the song’s descent from pastoral innocence to murky darkness, like Burzum gradually overtaking a Chameleons track, inspired directly by what he saw in his mind’s eye.
“When I compose I always have pictures in mind, due to my work. So I wanted to make a [song] which makes me feel I’m entering a huge dirty city. It’s like a film. The first part, you’re far from the city, you can only see it in the distant fog. The song playing, you become closer to it, and the strange sounds appear slowly until the point that you’re into it, with that much noise. You’re surrounded by high dirty buildings, people screaming, cars, pollution etc until the point that your mind breaks. Quickly.”
As for Neige, one track that’s particularly close to him is “Recueillement”, which along with finding an entrancing middle ground between harsh black metal discordance and subtle darkwave melodies, delves into Charles Baudilaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal for inspiration, Baudelaire’s poem, which literally translates as “Meditation”, encapsulating the band’s oeuvre perfectly:
Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille.
Tu réclamais le Soir; il descend; le voici:
Une atmosphère obscure enveloppe la ville,
Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci.
Be quiet and more discreet, O my Grief.
You cried out for the Evening; even now it falls:
A gloomy atmosphere envelops the city,
Bringing peace to some, anxiety to others.
“It is speaking about the night falling on the city, awaking the writer’s nostalgia,” muses Neige. “He describes how the night is raising, worrying low instincts in human hearts and wants somehow to be apart from this … I always felt close to Baudelaire’s poetry, at the same time extremely romantic, sour and decadent. A meeting between horror and sublime. Moreover this is easy to recognize ourselves through his words; he uses them in a so judicious way. His style is perfect for being adapted to music since it’s as much elaborated as limpid and catchy.”
Darkness pervades the entire record, from Fursy’s gloomy, monochrome artwork, to his sympathetic portrait of a prostitute of “La Reine Trayeuse”, to Sylvain’s primal screams during that song’s combustible climax, to the raw, brutal, old school black metal fury of Neige’s “Trouble (Éveils Infâmes)” (“This song speaks about this anguish that enters inside you at morning as soon as you’ve opened your eyes … This is maybe the most negative lyrics I wrote”), so when we see the line in the booklet “A kaleidoscopic soundtrack for the modern era”, it seems to contradict with both the album’s stark visuals and the murky themes of the music and lyrics. So what do they mean by that?
“The album is not homogeneous at all due to the different styles,” says Teyssier, “but the idea behind them is the same. The artwork had to gather all the songs to a single visual which is this city. Every song of the album is linked either to the album art. If we didn’t have do it this way, the album would have looked like a compilation from various artists, haha. But this is a kind of compilation of Amesoeurs, the soundtrack of the modern era.”
Neige continues, “I see what you mean but you know, it would have been really hard to gather all the aspects of Amesoeurs music on a similar image; we had to give more importance to one of them. Precisely, what we expected from this cover was to represent, in a figurative way, the spontaneous image that comes to our mind when we think about our metaphorical ‘Amesoeurs metropolis’, that is a metaphor of a real urban world, raising it’s darkest and most fascinating aspects. And you can’t imagine how proud we are of that cover, this simply is Amesoeurs.”
For such a striking and confident debut album, it’ll come as quite a disappointment to many that Amesoeurs had decided to disband before it was even recorded (coyly hinted at by the coded message on track six), but considering just how close to perfect they’ve gottten on their first try, that’s not a bad way to go out. Besides, both Neige and Teyssier won’t be disappearing anytime soon.
In addition to his multimedia work, Teyssier, along with Winterhalter, is set to record the first album for their new band Les Discrets in June, while Neige will be recording the follow-up to Alcest’s masterful 2007 album Souvenirs d’un Autre Monde this coming July, which he describes as being “long and complex, with many riffs, different kind of ambiances…[sounding] really rich, darker and will balance what I did on Souvenirs.”
Perhaps the keenest insight into Amesoeurs comes when Neige is asked about the story behind the band’s and the album’s name, his eloquent reply certain to resonate with a wide spectrum of people, outcasts of all sorts, the music ultimately doing what the band has always intended, uniting a small portion of an increasingly fractious, fractured world.
“‘Amesoeurs’, that means ‘Soulmates’ and it was a name we chose to call a kind of fantasy, an ideal person different than the others that could understand us in this dehumanized world we live in. It’s a sort of angel from the city. Among the disembodied shadows, empty ghosts, the Amesoeurs are receptors, lonely, sensitive beings perceiving the ambient absurdity and be affected by it.
At this period I guess we imagined these characters as a mirror of ourselves. We felt very lonely and frightened in the urban environment. Otherwise Amesoeurs is also a quite abstract name that makes us ‘feel’ more than has a precise meaning. It express something romantic but quite hopeless to my eyes. I would like to believe in this ideal as I am very naive but at the same time I know that there is no perfection, no absolute since the moment we have a foot in the reality.”