The night before I got my review copy of L‘Ordure à l’État Pur, the new album from French black metal band Peste Noire, I saw in concert the Swedish band Ghost. Perhaps you are familiar with that band — Ghost — but if not, this is all you need to know about them for the purposes of this review:
• They wear elaborate costumes and conceal their individual identities as part of an elaborate gimmick.
• Their music is a brand of finely wrought, almost impeccably precise hard-edged melodic psychedelia that harkens back to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and the similarly minded non-British metal bands of that time period. (Ghost are often likened to black metal forefathers Mercyful Fate, though their actual sound is, I think, more accurately captured by metal writer Phil Freeman, when he writes that “they sound like Blue Öyster Cult, but with lyrics about Satan and Elizabeth Bathory and stuff like that.”)
• Right now, only months after the release of their debut album, Ghost are one of the most talked-about bands in heavy metal. They were on the cover of the June 2011 issue of Decibel magazine (essentially unheard-of for a band with only one album to its name) and just a few weeks ago they closed out the 63-bands-in-four-days Maryland Deathfest
Anyway, I liked (and like), Ghost’s debut album, Opus Eponymous, and it was fun seeing them live — in a very crowded room much too small for the band right now — but I went home that night wondering if they’re worthy of any higher praise than just that. Musically and conceptually, I think, what Ghost do is too theatrical and retro to take seriously as art. That’s not to say they make music that is not enjoyable, just that their music is so completely bound by the trappings of their conceit and their conventions that there’s almost no room for artistic exploration. If any single element of the band’s brand or sound were altered even slightly, it would almost completely shatter the mythology they have created for themselves and thus, I think, their appeal. There’s something formalistic and formulaic about this approach to making music, something airless and perhaps even artless.
Understand, there’s no reason anybody would or should necessarily compare Ghost with Peste Noire, and the only reason I did so — and am doing so now — is because I was thinking about Ghost when I got in my mailbox a copy of the new Peste Noire record. It was a record I was excited to receive, because I did not expect it, and also because I am a fan of the band; I think they have made some pretty amazing records, especially 2009’s Ballade Cuntre Lo Anemi Francor — a magical, hallucinatory work of deranged, strangely textured, naturalistic black metal. (It’s a controversial record, too, partly because of the band’s sonic choices and partly because of their lyrical ones. I can only comment on those aspects of the music I can understand, and as I don’t speak enough French to translate the back of a shampoo bottle, I’m totally unable to analyze or even comprehend any of Peste’s lyrics, on any of their albums, including the one being discussed right now.)
So I listened to the new record — expecting to like it, and yes, liking it — and as I listened, it occurred to me that, unlike Ghost, there are absolutely no conventions to which Peste Noire are bound. There is nothing in their sound or their approach to making music that is anything less than joyously, ravenously unhinged, and it’s odd to consider Ghost and Peste as two points on a single spectrum — both targeting the same small, fanatical listener base — one of them absolutely dedicated to a very limited formula, the other with almost no stylistic dedications or adherences to form whatsoever.
Peste Noire (en Anglais: “The Black Plague”) is basically one person: Avignon, France’s La Sale Famine de Valfunde (or Famine, for short). L’Ordure à l’État Pur (which, according to Sputnik Music, roughly translates as “junk or refuse in a pure form”) is the band’s fourth full-length album. It consists of five tracks, and each track is fractured into several smaller fragments, interludes or ambient diversions. The two biggest constants in Peste’s sound are Famine’s guitar tone — a dirty, lightly distorted sound, which he uses to bang out meaty, mid-tempo riffs — and his vocals, which are immediately recognizable and unusually (for the genre) expressive.
A quick digression on those vocals: Famine’s voice is a raspy hiss, a signature variation on the style preferred by a great majority of black metal vocalists, but there’s an arrogant, snarling, sneering quality to his vocal performances. There is also a great fearlessness, a sense of total abandon — at one point during the first track, “Casse, Pêches, Fractures et Traditions,” he starts crowing like a rooster (“co-co-ri-co,” as roosters say in France), which is echoed by an actual rooster’s cry. At another point, during the album’s second track, “Cochon Carotte et les Sœurs Crotte,” he just starts belching. It all may seem crass or childish on paper, but through speakers, it feels wild and immediate and kind of insane.
So anyway, there is Famine’s vocals and his guitars, and then, only, this sense of playfulness, adventurousness, madness. Musically, Famine operates with no boundaries at all. At 4:52 into “Casse, Pêches, Fractures et Traditions,” the vicious guitars drop out, and Famine is left singing over a tuba, oom-pah-ing away, a sad trombone, an accordion and a woodblock — music that might drift through the streets of Paris in some cartoonish cinematic vision of the city, the type of thing that would sound totally out of place coming from any other black metal band, including the most experimental of those bands out of France (Deathspell Omega, Alcest, Blut Aus Nord, etc.).
That cultural cross-pollination infects the marrow of the songwriting. This a stew of black metal, hard rock, punk, oi, ethereal folk, classical, industrial, electronica, polka… Famine doesn’t even limit himself to using musical instruments in his construction of music. At points here, he employs the sounds of whips cracking, ambulance sirens, guns being cocked — and he uses these things not as effects, but as percussive elements, which underscore the violence of the music, the fear and chaos.
All these different elements are forced into the music, and all of it sounds completely organic; none of it sounds like it was imported from somewhere else, none of it sounds like experimentation or eclecticism for the sake of experimentation or eclecticism. The term “artful” seems so precious, and that’s especially true when you’re talking about metal, because metal is supposed to be so thoroughly brutal, masculine, dense — which is not to say it is artless in any way, but so often its artfulness is buried beneath layers of distortion and double bass. Peste are more overtly feminine, more playful, than their peers, and that can come across as artfulness, I think. It can also come across as aimlessness, which is probably the primary criticism one might lob at Peste — if Famine were to rein in some of his lunacy, if he were to willing or able to tighten his focus, he might be able to create something that is not just awe-inspiring and unusual, but truly harrowing or affecting.
Even so, his work is bold and intense and it is constantly progressing. L’Ordure à l’État Pur features a cleaner sound than prior Peste records, though it is still has a dank, murky, basement feel. That lo-fi rawness is at the heart of a certain strand of black metal — starting with Darkthrone’s genre-defining “necro” sound — but that necro sound is itself sort of limiting, and I don’t hear those limitations in Peste’s music, which is elaborate in its construction, complex and elegantly layered, baroque, even.
There’s no specific reason, necessarily, to even categorize Peste Noire as a metal band — so loaded is this music with so many disparate non-metal pieces — except that they so plainly are a metal band. Much of that is due not just to Famine’s hoarse, dry vocals but his riffs, some of which sound like they could find their way onto a Motorhead record, a Burzum record, an Iron Maiden record…heck even a Ghost record. If they were packaged differently, given a bit more of a Technicolor gloss, some of these riffs would be right at home on Opus Eponymous. But where Ghost use these elements as support beams in a creaky old castle, Peste use them as fertilizer for a wild garden, bursting with flowers and vines and insects and weeds. It is very special and strange, really, and quite different, indeed.