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"Il Était une Forêt" is the perfect soundtrack to monsoon season, any grey Tuesday, or an introspective evening spent at home in the dark. It deserves the full attention of the listener, and is not something to be played in the background while multitasking or chatting online or whatever. While the album generally falls under the umbrella of "depressive" black metal due to the 10+ minute song length and lyrical content/style, Gris themselves insist it cannot be pigeonholed. That would normally rub me the wrong way (it's like how Andrew Eldritch repeatedly insists The Sisters of Mercy are not a "goth rock" band) and mark the artists as pretentious egomaniacs, but "Il Était une Forêt" is a remarkable work which perhaps is justified in remaining unclassifiable.
Even if you can't read French, you can find the lyrics online and use Babelfish to get a rough idea of what they mean. They are profound, witty and poetic, and I believe that understanding the lyrical sentiment behind each song really adds something to the listening experience.
Of course, it's not like you can actually understand what's being said, and if you wish you can ignore that fact that words exist altogether and just enjoy the vocalizations of a tortured soul. The songs on "Il Était une Forêt," while sometimes instrumentally reminescent of Silencer, thankfully lack the macabre comic falsetto wailing that in my opinion ruins Silencer's entire vision. The vocals on "Il Était une Forêt" are long, drawn out from-the-diaphragm screams, guttural and harsh to the max, sometimes even proving too much for the singer. The choking, gasping and cracking of the voice however add further soul and dimension to the pained vibe of the music.
Gris also get big bonus points from me for using real stringed instruments in "La Dryade." I normally cannot stand instrumental tracks on black metal albums as they typically scream "subpar neoclassical with a midi keyboard, or some crap Varg Vikernes composed with two fingers in jail." "La Dryade" however as the album's closer really blew me away. The oppressive nature of the rest of the album is lifted as dueling violins, flutes, and beautiful acoustic guitar work conjure up a melancholic vision of mythical life in some forest grove in a faraway land. The string parts sound wholly organic and as though they were all done in one take with a fair amount of improvisation. The sound of a bow bouncing in error across the strings or hitting too close to the bridge reminds the listener that real people are behind the music, real people with real passion and soul.
That's what really "gets" me about "Il Était une Forêt." The whole album is just soulful as hell and in no way feels contrived or forced. These two Canadian dudes do a fine job of convincing listeners that the vast catalogue of emotions conveyed in the music is truly theirs, and whether or not it's true is rendered irrelevant. Through the buzzing dirge, heavy keyboard washes and steady percussive beats, interjectory moments of beauty (such as 4:31 in "Cicatrices") pervade and push this album to excel above others in the genre. It's the rare acoustic guitar interlude, wailing solo, sudden entrance of a violin, the breaking point of a long scream, that make "Il Était une Forêt" a beautiful masterpiece rather than just a good depressive black metal CD. It's also worth noting that this is possibly the most tasteful use of keyboards I have heard on a black metal album; not once do I find myself rolling my eyes at some cheesy keyboard line that's better suited to LARPing than metal.
This album is recommended, of course, to patient listeners who have the time and focus to really become one with the music for an hour. Your efforts will be rewarded. I never feel quite "right" when I finish listening to "Il Était une Forêt," as every listen is more or less like an exhausting journey through the depths of gloomy, ethereal perfection.