With a one-two punch of releases from the two bands, who share a country of origin, a stylistic pastiche, European tour dates, a graphic artist, a record label and a drummer, comparisons between Les Discrets and Alcest feel inevitable. Alcest released their third album, Les Voyages de l’Âme (review here) via Prophecy Productions at the very start of the year, and now, led by multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Fursy Teyssier (who also handles the aforementioned visuals), Lyon’s Les Discrets answers back with Ariettes Oubliées…, their second album after 2010’s excellent Septembre et Ses Dernières Pensées. The eight-track, 43-minute collection is shorter than Alcest’s latest, and heavier in a traditionally metallic sense when it wants to be, but no less emotionally gripping or melodically complex. In terms of the actual sound of the album, aside from Winterhalter, who drums, what the two acts most share is the richly evocative melody and the emotionalism that’s become a mainstay element in post-black metal in large part thanks to both Les Discrets and Alcest’s contributions to the genre and Teyssier and Alcest mastermind Stéphane “Neige” Paut’s common roots in the band Amesoeurs (in which Winterhalter also drummed), who released a self-titled album in 2009 before splitting up. As closely linked as the two outfits are, there’s bound to be some sonic overlap, and Ariettes Oubliées… bears that out, as did the first album, but Les Discrets emerges from their sophomore effort with a personality and direction of their own as well.
Part of that is thanks to the contributions of vocalist/lyricist Audrey Hadorn, who complements Teyssier’s own singing for nearly the entire album, one or the other dropping out at various points – mostly, it seems, for dramatic effect. The distinguishing factor is convenient for discerning one band’s methods from the other’s, but more importantly, Hadorn greatly enriches the material on Ariettes Oubliées…, and her voice helps carry across the wistfulness and longing that seems to drip from the music. Time and mortality seem to be central themes, or at very least they’re easily read into the fragility present in the melodicism, but Les Discrets have a few moments of unabashed black metal, whether it’s the final moments of longest cut and highlight “La Traversée” or the more progressive approach that shows up in the surprisingly angular “La Nuit Muette.” Unsurprisingly for anyone who encountered the first album, Les Discrets take their time in letting the songs unfold, and work within an open sensibility as regards pace and instrumentation. Teyssier layers acoustic and electric guitar along with his bass, and the resulting complexity accounts for much of the richness in their sound. It’s not a wash of melody, but it’s not far off. Vocals remain crisp, clear and unburied, but like everything else on Ariettes Oubliées…, they are impeccably balanced, brilliantly mixed, and work in service to the songs and the atmosphere the material is looking to present. The gradual start the album is given with “Linceul d’Hiver” is met with a coinciding triumph in the instrumental “Les Regrets,” which not only echoes a musical theme, but shows the depth of Les Discrets’ commitment to structure – maintained no matter how far into indulgence they may seem to be wandering at any given moment.
Foremost, the album is beautiful, and – like Teyssier’s graphic work – masterfully intricate, carefully woven and precise in its execution. With layers of guitar playing off each other even in the most subdued moments of “La Traversée,” it’s clear maintaining a live sound isn’t the intent of the band, but it’s worth noting that nothing feels unnatural or overly processed on Ariettes Oubliées…, and instead, the melody that seems to be always at the fore is presented as organically assembled. Winterhalter has the delicate charge of grounding the material, and seems almost relieved to break into blast-beats at the end of “La Traversée,” but his work here is no less complex or engaging than either Teyssier or Hadorn’s. “Le Mouvement Perpétuel” continues the background ambience that pervades most of the tracks, but makes its greatest impact following a subtle but undeniably heavy build/apex and quiet part, where the guitars seem to stand tall on top of the rest of the song’s density at about 4:40 and anchor the remaining two minutes, during which Les Discrets embark on a long fade that’s all the more a march for the time it consumes, finally leaving just the strong current of notes that has backed the whole progression. The semi-titular “Ariettes Oubliées I: Je Devine à Travers un Murmure…“ begins acoustically with Teyssier’s solo vocals before Winterhalter and Hadorn join in, and seems as though it’s going to work within heavy/quiet tradeoffs after double-bass drumming and squiggly guitars take hold at 1:50. I’d have nothing to criticize if that’s the case, since Les Discrets never seem to just work within one sphere at a time, but the track finds a sort of middle ground in its final third, with more active acoustic guitar up front and a flowing river of electric guitar melody behind.
One might reasonably expect, then, that “La Nuit Muette” would keep that sensibility moving, but it doesn’t. Rather, the second half of Ariettes Oubliées… launches with what I’d gladly argue is the album’s most straightforward moment, shunning off the long intros and beginning almost in medias res with a verse riff worthy of latter day Enslaved that Winterhalter backs with careful snare pops and Teyssier and Hadorn top with accessible vocal melody. There is a course of development that plays out as acoustic strums are layered in and a break is made first to a slower stretch and then gradually to the atmospherics that bring the song to a close, but in its first movement, “La Nuit Muette” manages to ground almost everything around it, and “Au Creux de l’Hiver” pushes the momentum forward on drums while seeming almost unrelentingly melancholic vocally. No easy feat, but the balance is immaculately clean, and Winterhalter’s drumming – witness the fill at 2:31 – markedly metal as Les Discrets let the guitar carry them through the rest of the song. The second half of the track list is the shorter side, but feels substantial nonetheless, despite the considerable forward motion developed by the time the acoustics of “Après l’Ombre” kick in. Electric notes pepper the background, and toward the middle echo their way into further prominence, but there’s a line that seems to be running through “Après l’Ombre,” and that’s how the drive of the album at this stage is maintained.
As such, it’s semi-awkward when the perceivable dip into the line that introduced the record (so long ago) returns at the start of “Les Regrets,” but the instrumental that ensues is both resoundingly conclusive – i.e., a fitting closer – and gracefully heavy. Winterhalter’s double-kick, hi-hat and snare are the foundation on which guitars are both strummed and plucked and melody and distortion are proffered in equal measure. By the time it’s over, if there’s a wistfulness, it’s mostly for the end of Ariettes Oubliées…, which not only surpasses the first Les Discrets on the level of confidence and songcraft, but sets a high standard for other like-minded acts. Perhaps that’s something else Teyssier and Neige’s bands have in common, but if post-black metal, and more specifically, French post-black metal, is to have two acts setting the bar, the genre and whatever it grows into over time can only be richer for it. One to the next, Alcest and Les Discrets deliver albums that feel destined to be influential, and with Teyssier’s clear hold on aesthetic and palpable artistic focus – both visually and musically – at its creative center, Ariettes Oubliées… stands on its own as much as it stands aligned to any one act or stylistic niche, and as much as this music reminds us of our own impermanence in the onward flow of time, it’s hard not to listen and feel like you’re hearing something important.
Tags: France, Les Discrets, Lyon, Prophecy Productions