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Beginning this review is proving to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do in my (rather short) history of talking about metal albums. Every time I prepare myself to write a sentence, a plethora of thoughts swarms through my head about everything about this album that I want to talk about, and it’s incredibly difficult to contort that swarm into one coherent strain of thought. There’s just so many things on Il Etait Une Foret that make it what it is- even though everything good about this album put together still doesn’t fully explain why this album is as good as it is. This album is…illogical. How such simple patterns and sounds of rhythm, melody and harmony can invoke such profound feelings in people such as myself is illogical; attempting to communicate verbally WHY this album manages to do this to me is illogical, and hell, even the very notion of writing this review is illogical, because, no matter how I put it, my words are never going to be able to properly do this album justice.
One thing that sets Gris head and shoulders above nearly all black metal out there today is that they don’t actively try to pursue black metal as a style; the aesthetic of black metal merely fits in properly conveying the emotions and musical ideas on the album. This is not black metal because it WANTS to be black metal- Il Etait Une Foret is metal by sheer coincidence. Also unlike most black metal bands, their influence cannot be traced back to a progenitor- the pacing and flow of the music reminds me of Strid, while the mix of acoustic and distorted guitars brings to mind Peste Noire, but I can’t say for sure whether the band actively tried to mimic either band or if, again, the similarities are merely a coincidence. I’m tempted to believe the latter, because all of the similarities seem to be used as a metaphor- the somewhat slow-paced, stretched out songs being a metaphor for the seemingly endless periods of time where one feels melancholy, and the contrast between harsh and acoustic guitars signifying the delicate balance between depression and joy- when a dismal, plodding section of a given song is reaching its end, it will often be juxtaposed with a sweet, acoustic melody- there is masterful song structuring here, because Gris always knows how to properly end a song or a stanza, so even if you think the song’s been repeating itself for too long (it rarely happens), you know it’s part of the buildup to something bigger and better, and it only makes the climax MORE satisfying. Even when you think they’ve made a mistake in the album, you eventually realize that’s what they wanted you to think all along.
Many people (mainly those that aren’t familiar with extreme music) don’t really understand the point of harsh vocals. They vary too little in tone, they often don’t sound good to the unconditioned ear- the flaws are obvious to somebody hearing them for the first time. It’s only when you start getting into music with harsh vocals that you realize…that opinion doesn’t change all that much. Truth be known, many bands just have a vocalist that adds nothing to the music, maybe they just had a friend who wanted to be in the band, or perhaps because it’s what the metal community expects of them- the vocalist will incomprehensibly grunt away, just kind of existing. It’s fairly common, unfortunately, because harsh vocals really can’t be pulled off by just anybody. If somebody were to ask me one example of harsh vocals that really ADD to the music, however, the first band I’d point to would be Gris. The vocals show a touching passion, perfectly fitting the music and showing a hopeless yet energetic longing for something more. I reviewed Silencer not too long ago, and in that review I said that the vocals didn’t really sound “harsh enough” to my ears to properly show the intended emotions- THIS is what they should have sounded like. Icare holds a pitch similar to that of Nattramn, expect his vocals have the static ferocity and primitive energy that Nattramn lacks ever so much. These vocals assist in creating the atmosphere like no clean vocals ever could.
Like most albums in this style of music, Il Etait Une Foret has a very rough, “fuzzy” production- but the music is raw for all the right reasons. Going back to my “black metal for the sake of black metal” point, many black metal bands will intentionally give their music terrible production qualities on an album simply because that is a trait of black metal, and the only goal of the band is to make black metal music- a rather weak goal, if I do say so myself. Here, the raw production serves as a “rough exterior” for the entrancing, captivating acoustic melodies, which, if over-analyzed enough (as I have done), could be seen to serve as a musical humanization- portraying a man who intentionally shuns all around him because he feels like he cannot connect with anybody, crying out because of his loneliness and because there’s so much beauty within himself that he can never share. Strangely enough, despite not having the same aesthetic style as the other tracks, the song that manages to paint this man’s picture is the closer, "La Dryade"- which is, for the uninformed, a track composed completely with a piano and a violin. Not a black metal track at all, and doesn’t have the benefit of the rough production to back up the emotions, but it pulls it off masterfully because the melodies are genuinely despondent. It’s kind of funny, it reverses what the black metal tracks were doing and achieves the same result- rather than having a bleak aesthetic and beautiful melodies, "La Dryade" does the inverse.
Re-reading my review, I’ve noticed a pattern. No matter what characteristic of the album I’m talking about, there always seems to be one prevailing theme, one thing that I always end up coming back to: purpose. Every note has a purpose, every prevailing theme and mood has a purpose, and Il Etait Une Foret fills ME with a sense of purpose; a feeling of life-affirmation that very, VERY few other bands have invoked. This is a masterpiece, and an incredibly dense one at that; my words have merely scratched the surface of the colorful abyss that is this album. Perhaps that is for the best, though; if I were to describe every minuscule nuance and detail of Il Etait Une Foret, it would leave no surprises to you, the reader, to discover on your own.
All I could ever ask of you is that you listen. Listen on a black starlit night. Listen in a candlelit room. Listen on a journey through the forest. Listen to the hour of ferocious beauty and powerful melancholy that awaits you. I’ve done all I can to help you prepare- the rest is yours to discover.