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Always doing something interesting - 83%

Abominatrix, June 3rd, 2018
Written based on this version: 2005, CD, Holy Records (Limited edition)

Ah, misanthrope. What a weird band. Content to toil in the underground since the early 90s, doing their thing, sometimes skirting close to metal trends but somehow never really adopting them. They are a bunch of highly skilled musicians who can and do try almost anything, and as a result, some of their music is just too eccentric for all but the weirdest, and probably mostly French, audience to swallow. Whenever I feel like indulging in some of their music, I am always left with the sense that I ought to give them credit for at least always managing to be interesting, even if some of what they do feels like an experiment that doesn't quite come off.

Granted, their most eccentric days were their early ones, as reviews here and elsewhere will tell you, but this is a character that has remained with them all throughout their career, even if they settled down somewhat. Arguably it was Visionnaire which marked a sort of streamlining of their approach. Plenty of eccentricity's still in evidence, but here it's delivered with precision and punch, and while I have some small reservations, most of this thing comes off with such style and panache that I can't help but be impressed.

Now, this is already the Frenchmen's fourth album, and to account for some of what's happened to them here, I think it's important to take it in context. It was 1997, and Swedish melodic death metal had kind of taken off in the underground. Not only does Misanthrope frontman Phillipe Courtois wear a Dark Tranquillity shirt, but you can find In Flames’ lead guitarist and singer in the credits as guest musicians! I was, myself, quite a fan of Dark Tranquillity at that time, and while in Flames didn't move me too much, they were suddenly nothing like the abomination they have now been for years. It's perfectly understandable that, in a scene like this, which was, then, still undeniably quite underground, the guys in Misanthrope and In Flames would have corresponded and even worked together on occasion. This Misanthrope album doesn't really sound like Swedish "melodeath", but the awareness and obvious respect for the style is certainly present. You can take this as a warning, I suppose, if the words "Swedish melodic death" are anathema to you, but I still think this is different and quirky enough to appeal to those who drop off to sleep at the mention of a Jester Race.

So, the production here is really solid and, as with most Fredman jobs, favours the guitars, which have a nice, full-bodied, heavy 'n' crunchy tone. There's some Swedish guy credited with percussion, but the drums still sound a bit fake to me, but hey, at least they're not as terrible as they sounded on the previous Misanthrope album; it's mostly ok and not distracting. I find the extraordinary, virtuoso bass-work of Jean-Jacques Moréac to be a bit buried in the mix at times, but this could be a deliberate choice by the band, who perhaps didn't want to suggest that they were showing off the fact that their bassist can really play. His style might be a bit too slap-happy for a lot of metalheads, and anyway, it punches through pretty loud and clear at least some of the time, and for sure, if you wear headphones, you won't miss much.

I find that misanthrope is at their best when they turn up the intensity or weirdness, and so opener "2,666" doesn't actually do loads for me. It's a bit too straightforward, and while I must credit it with being a bit ahead of its time, what it really reminds me of is some of the boring mid-paced stuff Dark Tranquillity does in the 2000s, and that's not a good thing. The keys are more prominent here than in many of the album's tracks, and I don't have a problem with that, but again, it's just a bit too ho-hum. Maybe it's going for "anthemic", but to me at least, misanthrope have probably chosen the worst song on the album as its opener, at least for my re-release version. Why'd they change the order? Whatever the case, it's definitely for the worse, as "Future Futile" is a much cooler song, only I suppose it's less "immediate" of an opener. Still, I think "2,666" sets a bit of a false expectation for what's to come. Stick around! Even if you feel as I do, there's a lot of interesting stuff to come. For me, the improvement with "Bâtisseur de cathédrales" is astronomical. Here we get lots of interesting melody and unpredictable riff changes. Misanthrope are at their best when being unpredictable, and so this song is a real stand-out.

The vocals run the gamut from weird screechy exhortations to deep growls to a kind of emotional semi-melodic groaning which sounds terrible on paper but somehow works (think Roz Williams, I guess), and they all work beautifully to tell these odd narratives of twisted decadence, depravity and fantastic beauty. I really think the band's lyrical/imagery approach is quite original, and yes, it's very French. I'm reminded of Baudelaire, Mirbeau, Lautréamont and, naturelment, Le Marquis de Sade. This is a constant in Misanthrope's work, and while my French isn't great, from what I can tell, the lyrics are clever, provocative and very true to the era(s) they seek to invoke.

I think the wild-sounding, fast death metal songs here are among my favourites. They're certainly not standard. The keyboards can be quite dark and intense, for instance, and the guitar-work just insane, including some really noisy, crazed soloing. "Irrévérencieux", at least, is absolutely fucking nuts, and totally should negate any idea one might have about Misanthrope falling into wimpy "melodeath" territory. At the same time, the use of keyboards here is quite novel; that recurring weird melody played on a moog-type sound is really out-of-this-world, and the banging piano hits quite cacophonous in a way that you just don't hear from most bands, but actually works perfectly in a death metal context.

I can't deny the power of some of the slower material, either. Although it's not very heavy, I genuinely love the reflective closing track and think it shows some of the band's sombr,e thoughtful use of melody in the very best way. "Impermanence et illumination" has a nice unusual structure and morphs between some pretty technical guitars and slow ominous chords mixed with airy keyboard passages. "La Dandy" first seems like a very odd name and concept for a death metal song, but when you hear those slow pounding riffs that are suggestive of some kind of decadent evil, you might come round to a different way of thinking. On the other hand, I can't say I care for those almost dance breaks with all the bass and keyboard noodling in "Hands of the Puppeteers" -- they seem really out of place and don't really convey anything but goofiness. I can write the last off as one of misanthrope's quirky antics. In the end, I think they're only out to please themselves, and make music that they find interesting, and that's something to be commended.

here's a band that I can really respect for putting a lot of care and detail into their work, in the musical sense, but also the over-all presentation. Not only do they have a unique sound, but nobody really looks or talks like them, either. It captures the attention, and I think all of it contributes to the fact that the band is, whatever else, never dull, and always challenging.