Review: Les Chants Du Hasard
In the constant, clamoring struggle to make a unique statement in the modern black metal landscape, France’s Les Chants Du Hasard has writhed its way head and shoulders above the competition with its debut full-length. The album is an ambitious six-track work consisting only of orchestral instruments and vocals, eschewing guitars, basses, and drums altogether. While it would be easy to write the idea off as a gimmick, sole member Hazard has proven himself devoted to creating something new rather than taking symphonic elements already well-established in black metal to a logical extreme. The absolute worst thing one could do would be to write a bunch of black metal riffs—even good ones!—and haphazardly slap them on some keyboard strings*. Luckily for us, Hazard is no such fool.
If I were a decent blog writer, this is when I’d hit you with a bunch of comparisons and establish both my and the artist’s sweet, sweet street cred. Unfortunately, I’m fresh out of street. Furthermore, this album is treading too far into uncharted territory (cue someone in the comments naming a dozen black metal albums made with only orchestral instruments) to make apt comparisons. Instead, I’ll defer to Hazard who describes his work as “…influenced by orchestral works and operas from composers like Modest Mussorgsky, Sergej Prokofiev and Richard Strauss…I thought a lot about how to articulate it with black metal; especially the vocals, which I wanted in the vein of Ulver, Emperor and Ved Buens Ende.” His efforts were successful in both categories, though I would add that the dramatic heft of the music easily recalls Romantic era heavyweights Richard Wagner (ree-kard vog-ner, you plebe), and Gustav Mahler.
To my ears, the main key to success on this album is pacing and the dramatic tension it creates. There are plenty of sub-categories I could ramble about, but I’ll try to stay on track. The album opens with ominous, discordant bell-like tones before launching into dense and poignant chordal statements from the orchestra, complete with tried-and-true black metal vocal styling. That continues throughout the opening track, layering in accessory percussion to complement the powerful timpani playing and dramatic clean vocals. The product as a whole acts like a tragic procession, a devastating funeral march accented by moments of militant concert snare drumming. Now on to track two: despite a dramatic and powerful opening chorale—especially the arrival at 2:10, in all of its harmonically unexpected glory—it does feel like a bit more of the same after such a weighty opening track. However, just after three minutes, we’re treated to Hazard’s wonderful sense of pacing; a curious celeste passage supported by droning low strings and bassoon seamlessly melts from languid drone to dancing pizzicato. The bassoons re-enter, followed by mid-range strings, before the whole ensemble lurches headlong into another tormented section of discordance, drama, and density.
That example of tracks one and two is a just microcosm of the album as a whole. A primary characteristic of classical music is harmonic motion from minor to major and back again, which the old masters deftly spell out over the course of long-form works. In the shorter format of a black metal album, however, Hazard is able to demonstrate his mastery through brilliant pacing and highly dramatic arrival points. Just when the bombastic spectacle of the symphony orchestra is about to overstay its welcome, the instrumentation thins to an ostinato to give his clean vocal chants the breathing room they need. Just when an idea may go on too long, the theatrical density that a large ensemble allows storms back to the forefront. “L’Homme,” the third track and quite possibly my favorite of the album, may be a good starting point for the skeptical. The way that the bowed crotales in the beginning are subtly replaced by the upper strings once the maniacal chanting begins gets me every time. Mmmmm.
The rest of the album is rife with further examples. While I don’t want to ramble about all of them, I can’t write this review without mentioning the highly engaging rhythmic impetus that permeates the first two and last two minutes of track five, “Le Dieu.” And in true ternary form, the song swells with a wonderfully contrasting midsection before diving back to introductory material. Where Beethoven, Shostakovich, or Strauss may have dramatically altered tonality for contrast, Hazard alters his pacing through instrumentation and vocal styles to maintain a constant sense of dramatic pacing. After all, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Strauss weren’t writing black metal albums.
And finally, that thought brings us to the everlasting question: what is black metal? A purely sonic idea, or one based in mood? Is it an ideology, or just a general aesthetic? This album is undeniably black metal, but why? Why should an album entirely devoid of tremolo chords and blast beats, not to mention the relevant instruments, be considered black metal? These are questions that you, fellow listener, should ponder while you listen. And listen you should, because this is a work that demands your attention over a few sessions in order to fully appreciate. Trust me, it’s worth it.