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Canadian band Forteresse has a style of music that is highly immersive, atmospheric and hypnotic, and which can submerge listeners in long periods of trance-like vibrato guitar noise. Writing albums of music in conventional song structures, with breaks in between songs, doesn't really suit such a band. After two albums and several other releases, at last these guys release an album of flowing ambient black metal in seven untitled tracks that are related in theme (Quebecois nationalism expressed in the love for the land of high forest, flat plains, lakes and snowy winters).
Generally the beats are quite slow and the rhythm consists of ringing and resonant guitar noise riffing that gives an almost burning jewel-like sound. The music sounds quite rich and lush and almost has a holy or sacred quality. The atmosphere is solemn and respectful. Vocals rage across the guitar riffing and long drawn-out tone melodies which stretch over the entire length of most tracks, creating the impression of a wide flat space over which grass might grow. Keyboards usually follow the guitars and bass very closely: in track 4, the keyboards include a solo piano melody near the end. Later tracks may feature additional instrumentation such as flutes.
Many listeners will find this album monotonous: there are no lead guitar solos that break with and disturb the ongoing streamlined riffing, establishing a tension between the solos and the rest of the music; there are very few actual melodies; drumming (both natural and programmed) rarely varies and either lacks energy or sounds very mechanical; and the atmosphere rarely changes either. Mood is usually quite sorrowful or commands your respect if not your admiration. Some but not much variation is introduced much later with track 6 being almost entirely ambient with a blizzard ambience and orchestral backing.
I wonder why the band couldn't have joined all seven tracks into one continuous piece of seven movements. The movements can still be fairly distinct in themselves, the links between them being natural developments of the previous track's coda building up into the next track. The flow and immersion would be uninterrupted and there would be the opportunity to make the music sound organic. At about 36 minutes, the length is about right: had it been shorter, the album might have sounded rushed but the extreme minimalism and unvarying style of the music wouldn't have sustained anything longer than 40 minutes.
When listening to Forteresse’s third album Par Hauts Bois et Vastes Plaines, I am once again reminded of the beauty of minimalism: freezing in moment and just letting the almost motionless music pour into my ears and mind. The wonders of escapism are more than welcome in the middle of my daily hustles, and this album does its job very satisfyingly. I assume that the first offering of Forteresse wasn’t leaning this heavily on ambiance, and the direction started to change to the current one on the second album, so this album shouldn’t come as a shock to those who have heard the previous output, but might disappoint some of the first album’s lovers.
Par Hauts Bois et Vastes Plaines flourishes in ambient: be it in the slow-tempo, highly atmospheric black metal of which the record mostly consists of, or in pure ambient like the second and sixth track on the album. Reverberating, slow drum beats pulse while razor-sharp yet not offensive guitar melodies appear somewhere in the distance, delivering a constant stream of tremolo. Simple, melancholic and occasionally epic melodies, enhanced by prominent, misty synths. The music is very bleak, evoking pictures of barren landscapes throughout the 36-minute playing time during which nothing radically changes: the dynamics are basically the same all the time with the exception of some climax moments and i.e. piano melodies on the fourth track. Screams are somewhere in the distance, too, fitting very well in the overall despondent atmosphere.
Taking a look at the front cover art - which is very much to my taste, by the way, including the placement of the texts - of Par Hauts Bois et Vastes Plaines tells quite much of the album already. Dividing the tracks into seven unnamed movements was a good decision from the band so that one can fully concentrate on the music as a one long piece. The album doesn’t deliver anything new - quite the opposite, remembering how crowded the area of ambient black metal is - but I find myself greatly enjoying the vast aura of the album. This is not something that I could play in every occasion, but for those quiet moments on peaceful winter evenings this is a highly appropriate release to put on.
3.5 / 5
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The titular 'vast plains' of the third Forteresse album are only too appropriate to its sound, because I don't think I've heard something quite this self assured and spacious all year. Written in seven parts, Par Hauts Bois et Vastes Plaines plays out like a solitary excursion across the Canadian north. In fact, the album is best experienced by closing your eyes and imaging the taint of mankind long disappeared, or the primordial forests and grasslands that once thrived before the manifestation of empire and industry. Both celebration and elegy, it is impossible to appreciate this in a rush, so I'd advise putting aside the 36 minutes necessary to absorb it in full. That is clearly the intention.
It's constituent parts do not offer individual immersion, so to center in on any one would be like trying to visually arrest a mountain when you're already standing in the foothills. Better that you stand back a distance, and acquire the whole picture. Forteresse perform in a slow, saddening style in which the drums create a minimal momentum to support the transient, huge structure of the nearly ambient guitars and synthesizers. The melodic overtones are never harried, thus the album's certainty is entirely dependent on the slow, ebbing effect they will have over time, as the dire gasping of Athros navigates the skies like a wheeling bird of prey, seeking to harvest the human hearts that are crushed by the visions of such an untainted, natural majesty as the Canadian wilderness permits. There will be periods of calm in which the metallic elements drop out, leaving the keyboards alone, or joining them with haunted winds, but the lengthy centers of the album (1st and 3rd parts) are dominated by the drums, guitars and howling.
About the only problem with this album is the fact that its never flexible. You'll either be in the correct mood for its resonant expanse or you will quickly tire of its one track purpose. There are few if any dynamics here outside of where the guitars and drums drop out and return. You will not be met half-way. Ever. There is no compromise, and no complexity. That said, if you find yourself in the position to experience this while hiking across the North American vastness, it will very likely saturate your soul alongside the morning mists and sun-flecked fields of frost, so save it for such an occasion and you'll likely connect better with the vision of its creators. Otherwise, you'll have to let your imagination fill in the curves of the land, from the steep rises of the spirit through the hills and woodlands to the rolling, open ranges.