Review Summary: This album's strident beauty lies in its ability to reconcile opposing truths. This is either a very beautiful ugly album or a very ugly beautiful album, simultaneously transcending and pissing on Peste Noire's legacy.
Peste Noire's latest album, Ballade cuntre lo anemi Francor (Ballad against the enemies of France) makes ugliness beautiful yet again. The album, while musically and atmospherically very different from their masterpiece Sanie des siecles, seems determined to either transcend that or piss on its legacy. In either case, they’ve done a great job.
The entire album sounds like a stripped down garage presentation of the Sanie des siecles. Case in point: "Concerto por cloportes" sounds like a flanged out twist on "Nous Sommes Fanees" from Sanie des siecles, right down to the riff and rhythm. Famine, the sole remaining member of the classic lineup, seems determined to mock everything he can get his hands on, from his own previous music to military chants (which he black metal karaokes on top of in the lovely "Rance black metal", my favorite track on the new album). "Rance Black metal" is an aggressive beast of a song, less overtly concerned with chaos than many other tracks, and incredible catchy. Listen to the riff at the end. One listen and you'll remember it for days. "Rance black metal" is representative of the classic heavy metal aesthetic Famine and his new bandmates are enamored by on this album. The song breaks midway into stripped down insanity accompanied by descending pick scrapes before bursting into that catchy riff I was talking about. It’s still identifiably Peste Noire despite the heavy metal leanings, Famine’s melodic leads providing the aesthetic element that sets Peste Noire above every band playing Black metal currently. Per usual, the music decays at the end, mirroring the band’s obsession with providing a counterpoint to modern decay.
I went into this album expecting to be let down by Neige’s absence in the recording. I must confess to being highly enamored of Neige’s work, foolish I know, especially since Peste Noire has always been Famine’s baby. It seemed to me Neige and Indria and Winterhalter were only the musical force necessary to give weight to Famine’s hooligan black metal tendencies. However, it is clear to me that all my fears were unfounded. The album does not suffer at all for their absence. I particularly enjoy the simpler drumming on this album which propels the rawer chaotic vibe Famine has completely embraced on this record.
It makes perfect sense how the band dedicates the title track to Francois Villon, the 14th century French poet/thief, whose reckless, lowlife aesthetic is perfectly suited for Famine’s purposes. Peste Noire have always used the works of medieval French authors and poets in their work but this is the first time I truly feel the sickness and decay Famine refers to through their works. Consider their finest song on Sanie Des Siecles: "Dueil Angoisseus", which references Christine de Pisan, one of the early feminists. Despite the harsh music, "Dueil Angoisseus" is resolutely beautiful and medieval, identifiably French, but does not suggest the low culture the band wishes to portray. On Ballade, every song performs this ugly function. Even "A la Mortaille", which is arguably the safest song on the record, is cognizant of the music’s mission, even during the ending riff (which is as close as you’ll get to hearing Famine sing). There is chaos and decay and ugliness all couched in a sort of vicious beauty. It is nostalgia that understands its own futility but is still passionate enough to get angry/insane about it.
My biggest annoyance with this album has to do with the interludes, which, while beautifully executed by Audrey from Amesoeurs, are distracting and an unnecessarily heavy-handed element. "Requiem pour Nioka's" strange melodramatic female vocals seems straight out of a depressive black metal band’s handbook, Norway's Shining perhaps. The same criticism may be applied to the track "La France Bouge" but it is saved by the way Famine’s vocals interact with Audrey’s and the otherwordly singsong technique used which devolves into an urgent pleading, despite the increasingly heavy guitars.
Make no mistake, this is a very romantic album, as in it follows the tradition of the Romantics. The music evokes a long-gone France where there was decay amidst the rustic figures. The music shamelessly asks to be returned to that era while also being self-conscious enough to mock this desire. To quote Georges Bataille, the philosopher of evil, and a suitably lowlife Frenchman, the music seems written “for a different world, a world without respect. I don’t desire to impose myself on it, I imagine myself being silent there, as if absent. The necessity of effacement to the point of transparency. I do not oppose real strengths or necessary connections: idealism alone (hypocrisy, lies) has the virtue to condemn the real world–to ignore its physical truth.” Such resolutely idealist music has no other virtues. Listen for its ability to reconcile opposing truths.
I suspect, however, that the track I will return to the most on repeated listening will be the last track, "Soleils Couchants", which throbs and seethes with a sort of barely suppressed rage and beauty that only Peste Noire has been able to express. Birdsong echoes under the music in "Soleils Couchants", a lonely bird call punctuates each refrain. Voices bubble under the chaos. The intro plods forward, dies before launching into the verse figure. The song then builds itself over a forceful, simplistic marching beat (the new drummer is infinitely less complex than the departed Winterhalter) into the most victorious piece of music I’ve heard in a long time. The lunacy of the Ballade thus ends in glory, and the long outro provides fitting catharsis for this brilliant albeit heartbreakingly short album (37 minutes).