A Brief History of French Metal

Skelethal

Skelethal

Before 1991, the only reason metal fans in North America turned their glance past England and over to neighboring France was because U.S. thrash titans Anthrax performed a lights-out cover of Parisian band Trust’s “Antisocial.” That song was from the band’s 1980 album Répression, which remains virtually undiscovered, while Anthrax’s English translation of the song was a standout on their 1988 album State of Euphoria, and remains a staple of their set.

Other French metal bands existed in the ‘80s, including NWOBHM-style bands like Sortilège and Satan Jokers, and a decade later, industrial thrashers Treponem Pal. Aside from the small number of North American fans who enjoyed digging through record store shelves for obscure treasures, French metal remained an underground phenomenon long after pioneering French bands—including Vulcain, Misanthrope, and Massacra—had the locals banging their heads.

The first signs that something artistically and musically viable was shaking the ground under the Arc De Triomphe came with the launch of the indie labels Osmose and Listenable (which both began in 1991) and Debemur Morti (launched in 2003). Osmose introduced death/doom outfit Phazm and black metal misanthropes Mütiilation to the public through international distribution networks. Listenable rippled global waters with industrial death/thrash band Scarve and thrash/death band Loudblast. Still, French metal was a blip on America’s radar until Listenable released Gojira’s proggy, serrated, but groove-laden third album From Mars to Sirius in 2005.

With Gojira as the catalyst, French metal spread like an epidemic, and thanks to the Internet, fans had instant access to releases that once would have been hard-to-find imports. Some of the new bands, like Hypno5e and Hacride, resembled Swedish metal extremists Meshuggah, while others took a more experimental and avant-garde path to recognition, including the cryptic electro-prog-black metal group Blut Aus Nord and the psychedelic, industrial black metal band Spektr.

Today, French metal bands vary from mainstream acts such as Blackrain to the extreme death metal assaults of Necrowretch and Deathspell Omega. If there’s one thing that many French bands (regardless of subgenre) have in common, it’s an emphasis on artistry, the sort of je ne sais quoi which only a nation that produces artists like Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, and Marie de Rabutin-Chantal can cultivate. And as they proved through the aughts, French bands could be ethereal and beautiful, or harsh and ugly. Ahead, 11 of the most significant bands to surface from the French metal scene.

Gojira

When brothers Joe (vocals, guitars) and Mario Duplantier (drums) changed the name of their band from Godzilla to Gojira (the original Japanese title of the 1954 film Godzilla) in 2001, they had no idea that, over the next decade, they’d evolve from relative unknowns into international monsters of metal. The heavily syncopated rhythms and proggy flourishes that Gojira explored have inspired countless bands and put France on the map as a breeding ground for creative extreme metal. Existing as Godzilla for five years before the name change and subsequent record deal, Gojira had ample time to hone their Meshuggah adoration into a sound that retained the agitated, asymmetrical vibe of their heroes, but implemented it within more spacious, melodic arrangements. Gojira’s fourth full-length, 2008’s The Way of All Flesh, was their raison d’être. While 2005’s From Mars to Sirius was an epic, groove-saturated rollercoaster, the new album was denser and more confrontational, addressing the hopelessness of the human condition with uncontained vitriol. Tumbling polyrhythms and distorted vocals abound, yet they’re skillfully combined with complementary guitar lines and enough melody to retain even the interest of headbangers with severe ADD.

Hacride

Hacride

Like Gojira, Hacride formed in 2001 and were heavily influenced by Meshuggah. But they’ve taken the former’s asymmetrical rhythmic groove and combined it with some of the more traditional signifiers of melodic death metal, including rapid, catchy licks, virtuosic solos, and guttural vocals. The band’s second album, 2007’s Amoeba, is even more musically developed than their commendable 2005 debut Deviant Current Signal. There’s more separation between the heavy guitar rhythms and the less-distorted chimey tones. Several of the songs feature acoustic intros: “Fate” opens like a Farewell to Kings-era Rush song before going ballistic, and “Zambra” segues Latin guitar and percussion into a corrosive rhythm until the acoustic passage returns, accompanied by clean female Spanish vocals. If this is how the French deal with prog, death metal, and djent, we’ll take it any day over the latest Periphery clones.

Alcest

Alcest

The most recognized post-metal French band, Alcest is the brainchild of Neige (Amesoeurs), who in 1999 decided to make music to emulate visions he had as a child about a beautiful faraway fairyland that resembled something from Gulliver’s Travels. But while the imagery was joyous and serene, Neige chose to use both aggressive (which he termed “joyous”) and plaintive (the place was so gorgeous it made him sad not to be there) styles of music to provide a soundtrack for his private utopia. Since their 2007 full-length debut, Souvenirs D’un Autre Monde, Alcest have experimented with black metal, shoegaze, classical, and folk music, and with each outing they’ve emerged with something noteworthy and new. While 2014’s Shelter was heavily influenced by Slowdive (that band’s frontman Neil Halstead was even featured on the record), 2016’s Kodama is more multifaceted, veering from lullaby vocals, tribal beats, and celestial washes of sound to uncontained screaming, heavily layered guitars, and hammering blast beats. Even if Kodama doesn’t always conjure images of shimmering sunlight shining through tall, flower-bearing trees, it expands Alcest’s musical vocabulary even further and keeps them near the top of the post-metal heap.

Les Discrets

While they draw from elements of prog and black metal, Les Discrets aren’t strictly a metal band. The group was founded in 2003 by French illustrator and frontman Fursy Teyssier and drummer Winterhalter. Both were ex-members of influential depressive blackgaze band Amesoeurs, which also featured Alcest frontman Neige. While most of Les Discrets music is less aggressive than Alcest’s, the band’s 2010 debut full-length Septembre et Ses Dernières Pensées, is a simultaneously energized and enervating excursion into the lighter waters of post-metal. The vocals are clean and frequently harmonized and they glimmer through a blend of hazy guitars, acoustic strumming, and delicate guitar melodies that juxtapose with the band’s more chaotic counter-rhythms and blast beats. Often, Les Discrets resemble Alcest, which is hardly surprising. Not only do they share a history, some members also share a tour van. Neige played bass for Les Discrets in concert from 2009 until 2013, and Winterhalter drummed for both bands until 2013 when he joined Alcest full-time; Teyssier even played bass for Alcest in 2010. The third and newest Les Discrets album, 2017’s Prédateurs is inventive and evocative, integrating slow, trip-hop beats, galactic keyboards, and melancholy vocals into an echoing, cinematic, and decidedly non-metal showcase that should please indie hipsters that hate metal.

Blut Aus Nord

This is black metal from the dark side of the shroom. Blut Aus Nord was started in 1994 from the ashes of Vlad, a solo project from an enigmatic dude who calls himself Vindsval. After recruiting drummer and keyboardist W.D. Feld, Vindsval pursued a more skewed experimental vision that incorporated avant-garde metal, psychedelia, industrial, and Norwegian-style black metal into a disorienting and disconcerting mélange of immaculately constructed noise. Blut Aus Nord hit full stride with their fourth album, 2003’s The Work Which Transforms God. Throughout, guitars that sound like they’re missing crucial intervals, or at least a couple strings, mingle with blast-beats, pummeling double-bass hammering and black metal howls before industrial drums and effected half-speed vocals wash through the mix. And that all happens by the second song, the aptly titled “The Choir of the Dead.” The rest of the album is equally horrifying (in a good way), discarding convention and thwarting expectation with bestial sound effects, bizarre segues, and irreverent avant-garde deconstruction. The album includes five harrowing instrumentals and plenty of other surprises, including bubbling, ambient soundscapes, torrents of dissonance, and unusual arrangements capped with crafty hooks. Over the next decade, Blut Aus Nord evolved, with slightly more accessible concept albums that still featured abrupt transitions between the offbeat black metal and the grating electronics and haunting ethereal interludes. Each album is worthy of praise, but The Work Which Transforms God was the one that led Blut Aus Nord over the edge and onto their inscrutable path of discovery.

Spektr

Likely inspired by the genre-defying compositions of Blut Aus Nord, Spektr was formed in 2000 by a pair of artsy degenerates who go by the names Hth and KI.K. Manipulating traditional extreme metal instrumentation along with an abundance of keyboard programming, samples, and atmospheric experiments, Spektr have released four industrial black metal albums embellished with harrowing ambient interludes. While they’re not as structurally complex as Blut Aus Nord, Spektr expertly build foggy cemetery soundscapes, then slice through the mist and through the gravestones with a jarring blend of buzzsaw guitars and barreling rhythms. Like 2015’s Cypher, the band’s latest album, The Art to Disappear, is completely instrumental, but the chilling soundbites and random noises make up for the lack of vocals. And the abrupt transitions, such as the tinny Voivod-esque guitars and shuffling electronic beats in the middle of “Through the Darkness of Future Past,” the sudden, droning low-pitch pulses in “The Day Will Definitely Come,” and the epileptic drum machine patterns in “Your Flesh is a Relic,” are like wonderfully effective jump-scares in a visually-stunning horror movie. Too bad these guys weren’t around when Dario Argento was in his prime.

Deathspell Omega

They may sound like hedonistic barbarians, but the three members of Deathspell Omega have been making thought-provoking black metal since 1998 (with the exception of vocalist Mikko Aspa, who joined in 2002). Over time, their lyrics have addressed the work of French surrealist Georges Bataille and German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Deathspell Omega have also delved into Satanism, but from a metaphysical perspective, asserting that other interpretations are “intellectually invalid.” But damn, these dudes play from their blackened souls, not just their active minds, creating amphetamine-fueled songs colored with unconventional arrangements that stick out between bowel-emptying guitar grind and intensely physical blastbeats. Deathspell Omega’s sixth album, 2016’s The Synarchy of Molten Bones includes fewer mid-tempo breaks than their last couple of releases. Instead, most of the avant-garde and dissonant flourishes—tolling bells, horn blasts, and atonal guitars—are mingled within the speedy, cacophonous din, making for a record that leaves the listener quivering, exhausted, and begging for more. The four songs last just under 30 minutes. If that’s not enough, when “Internecine Iatrogenesis” ends, hit play again and start over.

Svart Crown

Svart Crown

Around the time Deathspell Omega started causing heads to thrash and contort uncontrollably, Jean-Baptiste Le Bail formed Svart Crown in Southern France. Two years later, he recorded the band’s first demo 2006’s Bloody Crown. Since then, there have been a few lineup changes, but Le Bail has persisted with his vision of mixing extreme death metal with atonal and avant-garde elements, perhaps inspired by Deathspell Omega. While Svart Crown isn’t nearly as experimental, emphasizing sonic overload more than philosophical or mathematical invention, the band’s clamorous rhythms are nonetheless colored with offbeat riffs, stabs of noise, and dissonant counter-licks. Drummer Kevin Paradis’s constantly shifting beats and emphatic fills are especially effective in driving the chaotic songs. Svart Crown’s third album, 2013’s Profane is a modification and improvement of the formula Le Bail started almost a decade earlier. The disjoined passages on songs like “Until the Last Breath” are more tuneful and haunting, while the cutthroat aggression on “Intern. Virus. Human” is as jarring as a construction crew outside a bedroom window at 5:30am.

Necrowretch

Necrowretch

They may not have known what they ultimately wanted to call themselves when they  started in 2008, first as Vlad Rituals and then Worm Eater, but these blazing Frenchmen knew what they wanted to sound like from the word “go.” Necrowretch have described their sound as “sadistic, grave cracking death metal,” and they’ve followed the definition with gusto, crafting three crushing EPs and three explosive full-lengths with various lineups. The band’s latest, Satanic Slavery, features plenty of blast beats, dehydrated corpse vocals, tremolo riffs, some slow, catchy melodic hooks, and more blast beats. But even when Necrowretch are driving with the pedal to the floor—which is most of the time—there’s always an element of nuance, like Morbid Angel or Immolation before them. The production on Satanic Slavery is crisp enough to separate one instrument from another. Each guitar note is audible and many passages are augmented with musical frills, preventing the album from sounding like an extreme metal blender set to kill. “Evil Names,” which opens with a repeated minor-key lick reminiscent of Slayer which keeps going as the rest of the music accelerates to warp speed, is especially satisfying.

Gorod

Originally formed in 1997 as Gorgasm, this technical death metal quintet changed its name to avoid being confused with a band from Chicago with the same moniker. They debuted as Gorod in 2005 with the album Neurotripsicks, which showcased the musicians’ playing abilities through oddball time signatures, jazzy riffs, rapid staccato jabs, and fleety melodic solos without sacrificing ironclad hooks. Tragically, drummer Guillaume Martino died of cancer in 2010, and while he was replaced before the end of the year by Julien “Nutz” Deyres, it took a minute for the band to return to full speed. Their 2012 album, A Perfect Absolution, sounded misguided, stressing Cynic-style progressive arrangements over bruising death metal. But with 2015’s A Maze of Recycled Creeds, the band returned to form, blazing a path of fierce, technical songs that never downplayed heaviness or fury—and thankfully never sounds anything like, err, recycled Creed. Following a brief melancholy piano introduction of “Air De L’ordre,” Gorod rockets into an endless series of impossible guitar parts, constantly shifting how-did-they-do-that? rhythms and choruses full of strong melodies and alluring guitar harmonies.

Skelethal

Perhaps the least innovative of the French metal revolution, Skelethal are no less enthusiastic than their fellow countrymen and, having just formed in 2012, they’ve got plenty of time to grow into something extraordinary. The band’s debut full-length, Of the Depths…, exhibits their penchant for ‘90s Stockholm death metal. Even their logo bears a striking resemblance to the one Entombed used until 1992. Of the Depths… exhibits Entombed, Dismember, and Carnage worship, but also owes a nod to other death metal pioneers including Morbid Angel, Massacre, Autopsy, and Death. Still, for two young Frenchman, Gui Haunting (vocals, guitar) and Jon Whiplash (drums, bass), to be able to emulate old-school death metal—at its fastest and sludgiest—so effectively is no small achievement. Of the Depths… is full of rapidly-played riffs that end with dexterous fills or flow into more groove-saturated, but equally effective rhythms. Songs like “Spectral Cemetery,” “Scaly Smelly Flesh,” and “Macabre Oblivion” all feature a rumbling death/garage metal vibe full of raging rhythms and flailing leads that rock as hard as the band’s heroes. Of course, without the label copy, listeners would never know Skelethal are from France, but that just proves how far French metal has grown and how free of boundaries it has become—no longer the stilted and limited domain of Trust and Satan Jokers.

Jon Wiederhorn

5 Comments

  1. Posted July 27, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    A mention also for Four Question Marks – their debut Aleph, continues to make me smile and feel happy.

  2. Posted July 30, 2017 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    No mention of the Les Legion Noire save a passing Mutiilation reference, but as a metal head who worked at a record store in 2008-12 this is super legit – I still have OOP first EPs and demos from SPEKTR, Alcest, Amesours, etc. nicely done! I would only add Torgeist not because their output is large (it’s not) but because the whole mythos surrounding them and the LLN was influential on Vlad, and the entire French black metal scene, Blue Aus Nord, Deathspell Omega, Destroyer 666, Peste Noir, and any of the old men of the scene were probably heavily influenced by the LLN – even a lot of German stuff, as the Lyon region is the epicenter of the black metal scene and it shares a border with Germany.

  3. Keith
    Posted July 30, 2017 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant write up on a scene that’s rarely featured – well done Bandcamp!

  4. B40
    Posted August 1, 2017 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    Here are a few more :

    Birds in row (Hardcore punk)
    https://birdsinrow.bandcamp.com/

    Hangman’s Chair (sludge/stoner)
    https://hangmanschair.bandcamp.com/

    Comity (chaotic post hardcore)
    https://comity.bandcamp.com/

  5. Chris
    Posted August 1, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Where is Peste Noire?

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