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France is a State of Mind - 55%

Sean16, July 31st, 2020
Written based on this version: 2012, CD, End of the Light (Digipak)

As both a French metalhead and a Therion follower for around twenty years now, I had to review this album one day or another. After having reviewed IrréméDIABLE, the concept album about Charles Baudelaire by French death-metallers of Misanthrope, I felt compelled to. Thinking about it, Christofer Johnsson and Misanthrope’s mastermind S.A.S de l’Argilière have a good lot in common: about the same age, same death metal background, same taste for musical experiments, and same sizeable ego. But then, the latter is French, sincerely attached to his culture, and a genuine Baudelaire fan, whatever you may think about his posture. The former is Swedish, and has his own personal idea of France, which is independent from the country of the same name. This Les Fleurs du Mal album has nothing to do with Baudelaire, apart from borrowing its title from the poète maudit’s most famous book. It is a collection of covers from 1960’s – 70’s French pop/variété songs – written one hundred years after Baudelaire’s death.

The thing is, for the non-French audience, too often both Baudelaire and the variété songs proceed from a certain image of France, vaguely mixing dark romanticism from a decadent once-aristocratic society with worn-out pictures from cheesy movie Amélie Poulain. For a French audience, though, this overdone collection of long-dead clichés has become tiresome, and seeing a respectable band like Therion fall into the trap feels painful. No, most of these songs, in their original version, weren’t anything special. There was no hidden occult message in them. They were commercial pop tunes from the yé-yé days, as we call them. Of all the songwriters or singers originally involved, only one is still nowadays acknowledged for having had some talent, and rightfully so: Serge Gainsbourg. France Gall may be remembered, primarily for having sung verses written by this same Gainsbourg, and the controversy which followed (Gainsbourg was a wicked man, after all). Sylvie Vartan may be remembered as well... more as Johnny Halliday’s first wife; and if you don’t know who Johnny Halliday was, there’s no way you can understand 60’s French pop culture. All the others are mostly forgotten, even by the now granddads who were listening to them in their prime.

So we have these corny pop songs, with this FRENCH mystical aura of... whatever, we wrap them in a disguise of orchestral metal complete with strings, brass instruments, harpsichord, accordion (because accordions are SO FRENCH, you know) et voilà, it’s novel. After twenty-five years of opening new ways in orchestral metal, with more or less success perhaps, but always with an authentic artistic vision, Johnsson and co. began seeking novelty for the sake of novelty. Annoying. I’m always confused when reading this album “sounds like Therion”. “Therion sound” is a vague term. Therion albums have little in common, save for the occult themes, and, most important, the songwriting – recurring melodic motives, specific chord progressions which are Therion; Christofer Johnsson, like all composers, has his own bag of personal tricks, and that’s what confers his body of works its unity. Now this is a covers album, so the songwriting is not Therion’s, only the arrangements are. Forget about the Occult, either. Orchestrations? These might have been the band’s trademark circa 1997, but fifteen years later everyone was doing them, so these were no longer defining. It could have been any other anonymous orchestral metal band pulling out a silly FRENCH gimmick...

...if it weren’t for the vocals. At least, no one has ever outgrown Therion in this department yet. The balance between male and female singers, between rock and opera, the proper production to make every vocal colour shine – all the details have been once again carefully mastered. Lori Lewis may sound a bit thin at times, being manifestly not so at ease with French singing, she’s still amongst the best sopranos in the metal world, and saves most of the tracks she takes the lead on (e.g. La Licorne d’or). Thomas Vikström’s versatility works wonders, and the fact he makes more use of his rock voice than his tenor’s is nothing to complain about, given the context. And, customarily for Therion, there’s a bunch of guest vocalists to be found, each of them used wisely, as well. The sensuous half-spoken female voice on Initials B.B., contrasting with the distorted raucous grunts of the chorus, courtesy of Snowy Shaw, makes this track one of the most interesting – the grandiose orchestration with small hints of Antonin Dvořak helps, too.

In fact, this album never sounds as good as when the band adopts a resolutely punk attitude; like, we’ve got these variété songs no one cares about, let’s at least have fun with them. And when Vikström decides to go wild, he becomes truly grand. Totally bonkers high-pitched performance on Je n’ai besoin que de tendresse, unexpected apocryphal duet with Lori Lewis on the second version of Poupée de cire, poupée de son over pounding drums and light-hearted bouncy orchestrations – and, of course, the stroke of genius of Les sucettes, this tongue-in-cheek exalted delivery of a text which had been controversial back in its days. Besides, the fact these last two songs were originally written by none other than Gainsbourg confirms, once again, that the quality of the original material has its importance; how surprising. Alas, Johnsson certainly believed much more in the “serious” tracks. This Poupée de cire, poupée de son take comes at the very end, and Les sucettes is a mere bonus on some digipak versions only. Instead, two of the tracks which were advertised the most were Mon amour, mon ami and J’ai le mal de toi, which rank also amongst the corniest, most sugary of the album, J’ai le mal de toi especially, with its pompous strings track and forced melodramatic opera vocals. Where has Therion’s subtlety gone?

Six years later, Beloved Antichrist was coming. We had been warned.

Highlights: Initials B.B., Poupée de cire - poupée de son (alternate version), Les sucettes (bonus track).