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Bizarre is, indeed, the word. Bizarre, and also frustrating, as at first glance Misanthrope had everything here to record a great album. However, one is eventually forced to admit this 1666... Theatre Bizarre doesn’t raise much enthusiasm, nor prints an indelible trace. Even those praising Misanthrope’s avant-garde era over their recent, more melodeath-oriented albums, are likely to scorn this release and prefer the more elaborated Visionnaire.
Granted, the production first doesn’t help appreciating it to its true value. Every instrument may be heard, but every instrument sounds thin, weak and amorphous. The guitars, lacking of any sort of depth, seem in desperate need of a serious tonic even in the fastest, most aggressive death-metal-oriented parts – which are far from predominating in this album anyway. Keyboards, which play an important role, most of time sound fake and synthetic. Without forgetting the drums, likely to have been recorded on the cheapest imaginable toy kit, the snare especially sounding remarkably hollow and annoying.
The production problem aside, it furthermore seems “SAS” Philippe de l’Argilière, who for once is the sole composer on the whole album, took a special pleasure in butchering otherwise promising compositions. Indeed there’s only one intrinsically bad track, namely the atrocious ballad Aphrodite Marine where he croons in the most unbearable fashion on a background of trickling acoustic guitars and pop-goth keyboards. On the contrary, there are few of the remaining ten songs which didn’t initially show anything to become a potential killer. And there are few of them which eventually are.
Because it seems that, Misanthrope claiming at that time to be an avant-garde metal band, de l’Argilière felt compulsively forced to fill each of his songs with the most imaginable heteroclite elements, regardless of their relevance. Examples abound of promising riffs, delicate harmonies, majestic bridges or beautiful verses ending up drowned in a perfect senseless mud. L’Autre Hiver for instance is initially a powerful, crushing doom song (keeping in mind the production prevents any song here from sounding really « crushing » though), suddenly loosing its mind at precisely 2:55 to fall down into a mess of synthetic harpsichord flourishes, bass solos and random guitars to never recover again. Slow and impressive doom parts also in Courtisane Syphilitique, unfortunately lost into fast-paced death-metal-inspired nonsense – inspired only, as death metal it isn’t, it escapes to any proper qualification.
Vocals don’t make a lot of sense either, as de L’Argilière has most certainly tried to record every kind of sound his vocal cords were able to produce. Genuine growls, harsh-but-not-totally-growled vocals, whiny clean voices, not-so-whiny clean voices, exalted incantations, whispers, spoken parts and even some black metal shrieks: where all of those are used in the same track it leads to Pirouetting Through the Gloom, which could have been magnificent but, as you may guess, ends up devoid of any kind of shape. Amazing performance? Maybe. Pleasant to hear? Not really.
The rest isn’t really better. Mylène is random and absurd from the beginning to the end, Medieval Embroidery is better crafted but boring, and Schattengesang, in addition of exhibiting more superfluous keyboards and avant-garde idiocy than any other track, is sung in German, what is novelty for the sake of novelty. That de l’Argilière often writes his songs in French is logical, as Misanthrope is a French band whose lyrics are rooted in History, poetry and literature; but in German? Stupid.
Trumpets of Hypochondria deserves its own paragraph, as a particular homage has to be paid to an instrumental track which manages to show both an overall baroque vibe and a bass solo defying the most delirious imagination. A hit-or-miss, of course.
Actually it’s a pity a good part of this album is only painfully listenable for all the reasons stated above, as when it happens to exhibit some embryo of reason it can show an unexpectedly melancholic, romantic Misanthrope. La Dernière Pierre is likely to be the most touching song the band ever wrote, both musically and lyrically-wise. A complex song, as every song is complex here anyway, but for once there’s some semblance of intelligence in its complexity. Gargantuan Decline as well as the title track have also to be singled out for being relatively coherent and memorable: though they often flirt with the boundary of nonsense they still manage to stay on the right side of the line, unlike most of their counterparts. Anyway three legs are enough for a stool to stand, and 1666... Theatre Bizarre manages to more or less clumsily stand on these three tracks only. It may be an amateurish, rush job, the production is disastrous and most songs are headless, but believe me or not, I still can’t prevent myself from feeling a certain sympathy for it.
Highlights: Gargantuan Decline, 1666... Theatre Bizarre, La Dernière Pierre
As far as I'm concerned, this is Misanthrope's first listenable effort. "1666..." steers away from the experimental stuff from their early days. Of course, this isn't exactly mainstream either. Clearly, it's a step closer towards the trademark Misanthrope's music they deliver nowadays.
As a matter of fact, "1666..." is looked upon as the birth of today's Misanthrope. Musically, the songs alternate straight death metal, prog and somewhat "avant-garde" (though I'd rather use the term "baroque" ) riffs and licks. S.A.S., the lead singer, goes from death growls to a more weeping voice, adding a theatrical dimension to the lyrics. The guitar work is somewhat reminiscent of early Death, and is accompanied by the masterful work of Jean-Jacques Moréac, arguably the best bass player ever. To give you an analogy, Misanthrope, on this album, could be the illegitimate child of early Death and early Dark Tranquillity.
Some songs on this album make it really worthwhile. Pieces like "Courtisanne Syphillitique", "Medieval Embroidery" or the title track are now considered classics of the band. All those songs showcase Misanthrope' signature pattern and illustrate a band trying to steer away from a somewhat "elitist" background, making its music more accessible.
Unfortunately, "1666..." suffers from severe lowpoints. First, the production is atrocious. The CD almost sounds like it's a vinyl ! Keyboards are drowned in the mush, and sometimes you can barely hear the lyrics. The quality of the writing and the skills of the musicians cleary deserved a better production. Speaking of which, S.A.S. alternates both french and english (and even german on "Schattengesang"). The problem is his horrible french accent when he sings in english, which gives a unintended comedic value to the songs...
Also, some songs remain glued in the intellectual, "avant-gardiste" brew of the previous records. Be advised that songs like "Trumpets of Hyponchondria" or "Mylène" require a certain taste. And could someone tell me what they were thinking when they recorded "Aphrodite Marine" ? This song is an awful ballad, dressed in gothic wrappings. S.A.S. overdoes it on the vocals, weeping his way through the song. Even if you don't like the genre, you should give this song a listen, just for a good laugh !
To sum it up, the album gets good marks for some of the songs in there. Classic Misanthrope ! But I certainly wouldn't recommend checking the band out with this one. This is an album for the fans who want to hear what the band was doing in the past.