Black metal seems to have it’s bony little fingers in just about everything these days. Atmospheric black metal. Black avant garde. Blackened doom and blackened death. These are the prevalent genres currently littering our list of promos for the next few months. Judging by said list alone, we’ve got enough blackened music lined up to keep you steeped and saturated in sorrow from now ’till next Christmas. Of course, most of it is probably shit, but separating the good from the bad is what we do. So in which camp do we currently find ourselves? Enter the grievous, brooding Au Champs Des Morts. Their debut album, Dans la Joie, landed in my lap a few weeks past and has kept me occupied with its gloomy sensibilities ever since. Think Alcest if Neige woke up to find all his precious forests and trees clear-cut overnight. An unhappy man he would be, and that’s pretty much what Dans la Joie is; moody, depressive, poignant and French.
Dans la Joie opens with “Nos Decombres,” wasting little time with pleasantries before a slow and punishing riff sets in and Stéphane Bayle’s blood-curling cries soar above the instrumentation. Yes, this is the very same Stéphane Bayle of Anorexia Nervosa infamy, and his influence is prominent throughout the record. While Au Champs Des Morts does not share the same symphonic elements of Anorexia Nervosa, Bayle’s guitar playing lends Dans la Joie a similar ferocity. Perhaps this is why, at least in the opening minutes of the record, it doesn’t feel as though Au Champs Des Morts is offering anything we haven’t heard before. The dour atmosphere is laid down with finesse and expertise, but overall nothing seems to stand out as ‘new’. This trend continues until the closing moments of the second track, where things finally begin to get interesting.
The problems I have with atmospheric black metal always seem to arise due to the genre being so predominantly mood-driven. The style tends to rely heavily on feelings and if the music doesn’t click on some sort of emotional level, it is often lost on me. Parts of Dans la Joie threaten to go down this path, especially when the music gets repetitive. The title track in particular is guilty of this offence, and you would be forgiven if you thought your player was stuck on repeat. It’s fortunate then, that Dans la Joie contains some very emotive moments elsewhere. Stéphane Bayle and bassist Cecile G provide some impressively ardent vocals, which combine at numerous points to haunting effect. For example, their interweaving voices halfway through “Le Sang, La Mort, La Chute” drip with desperation and sorrow in a chill-inducing way. The beginning to “Contempler l’Abime” is truly quite beautiful, and provides an excellent sense of calm within what is otherwise a storm. The albums closing track, “La Fin Du Monde,” is a tribal ballad unlike anything else Au Champs Des Morts has written thus far, and ends the album on a high note.
It’s these moments of excellence that keep an otherwise standard black metal record from slipping into obscurity. The mastering job generally helps the record’s cause as well, giving the music enough crunch without drowning the listener under a massive wall of sound. The rhythm section is given room to shine, with the drums coming through at full force throughout the record. The gentler parts of the album feel very ethereal, highly reminiscent of the sound Alcest often achieves. My only real complaint with the mix is that Cecile’s bass guitar is often lost beneath the chaos. Sadly, his playing doesn’t stand out even when it’s coming through loud and clear, and a more prominent presence from the bassist could have only helped to strengthen the atmosphere Au Champs Des Morts was trying to create.
Au Champs Des Morts are at their best when they are crafting dynamic, emotive music, but they have not yet found an identity of their own. There’s a nagging sense of ‘sameness’ here that’s difficult to ignore, yet Dans La Joie is such a well crafted slab of atmospheric black metal that it’s hard to deny the quality. Throw in some stand out moments and you’ve got a record more enjoyable than your average offering. So fans of black metal rejoice; it’s not a ground-breaker but this one will keep you sated for more than a couple of spins.