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How all this seems so futile... - 65%

Sean16, July 18th, 2007

Those are too high for my wit
I prefer to omit.

... Thus spoke Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), probably one of the greatest art historians ever, when it came to comment on Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings. And if this quote now headlines this review in an unexpected fashion, it’s not because Misanthrope indeed happened to have written a song about Hieronymus Bosch – which can’t even be found on this album to begin with -, but because in front of Visionnaire I’ve long felt like Panofsky in front of Bosch’s works. That’s a fact: this release is complex, hermetic, artistic, and often hailed as the best Misanthrope album... Is it all of this, really?

That it takes a lot of listens to be fully understood and appreciated, I’ll grant it. That it sounds more accomplished than its clumsy predecessor 1666... Theatre Bizarre, it’s so obvious I’ll grant it. That Jean-Jacques Moreac is a genuine bass virtuoso, I’ll grant it, but it isn’t specific to this release anyway. But the pinnacle of Misanthrope’s career? Nope.

Contrary to the impression too often given by 1666... Theatre Bizarre, it now seems the band knows where it’s going. “SAS” Philippe de l’Argilière and his minions manage to write intricate songs without sounding approximative or amateurish. Of course the production helps a lot, as the instruments, the drums especially, no longer sound like cheap toys but like authentic, costly musical instruments. As on the following Libertine Humiliations it also smells a bit of Gothenburg, but after all de l’Argilère is wearing a Dark Tranquillity T-shirt on the band picture, so there’s no doubt it’s a deliberate will. Vocals have improved a lot as well, as to the apparent frenzy of singing in every existing vocal style has succeeded a more rational, but also fully original, both harsh and exalted voice Misanthrope will further use on all their following releases – though through the years that will become more and more polished to end up fairly close to standard melodeath vocals. But here, it still showed all the freshness and ornaments of youth.

However now comes the most controversial part, the one which stood for so long far “too high for my wit” – the songwriting. After a lot of patient listens I eventually arrived to the conclusion that no, those songs weren’t shapeless or unstructured, but the simplest were by far the best. Take the mid-tempo opener Futile Future, it looks almost radio-friendly with its very common structure not that far from simple verse/chorus alternating; but add to it a weird echo on the chorus, the mandatory symphonic break and of course a twisted, unforgettable bass line, and it comes close to genius. Further it may probably sound futile (“How our lives are so futile...”) to overtly praise Bâtisseur de Cathédrales which up to now remains one of the best-loved Misanthrope classics, with good reasons for once. If it’s undoubtedly more complex than Futile Future, the basic formula remains the same – an easily memorable opening riff, symphonic breaks, and the bass reigning supreme.

But then, too much is too much. Futile Future may indeed be a bit TOO easy, Bâtisseur de Cathédrales already demands more attention and more listens to reveal its full potential, from Hypochondrium Forces on it becomes totally senseless. Actually, these eight remaining songs ARE structured, some aren’t even that complicated, and someone sufficiently digging amongst them will still find riffs, airs, melodies, and music as a whole. There is a genuine chorus in Hypochondrium Forces, there might even be one in the atrocious Irrévérencieux. But most of time those are buried under grandiloquent piano or keyboards, endless blastbeats and headache-inducing solos. The bass had been intellectually challenging since the first bar of Futile Future, now it too often seems to be living its own life without caring for what the other instruments play.

Oddly, the result of all this is several of these tracks end up sounding pretty similar, once one managed to catch the particular twist of the work. Especially the ones which could be called the “aggressive” ones – Hypochondrium Forces, Le Silence des Grottes, Irrévérencieux -, probably because their core is in fact devoid of any genuine substance. Most of the others end up surprisingly dull, like the slow, semi-balladish but finally not very imaginative 2666, the mostly acoustic La Rencontre Rêvée which never seems to truly begin, or Hands of the Puppeters in spite of a nice recurrent melody. As for the title track, its culminating grandiloquence confines to grotesque in the ending shout of “Visionnaiiiiiiiiiiiire!” which alone sums it all.

So here may be the paradox of Visionnaire: as long as one hasn’t really got into it it sounds complex, hermetic and forbidding, as soon as one has eventually managed to “understand” it it quickly gets old. It may constitute a necessary step towards the following, more melodeath-influenced albums, but not a pinnacle in itself. It isn’t the worst Misanthrope album either, but certainly the most overrated.

Highlights: Futile Future, Bâtisseur de Cathédrales