Saturday, 17 April 2010

Pensées Nocturnes - Grotesque (2010) 80/100.

Reviewing for record labels is a difficult job. It is important to remember to remain as impartial as possible and not be swayed by feelings of guilt if one doesn’t actually enjoy what they’ve been supplied with. Although I would always like to offer record labels glowing reviews which heap praise upon the acts signed to their establishment, I know full well that it isn’t a formality that I will enjoy what they serve me every time I am in this position. Needless to say, I was relieved when I got round to listening to Pensées Nocturnes’ debut full-length, entitled ‘Vacuum’ because, even when taking into account the few samples I had heard beforehand, I knew in my gut that I would be happy with the overall outcome of ‘Vacuum’. Suffice to say I was and my initial feelings of trepidation were coolly swept away like tumble weed in the slightest breeze on a scorching day in the desert. ‘Vacuum’ was amongst the biggest surprises of 2009 not only in the black metal genre, but in the entire music scene.

It’s easy to get carried away with the use of hyperbole but, I truly do believe that Vaerohn’s expedition into black metal entwined with classical music, amongst others, was both visionary and expertly expressed. This leads me to the firm belief that ‘Vacuum’ was amongst the best debuts I had ever heard. One year on and with the release of the somewhat disappointing sophomore full-length, entitled ‘Grotesque’, my view of ‘Vacuum’ has been elevated to even higher standards than previous to its release. I suppose my only complaint would be the records production. Although the cleaner aspects of ‘Vacuum’ flourish in the dark atmospherics of the debut, the rest of the instrumentation has a heavy weight placed upon its shoulders and is therefore compromised. However, it is clear to see that ‘Vacuum’ has focused more on the classical elements than it did the black metal aspects which, on songs like ‘Coup de Bleus’, are often nowhere to be seen for long periods at a time as Vaerohn is content to meld blues orientated instrumentation with sultry jazzy sections and those now well documented classical exploits. Certain songs here, like the eclectic ‘Hel’ do similar things, but not quite to the same extent, mixing those jazzy bass elements with brass and various string instruments, as well as a divine piano.

‘Grotesque’ is a record which appears to want to highlight the black metal elements of Pensées Nocturnes stylistic approach which, in the opposite fashion to the debut, has compromised the position of the classical elements -- perhaps the most important aspects of the bands sound as it gave Vaerohn’s a clear distinction between himself and his peers because he had the nerve to try something so daring as to fuse classical music with a dirty, gritty genre like black metal. Juxtaposing the dirt and grime of black metal with the clean classical aspects was what made ‘Vacuum’ such a hit with both myself and my fellow fans. However, with the arrival of ‘Grotesque’, through each and every song on the record, it is as clear as day that these elements have been stripped down, torn almost entirely out and replaced by bigger, more bombastic black metal characteristics, such as repetitive guitars and brutalising double bass. ‘Paria’, probably my favourite song on ‘Grotesque’, is a fine example of this, though it does highlight a few of the startling elements which gave ‘Vacuum’ the impact that it did.

The jazzy bass is still a factor within songs like this, but it has been buried deep beneath the distortion of the guitars and Vaerohn’s shrieks. It does occasionally creep out from the darkness of schizophrenic atmospherics, which displays signs of split personality disorder through the repeated switching between influences -- which is done superbly well, I must admit -- but it isn’t as prominent as it was on songs like ‘Coups de Bleus’. With this particular song, Vaerohn’s tactics seem to be similar to that on ‘Vacuum’ with the use of a variety of instruments, such as a piano, eerie synths, wind instruments and even a variety of vocals -- an area of the record which has been improved upon significantly. Besides this song and small sections of other songs, like the acoustics and haunting programming on ‘Rahu’, I get the impression that Vaerohn was looking to improve upon the black metal structures on his songs and making them the base of the material, as opposed to what he did on ‘Vacuum’ which was to intertwine the two.

I don’t necessarily think that song writing is an issue here. Vaerohn definitely has the talent, and the vision, to pull off such an audacious manoeuvre by melding different breeds of music together, but I don’t think the maturity is quite there yet in Pensées Nocturnes sound, as shown through the strange introductory song to the record which gives the whole thing a rather theatrical vibe to it and the seeming emphasis on black metal, as opposed to concentrating on blending the two together more harmoniously than ever before. ‘Eros’ is another good example of the problems which Vaerohn encounters on ‘Grotesque’. The short, condensed feel to this song isn’t appropriate. Pensées Nocturnes have too big a sound to cram into a short period of time and though the softer, shimmering instrumentation is a nice touch, with the jazzy guitars being a particular stand-out element, the nature of the band requires, nay, demands that the material be given a suitably long song length to be sprawled across as it needs room to move and expand.

Unsurprisingly, Vaerohn has allowed his other songs to weave their magic over long periods, with a number of songs scaling the eight and nine minute mark. This gives songs like ‘Paria’ and ‘Monosis’ ample opportunities to build upon the successful elements of ‘Grotesque’, which includes the unusual sinister, slightly theatrical sound to the samples in the soundscapes, as well as the imperative vocals time to add variety to the textures. Vaerohn uses far more clean wails and cries on this record than he did on ‘Vacuum’ and I, for one, appreciate and prefer their influence to the typical rasps. As ‘Monosis’ wonderfully displays, the light hearted, almost clownish aspects of the instrumentation sound perfect alongside Vaerohn’s Garm-esque clean vocals, just like the one’s displayed on Arcturus’ most circus inspired records, like ‘La Masquerade Infernal’. Of course, this aspects aren’t allowed to dominate completely with Vaerohn’s use of short, sharp bursts of black metal material (which features rolling drum beats and bombastic distortion from the guitar). All in all, I find ‘Grotesque’ to be not quite as rewarding as ‘Vacuum’. The songs feel strong, but nowhere near as memorable.

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