Discog Diving: Dirge (part 1)
We got dirges for days.
A while ago, I received an email about some compilation by a band I’d never heard of. Naturally, my immediate response was to sit down and listen to each of the band’s albums almost exclusively for close to a week. Today, I present you with my findings.
The band in question is Dirge. All I knew going in is that they were a French band that slowly changed their style from industrial to post-metal in the span of 20 years and 7 records, and that they called it quits in 2018. I still don’t know how they’re situated in the wider post-metal field, but judging by the Bandcamp sales, they seem to be (or have been) rather popular, and judging by the quality of the music, they’ve earned it.
The compilation in question is Vanishing Point. It contains rare tracks from all throughout the band’s career, nicely tracing the development of their style. To show you how it does so, I’ve added a paragraph in cursive for each record. Every song mentioned in those, you will be able to find on the compilation.
Without further ado, let’s start the journey.
Down, Last Level (1998)
Looking at the band’s humble beginnings (or almost beginnings—I’m skipping three demos here), we see them seemingly searching for something. In-between moments of solid, cold, industrial chugging, songs feel a bit like loose assortments of ideas where vocal samples and ambient noise are jumbled around kind of aimlessly. A heavy reliance on those elements adds to the mechanical, repetitive nature of the music.
With how loose and fragmented it is, it feels more like a rough collage than a fully formed statement with a clear vision behind it, but nonetheless, it’s a laying of coarse foundations, an approximate staking of ground for what is to come in the future.
Vanishing Point commemorates the earliest phase of the band’s sound with two tracks from their first demos, as well as the unreleased song “Bastard.” All of them benefit hugely from extensive remastering, actually sounding better than the album.
Blight and Vision Below a Faded Sun (2000)
The sophomore record lays another important piece of the foundation by rooting its songs much more clearly in the sludge genre. Every track revolves around a couple of riffs that, while sometimes front and center and making things more cohesive overall, mostly seem to provide a backdrop for the ambient soundscapes and vocal samples, who are still the star of the show. And that’s where they work best, as they rarely have enough going on to stand on their own.
Things seem to move in more controlled lanes, and while the change is significant enough to not lump this album in with the debut, there’s still a lot missing here. It’s a fair bit clearer where the road is leading, but a certain spark is still missing.
The shift towards a more organic sound is nicely exemplified in the slightly psychedelic, unreleased song “Beast,” and there’s also a 2013 re-recording of “Below,” which doubles the track’s length and does a great job of “translating” it into the band’s then-current sound.
And Shall The Sky Descend (2004)
A mere look at the tracklist here should make it clear that something has changed: 4 colossal tracks, the shortest still clocking in at close to 12 minutes. These behemoths start out unassuming, with very quiet tones, before morphing, at a glacial pace, into incredibly heavy, hypnotic… well, dirges, the pull of which is hard to withstand (provided, of course, that you have the patience to submit to them). This is hugely aided by the band sounding better than ever before, for the first time utilizing a thick, almost fuzzy guitar tone with plenty of low end that gives the music the heft it had been missing before.
And the guitars are very much the focus here. The previously prominent electronic components are used much more subtly and to a different end, not providing as much of an industrial flare as before. And moreso than through electronic components, atmosphere is provided by the guest musicians on this record. The voices and instruments they add aid the music’s emotional impact, something which is further helped by the more refined approach from the main vocalist, who now shifts between screaming and a caustic, but not unmelodic snarl.
So the album focuses heavily on what previously felt like a mere background, developing their signature brand of “atmospheric sludge,” and while the monolithic nature of the songs will only be scaled back in the future, it is here that both the general tempo and the grandiose atmosphere of the band’s music are set in stone. Important as the record doubtlessly is, though, it can be hard to appreciate with the hindsight of later efforts.
A nice bridge between this record and the next one is created with the inclusion of great-sounding live performances of “The Endless” (fittingly expanded to almost half an hour) and “Epicentre,” a favourite of mine.
Wings of Lead Over Dormant Seas (2007)
If And Shall The Sky Descend felt like the band arrived at their destination, Wings of Lead starts the process of making that place their home. To that end, it unpacks some old boxes—the synths are more prominent again and back at what they do best, namely colouring the songs with a dash of greyish-black industrial atmosphere, and there’s even sparing use of vocal samples. The music is also more prone to devolve into free-form noise driven by feedback and droning ambient sounds.
This is deftly mixed with the style that was established on the previous record. The songs still start small and become huge, lumbering beasts that move at a crawl and feel ridiculously vast. The vocal approach has remained largely unchanged, although it gains a few facets, most notably the cleans in “Nulle Part.” And there are a couple of guest musicians again.
It feels like an effort to reach back into the past and combine what was laid out on the early records with what the band learned on the predecessor. While often successful, this can sometimes work to the album’s detriment. On the one hand, something like the steady and very gripping buildup of “Epicentre” would not have been possible in the past. On the other hand, parts like the middle section of “Meridians” can feel like they’re losing focus. And that’s not even mentioning the title track, which comprises the entire second hour of the album’s running time and largely consists of ambiance and spoken word. I’m not a huge fan of this experiment, but the first 5 tracks I can recommend.
Maybe the record is not as fundamental a step as And Shall…, but it’s at the very least the sort of upgrade that can make it hard to go back to the previous version.
Including the sprawling, 15-minute instrumental “Submarine” would have pushed the album’s length into the utterly ridiculous, but honestly, I might end up swapping the title track for this one.
That’s all for today. In the unlikely and incredibly shameful event that you didn’t dig any of this, I would nonetheless urge you to come back next time when we look at Dirge’s final three records, for their development is not quite done yet.