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The exact status of Miracles: Totem Taboo amongst Misanthrope’s discography is unclear, and the band itself seems to have changed its opinion about it as years went by. Many consider everything prior to 1666...Theatre Bizarre as demos, while some others seem to hail Variations on Inductive Theories as the first real Misanthrope album. As far as I’m concerned I’d definitely side with the former, given listening to our present release one could hardly consider it a genuine full-length album. It consists in three distinct parts – the “Miracles” – written and recorded at different times and places, with the third part even featuring a different line-up, while the sound is overall very crude, powerless and muffled down, making its successor (1666...) appear exemplarily produced. That says a lot.
Now even if beginning by Miracle 3 sounds like a kind of twisted logic given this part comes at the end of the record, there are several reasons for it. First this release doesn’t care for any logic, what indeed seems to be the hidden sense of the awkward Angkor Vat sex scene featured on the cover (those Khmers were highly imaginative, by the way). Second, it comes chronologically first. Third, and most important, it’s by far the easiest to describe, mostly consisting in honest, straightforward death metal. Until I discovered this little gem in some forgotten London store (yes, the emblematic French band in London, I already told you logic was persona non grata here) my Misanthrope knowledge had stopped at 1666...Theatre Bizarre and I’d always believed the common opinion assuming everything older was total avant-garde nonsense. This is all but true. There’s a progressive vibe in these three songs for sure (I count Deus Puerilis... and ...In Silence as two parts of a single song) especially with their several extended, technical guitar solos, but they can’t be dubbed avant-garde by any mean. The vocals exclusively consist in fairly standard death metal growls. The riffs may be numerous, slightly doom-ish sometimes (especially on Deus Puerilis... In Silence or Velvet Solemn Quest) but the songs remain entirely coherent. The Gregorian choir opening Deus Puerilis works as a general intro to our third Miracle and could fit any kind of metal, being not metal in itself: again, nothing especially avant-garde here; and coming to the final seconds of the record they’ve obviously been added later in order to clumsily give the whole work a semblance of coherence.
But the first thing anyone familiar with Misanthrope as a whole may notice is these tracks, though undoubtedly death metal, have nothing to do with the melodeath Misanthrope are nowadays playing. In fact these songs have simply little to nothing to do with Misanthrope. The muddy production doesn’t allow us to tell if there’s a bass or not. The band states it: there’s no bass used here. Meaning, amongst others, Jean-Jacques Moreac doesn’t play on these songs! There’s no need to look further: though until the Visionnaire album Philippe de l’Argilière (he wasn’t “SAS” yet) will write all the music and lyrics, Misanthrope without Moréac can’t be Misanthrope. The demonstration could hardly be clearer than Miracle 3.
Commenting on Miracles 1 and 2 is another matter. It requires going further than words, summoning superior entities, as the mystically-penned lyrics (Standing at the Galaxy...) seem to invite us. But the godly characters on the cover are to busy enjoying themselves to be of any help, so we’ll have to do with our poor mediocre brains. The speech may sound confusing, it’s because these six tracks are confusing. We’re now plainly into Misanthrope’s avant-garde cliché, the bass occupies the prominent part it’s always occupied, even soloing sometimes, and the listener can’t precisely determine what he’s listening to.
This is NOT nonsense however. As crazy as they are the songs still exhibit a semblance of structure. There are riffs – sometimes. There are recurring themes. Each track has its own personality. Miracle for instance is an ambient interlude which might be of some interest to those into electronic music, and of no interest to the others. La Démiurge (Gloomy remix), apparently another version of an older song I don’t know about, is a sludgy, sick piece of work, with distorted vocals and the bass standing at the forefront as if Jean-Jacques Moréac wanted to revenge himself for the following tracks he won’t appear on; by far the darkest moment here. L’Erotique Courtoise is too long for what it is – but what is it, exactly? There are classical music samples, there are bits of metal, there are... well, nevermind. Standing at the Galaxy is likely to, oddly, ring a bell to listeners familiar with Therion’s experimental third album released in 1993, dead into the writing process of Miracle 1, what a coincidence. I don’t know if De l’Argilière was familiar with Christofer Johnsson’s work, but I hear echoes of amongst others Dark Princess Naamah in this song – some similar sonorities, some similar riffs. Far-fetched? Probably. But it’s a case you have to desperately cling to what you know in fear of otherwise losing your mind.
Eventually Maudit sois-tu Soleil! is surprising because it’s actually a good song, or rather because it’s a song to begin with. I won’t say the other tracks are bad – “good” or “bad” are empty words in such a case. It’s a predominantly acoustic track, not a ballad though, mixing a swinging vibe, reminiscences of old popular melodies, a beautiful lead guitar and, thrown in the middle, the curse seemingly coming from nowhere – Maudit sois-tu Soleil! Curse you, Sun! All this being, of course, if you can survive the vocals.
That De l’Argilière’s clean vocals have always been an issue isn’t big news. Even on a recent work like Metal Hurlant I happened to blame these ridiculous whines he’s regularly putting out; but nothing is comparable to his performance here. First, in spite of a good deal of the disturbing, exalted harsh vocals he will develop on the band’s following recordings, clean vocals must account for at least half of the singing on Miracles 1 & 2 (counting La Démiurge where the vocals are initially clean, though artificially distorted). Clean isn’t the proper word though. It’s some deliquescent, hardly articulated moan, fluctuating without following any kind of melody. Philippe de l’Argilière at that time wasn’t this fat, self-indulgent, megalomaniac individual we’re all familiar with but a frail, thin, presumably highly tormented young man. And this isn’t singing, but a despaired call for psychiatric help (if you still aren’t convinced, just read the lyrics and tell me if those aren’t the reflection of a tortured soul). Now it may be of some clinical interest, but I’m no psychoanalyst, and neither are most listeners, so I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. It naturally accounts for the unique character of this work, but this isn’t necessarily a pleasant experience.
As you must guess it’s overall hard to praise Miracles: Totem Taboo as a whole, notably because of its composite nature and sick vocals, but it’s hard to completely bash it either. This is one of those few unclassifiable releases, something which has to be heard to be believed. In spite of some well-crafted riffs the ending death metal tracks are more of historical interest than anything else, and the appreciation of the six first tracks can’t possibly be built on fully objective criteria. And oddly, this also an album which is likely to grow on you... So all I can say is well, just try it.
Highlights: Maudit sois-tu Soleil !
After Misanthrope's confused debut, they offered this package of two mini-albums (or is it three?). Maybe not a real album, but certainly memorable and with much tighter playing.
Production is vastly improved, but Philippe's vocals have remained schizophrenic. There are some parts that leave me scratching my head, and some that just meander into nowhere, but overall, they're moving in the right direction.
"Standing at the Galaxy" is not as moving of a lead off track, but still good. "L'erotique Courtoise" is a sequel to "Childhood Memories," and is equally as good, with some great transitions. Really fucked up lyrics, too, if you understand French. "Maudit soit tu, Soleil!" is bascially "The Aquarium" from the first album recorded acoustically and in French. I don't know, but I really like this song. The other songs on this half are pretty dull, though, especially the synth instrumental, "Miracle."
The last two songs were recorded without bass, but holy fuck! These are ripping testaments to eccentric doomy death! The guitars and drums sound nasty and heavy as hell, ripping out of my speakers like a swarm of angry bats. Musically somewhat like The Chasm's first demo, Samael's Worship Him, and possibly the melody of early Paradise Lost, this shit gets you headbanging right away. And there are still quite a few little twists, with the weird vocals and crazy guitar solos. Fuck, if only they could have made a whole album of stuff like this...
Overall, this is a vast improvement, but still there are tons of wrinkles that need to be smoothed out. The band sounds tighter, the production is better, and added heaviness keeps things a bit more focused.