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Epic 1990s melodic atmo-BM / dungeon synth fusion is too long and flat - 75%

NausikaDalazBlindaz, November 15th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, Digital, Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions

A very curious yet highly individual work of 1990s-era melodic atmospheric black metal combined with dungeon synth (a sub-genre of dark ambient with idealised mediaeval themes and musical elements), “Par-Delá Noireglaces et Brumes-Sinistres” is the debut album of mediaeval BM band Crépuscule d’Hiver (in English, “Winter Twilight”), originally founded in 2018 as a solo project by guitarist / vocalist / keyboardist Stuurm who wrote all the songs and lyrics, with drummer / bassist NKLS joining the project in 2019. This album is very ambitious in its scope and style. Quite why many French BM bands might want to idealise a particular period of their nation’s history – the High Middle Ages before the Renaissance – in their music is a mystery to me, and I suppose that escapism for the sake of personal entertainment and that of others is just one of several reasons they do so. One possible reason is that this period was one in which a French identity was established over competing identities, both within the territory that became present-day France and outside; after all, it’s the period during which the French finally kicked out the English enemy from their lands. A second reason is that constructing a fantasy of what France might have been is one way of criticising current conditions in the country today, that what the French currently have is and was never inevitable, and that another, better way is possible.

Not all the ambient non-BM music is “authentic” in the sense of being played on actual mediaeval-era instruments or modern replicas of them but it does add a distinctive and rich flavour to Crépuscule d’Hiver’s style. The “mediaeval” music – much of it sounding more 19th or 20th-century synth-generated orchestral than mediaeval but let’s not allow historical accuracy to spoil the fantasy – varies a lot and is used in all songs along with more usual BM structures in their melodies and riffs. The scale of the music is epic and grand, to the extent that listeners easily imagine themselves being back in a France of armies of knights and archers fighting one another, and of lords and ladies entertained by troubadours and travelling actors’ troupes at grand feasts in splendid castles. With help from guest musicians, the band charges through well-written songs with energy and zeal, no matter how naff the whole concept might have seemed at times. The enthusiasm pours out of each and every song. The energy and fervour flow from one song to the next no matter how long the songs are - and most of them happen to be very lengthy with the title track at the end clocking over 20 minutes in length.

As might be expected, some songs are better than others in achieving a good balanced fusion of old-skool melodic BM and dungeon synth ambience and melody: “Le sang sur ma lame” is an early highlight, a lesson in how a distinctive and exotic world long thought gone forever can be brought back temporarily with particular riffs and their sometimes mournful sounds; and “Tyrans de la tour immaculée”, stuffed to the gills with dense BM riff grind and coldly finicky mediaeval ambient tunes right up to the end, is a mini-soundtrack archive that could have been expanded and hived off into an EP in its own right. “Le souffle de la guerre” features sombre atmospheres and passages of dramatic and thrilling music combining both BM aggression, inspired lead guitar soloing and martial sword-fighting flavour and bombast.

The title track summarises everything that’s gone before, musically and in atmosphere, and has the strengths and weaknesses of previous songs as well as its own in being such a long and winding track densely packed with music featuring a limited palette of instruments and sounds. The Middle-Ages themes and associated music and melodies end up sounding more gimmicky than they should, and for all their layered richness the music lacks the raw organic quality that actual mediaeval-period instruments or replicas of them might give. The result is that the last track is flat and tinny in parts. Editing for length would not change the title track much: the coda just seems to go on and on forever, and the term “self-indulgence” almost threatens to be an understatement here, so some shortening would have improved the music. The vocals are not the album’s strongest point: the rasping BM vocals can’t quite compete with the music for drama and intensity, and the clean female backing vocals are too cloying for the music’s martial nature and themes.

I confess to feeling relieved when the album ends even though much of it is a fun ride through an idealised fantasy of a period when knights and soldiers fought according to supposedly strict rules and codes, and life was much less rushed, less complicated and above all less machine-like than it is today. Technically this is a very polished and carefully crafted work but its reliance on a limited set of instruments to flesh out a nostalgia for a historical past leads it on a path where technical detail and repetitive, monotonous grandeur win out over atmosphere and conveying the spirit of a proud and martial France.

A Ravenloft for the Alps - 90%

autothrall, October 10th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2020, CD, Les Acteurs de l'Ombre Productions (Digipak)

France has had a strong developing Medieval black metal undercurrent for several years now, perhaps not as popular or as its more avantgarde genre frontrunners like Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Noir, but just as worthwhile to check out if you have any fancy for the atmospherics of earlier centuries, dark castles and idyllic landscapes. I've spoken on about groups like Aorlhac, Darkenhöld and Véhémence in the past, and now we've got the debut from an equally effective project called Crépuscule d'Hiver, which if my fading junior high knowledge of French isn't mistaken, translates to something like 'Winter Twilight'. A handful of you might be familiar with a dungeon synth act known as Gargoylium, and this is from the same individual, who carries over a lot of aesthetics from that and blends it rather seamlessly with his black metal influences to create an album I found just about perfect for this Autumn season and the Winter that awaits just beyond...

The aim here is create haunting, Romantic landscapes that evokes flashbacks to Gothic horror as well as the mid-90s European black metal that Stuurm no doubt listened to, and Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres is directly on target. Synthesizers are used to incorporate instrumental tones both Medieval and angelic, from brass and strings to organs and feminine choirs which are tastefully implemented to never drown out the darker visions being manifest through the beats, guitars and harsh raspy vocals. A lot of the more purely dungeon synth-like passages draw comparisons to the masters Summoning, but never to a degree of direct duplication, and where the flights of tremolo picked distorted passages and chords explode, they sound quite different than how the Austrian duo writes their own. Lots of melancholic harmonies and female vocals are mixed in to create this elegant sense of sadness and seduction, and the bass-lines churn wistfully below with just the right measure of thickness and groove. There's a good range of dynamic balance to most of the tracks, no endlessly cycling, dull repetitions but something fresh and new waiting around every corner of this antiquated, phantom-infested citadel that Stuurm conjures up in each of the lengthier tracks.

And let's face it, apart from the pair or shorter dungeon synth vignettes, these are some swollen tunes, ranging from about 8 and a half minutes to the 20+ minute title track. To the greatest credit of this album, I was never bored even for a moment: the musical arrangements perfectly mirror the excellent, spectral packaging of the CD and I felt as if I was lost for the full 70 minutes in this idealized nether-realm of cold stone, anguished spirits and elusive majesty. The riff-sets might not be perfectly unique in terms of this genre, but they felt as if they were trying something you simply don't hear on any newsprint necro record you encounter, and they're blissfully garbed in the more Gothic tones and instruments. For a group comprised of just one individual, I was extremely impressed, and while some listeners might find a couple flaws in the mix of the percussion or other nitpicks, the sum of Par​-​delà noireglaces et brumes​-​sinistres is nothing shy of magnificence that I'd readily recommend to anyone who enjoys either of the genres that birthed it.