By: Owen Coggins
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Released on June 24, 2016 via Sepulchral Productions
A much-anticipated return from one of the most exciting bands in one of the most exciting localities for black metal this century: Forteresse give us their fifth album Thèmes pour la Rébellion. Their first record in five years is certainly a riotous jolt of spectacular heaviness. The opener is a 45-second ambient something-or-other, with distant-sounding muffled effects of muskets and shouting and commotion and whatnot. Footsteps clomp across creaky floorboards… so far so predictable. But then the sound changes, clarifies: it becomes obvious that a war is going on outside, and a cabin door is being defiantly opened, the chaos determinedly entered into. And then seconds later, of course, the wild and energetic wall of frenetic sound drops, a waterfall curtain of pattering noise which explodes into the fire of madness depicted on the cover.
Immediately present is the distinctive dull puttering of the endless blastbeats, stuttering away, mesmering like the spokes of a spinning bike-wheel. The effect of the infinite but breakneck regularity is to sort of swerve you away into intoxication, the beat matched with the claw-raising, piercing riffs familiar from Forteresse recordings since the definitive Metal Noir Quebecois. Vocalist Athros is (as if this should even be possible) more furious than ever, giving an aggressive bite to the lines and supplying some great intuitive moments like the disgusted/spent outburst at the end of ‘Spectre de la Rebéllion’. The punctuated rhythm of the vocal line combined with the guitar harmonics in ‘Là où Nous Allons’ the second track proper, gives an echo of the archaic imagined French folkiness that the band are so fixedly invested in, before the halfspeed drum section allows the guitar line to waver more freely like flickering flames.
It’s another supreme display of the signature Forteresse sound, one that continually interferes with whatever I’m doing to make me turn the volume up again and again and stare out the window, scanning the clouds for the imminent arrival of the Chasse-Galerie, the flying canoe of Quebecois folklore that also appears prominently in local black metal iconography. The genius of the band’s style is that they’ve come up with a way of sort of making smoothed out layers of sound from incredibly spiky and jagged components, without lapsing into ambient fluffy fuzziness — even their comparatively ambient album Par Hauts Bois Et Vastes Plaines has a properly gritty and grainy feel. The music on Thèmes pour la Rébellion feels like its shaking with energetic rage, yet somehow simultaneously allows an epic melodic atmosphere; the blastbeats can even evoke a sort of snowfall effect despite their smashing force. That’s not to call the drumming simplistic; in fact there’s great subtlety, such as in the unpredictable accents on different beats throughout ‘Par la Bouche de Mes Canons’ or XXX- but those different points of emphasis and flourishes are always on top of a breakneck pace of beats that make you feel like you’re getting double vision after being hit in the head.
What this unique sound means, especially with the relentless drumming style, is that a full album can feel a bit like an unforgiving wall. So there are often additions, segues or interludes to break up the endless impenetrable blizzard. Part of the impact of the band’s iconic first album arises from the intros for three of the songs, where excerpts of Quebec folk fiddle are sharply guillotined by an avalanche of guitar and drums, some of the most hilariously severe drops in any metal. On other Forteresse records, there are crunching snowy footsteps and uneasy bird croaks (which, I swear, actually attracted two crows to my window on one listen). In this new album, they’ve opted in one or two tracks to go for a kind of voiceover theme to vary the sound. No doubt this is narrating some glorious episode of patriotic fervour from the historical battle for the homeland or whatever, but the slightly unfortunate effect is of a news reporter giving an self-aggrandisingly dramatic running commentary straight to camera, microphone in hand, while the battle of eighteen-hundred-and-something rages in the background. To nitpick about this is a very minor point, though, and I only ended up describing it since it’s the only wrong note for me in a great collection, a majestic new addition to the canon of Forteresse albums (now numbering five, all brilliant in my view).
The final track treads more familiar black-metal-outro territory, with howling wind and the suggestion of snowdrift crunch. But it’s more engaging than some of the featureless ambient wastes you find at the nether end of some underground releases, with a mournful, almost prog-guitar-tinged slow melody returning elliptically, tuneful but somehow suggesting absence like an ignored wind chime. In all, between the intro which is so descriptive of entering the chaotic fray, and this final elegy, there are six full-on tracks of monstrous pattered beating and buzz-picking, machine-riffing, fist-waving chord progressions. Overall it’s an absolutely thunderous new release, and the band have clearly spent the last five years storing up fury to be released in a flood of expansive riffs, spitting galloping hoofbeat rhythms and vocal chants and growls equally poignant and epic.