DARKENHÖLD – Arcanes & Sortilèges (2020)REVIEW

Just as the walls of fortification seem a bit steep in the eye of a peasant they’d read far too low for the war-minded castellan on high; His façade looks down its sights upon the poor the same way it’d gauge an invader, unsettled beyond the moat with boots stinking of the luxurious shit regularly toppled from the castle’s chute. The great wonder and romanticism of the grand medieval fortress in literature and art sets it as innately unreachable for the great majority, an imposing châsse always in view yet without brave soul or prying Pandora worthy enough to settle within its contents. The artist unafraid of history, or this debilitating dynamic of imbalanced societal structure, could very well use this hidden world of opulence ad infinitum in realization of some measure of socio-political statement — As in Kafka‘s Das Schloss (1926), effective even if incomplete. Or, as a more typical vessel for literature’s earliest imaginative wonders, fantasy lore that has likely enriched the cultural history of countless nations far more than any real castle’d ever intended. The major conceit, or most readily apparent intention, of French black metal trio Darkenhöld throughout these last twelve years has been to recall a similar vessel, the grand psychotic fantasy-ridden castles of early second wave black metal, keyboards and all. That isn’t to say they’ve not mixed things up quite a bit over the years, each of their five full-lengths manages some distinction from the others, yet this most recent work almost appears as nostalgia for their own impetus, the original vision returned and yet no less refined. In this sense ‘Arcanes & Sortilèges‘ is the reliquary revealed of its marvels, the boldness to rush up those steepest walls and feel every bit of wonder and wizardry realized before falling back into the moat.

Though you wouldn’t have likely heard of most of them, there were yet a few French black metal bands of the late 90’s that’d gain some mention outside of their country for the sake of sounding quite a bit like Emperor, Dimmu Borgir or Cradle of Filth when those bands were insufferably imitated the world over. It’d been the trend that’d lasted about five years too long with no tangibly valuable results beyond 2003 or so but, there were certainly gems and a great deal of groups who’d found insight in their own idiosyncratic approach of this overbaked post-second wave delirium of too-loud keyboards and triggered blast beats. I think if we are looking back in hindsight one could scoff at say, Anorexia Nervosa, or perhaps even find some lacking attributes in certain Aeba records but would it be fair to include Artefact? As it turns out their unique take on the sub-genre came later and in tasteful application of well-worn sounds, tempered and expanded in satisfying ways. Medieval regalia, symphonic touches, and a crossing of classic melodic black metal with some very slightly modern melodic death metal edges would carry that band through three increasingly impressive, high-brained records. Around 2008 Artefact‘s guitarist Aldébaran would form Darkenhöld with a marginally different focus — Back to the early ways, focusing on the spirit of second wave black metal but with no barriers to the vibe, which has been folkish, keyboard/synth adorned, and ‘medieval’ in motion since. The context of Artefact is not inherently formative, nor are those albums primal at all, but the transition illustrates the high standard at which Darkenhöld arrived from the start via Aldébaran‘s well-honed handiwork.

If these suggestions of influence seem a bit off due to recent influx of medieval French black metal artistry, it is likely due to lack of reference points on your part. Covers of tracks by Ancient, Wallachia, Mephistopheles during the formative years of the band reinforce this thought. There is of course a hundred more bands to hear in gathering Darkenhöld‘s earlier work where each album takes on some level of recognizable influence be it Moonsorrow or Falkenbach but the larger point I’d attempt to make here is that ‘Arcanes & Sortilèges’ brings a bit of everything learned over the years, leaning away from the virtually keyboard devoid (‘Memoria Sylvarum‘, 2017) and back towards the more fanciful flight of the first (‘A Passage To The Towers‘, 2010) and second (‘Echo From the Stone Keeper‘, 2012) full-lengths in spirit. If you hear a bit of ‘Kivenkantaja’ (or, ‘Ok nefna tysvar Ty’) in parts of “Incantations” then certainly swing back deeper into the Darkenhöld discography for some of their most compelling work. My personal introduction to the band was the third and perhaps best known album (‘Castellum‘, 2014) where we are served the most potent and singular ideas from Aldébaran up until that point (not including Artefact) as the guitar work would notably resemble classic French and Swedish melodic black metal traits with some of their synth-heavy heritage yet in hand. The aforementioned ‘Memoria Sylvarum’ would (again) clip away the keyboard/synth presence to a bare minimum. In 2017 it was probably my favorite thing the band had done up until that point, a distillation that was a sign of good things to come. Where I’d truly been blown away was when they’d released a split with Paris-based band Griffon (‘Atra Musica‘, 2019) and further fueled my obsession with the idea of acoustic medieval melodic black metal. Perhaps Antiq‘s roster is more likely to find their way towards such a feat but anyhow, it was a sublime high well remembered from last year. Nonetheless, this latest record will take most folks back about twenty years in time when still-in-view emergence of folk, viking, symphonic and melodic black metal hadn’t yet been commercialized to death through constant iteration.

Of course I am needling over a thousand details when these nuances aren’t likely to prove themselves deeply important when ‘Arcanes & Sortilèges’ begins to stretch its dragon wings wide. The major notes I’d pick up when sitting with this album amounted to more keyboards, a lean back towards ‘Castellum’ in every sense, and perhaps slightly more nods to what I’d consider melodic yet pagan/black metal ideas explored in tandem. The gloomy, quite serious-faced side of Darkenhöld that’d developed in recent years appears revived by magick and providing more spirited and adventurous variation within their greater dynamic. In this sense the fifth album from these fellows is representative of their holistic body even if most folks know them best in simpler, somber lain rhythm guitar focused states. “Oriflamme” speaks its steadfast sluice of sleekness up front with a familiar opening melody and inescapably energizing advance. “L’Ost de Forteresse” is the sort of song that’d always drawn me to Aldébaran‘s guitar work as he folds in a bit more folkish, slightly more rocked out arrangement that should ultimately appeal to folks spiritually married to ‘Far Away From the Sun’ and its succession. If you are congealing the majority of inspirational references appearing as I prattle on and imagining their aesthetic reality, well, you’ll see each bearing the frontage of a castle. The point is made well enough, “castle metal” begins to make sense beyond a coy figment and a certain spirit is achieved therein, including the dilution of Emperor-esque traits on “Mystique de la Vouivre”.

All things considered I am probably a bit more charmed by Side B for the sake of some increasing focus on elements most common to French symphonic black metal and this is most prominent on “Bestiaire Fantastique” as we leave behind a bit of the Scandinavian melodicism and Nordic folk heart. It certainly feels like we have reached the deepest part of this cave of mysteries, beyond the dungeon’s pit and through the burrow of an unknown beast where the twinkling underworld of “Le Sanctuaire Embrasé” reveals itself. This turns out to be our slightly underwhelming finale before a few minutes of sorcerer synth plays us off stage. I’m being a bit vague in description here because an impersonal analysis of ‘Arcanes & Sortilèges’ perhaps reveals it as exciting genre music too readily, this isn’t necessarily the point or the function of a record of this type.

Triumph, wonder, exploration, and fantastic wheeling of the imagination gleaned from learning and loving a set of songs such as these find it reading like a fantasy novel, sharpening the most impressive and artistic part of the brain as the galloping, swooning honk of its melodies inspire. I’d found myself taking a doubly long walk, reading an extra handful of pages, scribbling out wizards and red-capped castle spires on nearby paper as I listened. Even if the work is not inherently original in motion it is no less successful as a motivational thread, a set of movements that set gears turning and legs physically moving. This is ultimately the strongest takeaway I’ve gotten from following Darkenhöld‘s work from 2014 and beyond, and I’ve no doubt it isn’t that far from what even more dire nerds get out of power metal and such. If you are keen to go nerding out with a bit of your dignity in tact, there isn’t a finer choice for this sort of thing nearby. A moderately high recommendation.

Moderately high recommendation. (77/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Arcanes & Sortilèges
LABEL(S):Les Acteurs de L’Ombre
RELEASE DATE:November 6th, 2020
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Melodic Black Metal

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