Of all the distinctive black metal scenes to emerge in the 1990s, the Quebecoise probably had the most ill-defined style. Although broadly speaking it was melodic, epic, flirting with symphonic, and inspired by the cold climates from whence it came, the key artists to emerge from this part of the world were grouped more by general traits than a deeper sonic philosophy. Without wanting to delve too deeply into the reasons for this, one immediately obvious feature of the Canadian scene is the fact that it is a few years younger than those in Europe. By the time the two artists we’ll be looking at this week started putting out material, black metal was already travelling in a wealth of different and well established directions. In the late 1990s, Canadian artists found new and unique ways to add to these traditions, prior to forging a path of their own. And that’s precisely what these two artists did.
Now a pillar of Canadian black metal, Sorcier des Glaces rose from the humblest of beginnings with a promising debut in the form of 1998’s ‘Snowland’, and for a few years this remained the only information we had about this obscure project from the far north. But now boasting an impressive clutch of albums, gradually building in aggression and energy, it remains clear that the roots planted in this patchy but unique debut would never be fully abandoned. The first thing to note is the sound quality, which is undeniably poor, and ill-suited to the epic, Emperor-in-minimalist-form style we are presented with here. Normally we would leave it there and say the listener is left to make the best of it. But one of the reasons ‘Snowland’ (despite the later re-recorded version ‘Snowland MMXII’ released in 2012) remained such an enduring album was its ability to transcend these poor confines, either using them as an advantage or writing music that never oversteps the bounds of these very tangible limitations. Whilst black metal often touts raw production values as part of the package, this is one case where a cleaner mix would have been a definite boon; but the album shines regardless.
Right out of the gate we are given a demonstration of this artists ability to craft uniquely fragile melodies from the simplest of components, and their understanding of intuitive key progressions to augment the repetitive qualities inherent in black metal, without becoming imprisoned by them. Once the guitars kick in this approach is translated into mournful, tremolo picked chord progressions that communicate this album’s simple but perfectly executed core theme: a journey through winter. As the tracks unfold and the keyboards and the guitars trade lead duties, a fuzz of sorrow and solitude takes shape, forming the backbone of this album, and contrasting or complementary leads jump out to progress the music on its journey. The point being that because the mix is so delicately poised – its own limited quality threatening to plunge the whole thing into a murk of ill-defined reverb – all the elements are purposeful but not so complex as to overwhelm proceedings; all instruments are distinctive when they need to be, but tailored to combine harmoniously with their environment.
Vocals are a pervasive, ghoulish presence throughout the album. Following the same philosophy as the music they are set to; they never dominate or distract from the overall work despite remaining pretty constant throughout. Drums are forced to keep things basic which again is to the benefit of the final work, sticking to simple, mid-paced blast-beats or metronomic rhythms. Although this is nothing remarkable in itself, it’s a testament to both the importance of drums in this broadly minimalist school of black metal, despite the fact that even a vaguely competent drummer would grow tired of this self limitation for the course of an album, and succumb to the temptation to clog up the mix with overly elaborate patterns and fills. But this percussive presence operating in this consciously restricted style pioneered by Fenriz works in unison with the other instruments, defined as they are more by ambience than rhythm. It has the potential to elevate the music’s urgency or stagnation in these simple, metronomic patterns. All these things and more are exemplified on ‘Snowland’, an album that whilst superficially modest has many layers and an intuitive approach to its craft that sets it apart from many others in this crowded field.
Forging a path from Immortal’s ‘blizzard metal’ stylings, the now defunct Frozen Shadows are worth remembrance despite their limited output. Their first full length ‘Dans Les Bras Des Immortels’ (1999) is an aggressive reimagining of early era Immortal with some Emperor symphonics layered in for good measure. Everything about the mix is crafted to be as cold as humanly possible. The snare drum that sounds more like a cowbell augments drums that are highly focused on achieving a wash of static through the dominance of the cymbals. The guitars are reminiscent of ‘Pure Holocaust’ in tone and intent. The vocals are high-pitched and aggressive. Although clearly audible they are placed in the mix to sound distant, granting the music a sense of outdoor space. Keyboards are a near constant presence throughout the album, through either strings or choral effects they provide layers of ice-cold atmosphere over the whole affair, which again opens up new atmospheric spaces as the album progresses.
Within the thematic unity knitted together by this highly stylised and bespoke mix, the music itself is surprisingly diverse. Frozen Shadows carve out epic narratives of drama, aggression, sorrow, triumph, and pain. A great deal of this album feels like a lament which is constantly interrupted by untrammelled aggression and chaos. Melodies, either delicate or epic, make up the core theme of each track, but they are framed by hyper-fast Immortal style black metal, as the two competing forces collide and combine to form music that is both thrilling and meditative in equal measure. The genius of this album lies not so much in the epic scope and near flawless execution (although both warrant examination), but in harnessing a broad range of elements that offer an album of varied emotions, a journey through towering sonic cathedrals, that are all nevertheless drawn together into a work of unity and oneness that only the best of European black metal have managed to match in terms of ambition and execution.
Their ability to piece together simple complementary riffs that comment on each other as passages develop and drive these through various iterations allows Frozen Shadows to remain at a certain level of intensity for extended periods without growing monotonous. It also means they are not overly reliant on simple contrasts of tempo and mood to achieve a sense of intrigue. It is the dominant narratives that these riffs carve out that form the basis of each musical journey, and not the simple juxtaposition of speed with breakdown, aggression with sorrow, melody with dissonance. ‘Dans Les Bras Des Immortels’ – through the manipulation of musical components and themes that transcend the confines of each track – taps into similar qualities found on many of the milestones of black metal throughout history. For that reason it’s not only important to shine a light on the album itself, but also to explore what traits it shares in common with other works of similar significance, but more importantly to look at how it differs from other noteworthy works. Prima facie it is fairly typical of a certain stripe of cold yet melodic black metal. But there is something more intuitive and compelling lurking beneath the surface. Whenever one is presented with these qualities within an album, scratching beneath this veneer to look for the clues below which could explain why it stands out despite working with the same rudiments remains a worthy project.
Despite being faced with two very strong contenders this week, the choice is easier than it could have been. ‘Snowland’ is an album that has stood the test of time, and aged well even in the time of my acquaintance with it dating back to 2006 ish. But a word keeps cropping up when I compare it to similar works of the time, or even later entries in the Sorcier des Glaces catalogue; that word is ‘charming’. And carried within that word is the thinly veiled criticism that – despite boasting many successes – the work is ultimately missing something. We can nevertheless acknowledge that they tried. Whilst I don’t think this assessment of ‘Snowland’ is entirely fair, there are some shortcomings to this album that would be ironed out on the belated follow up ‘Moonrise in Total Darkness’. ‘Dans Les Bras Des Immortels’ by contrast has no such shortcomings. For an album with a clear and specific purpose it is near flawless in fulfilling it. So although both albums receive a strong plug this week, Frozen Shadows is the superior release and never fails to offer new intrigues and impressions on each listen.