Frozen Shadows | Dans les bras des immortels | | 1999
A review by Maximus
In the entire history of black metal there has never been such a thing as Canadian nationalist black metal. There are, of course, a few aboriginal Canadian bands such as Gyibaaw and Skagos who celebrate Canindian cultural traditions and the landscapes of the most beautiful place in the world, British Columbia; there are also NSBM acts from Ontario like Geimhre and Wolfhammer Division who lyricize about the Irish motherland of their forefathers and about pan-European Aryan identity. But these examples are very limited and hardly relevant in any conventional sense to what we would call ‘nationalism’, and certainly not ‘Canadian nationalism’. There is nowhere a strong sense of national fealty; there is nowhere the same signs of love that a Polish nationalist band like Gontyna Kry show for Poland. When you search ‘Canadian nationalist black metal’ on Google, the most pertinent results that come up are all related to Quebec. Likely for the same reasons as American nationalist black metal does not exist in any significant form, ‘Canadian nationalism’ is a contradiction in terms.
Those reasons become altogether obvious when you look into the fountain of nationalistic fervour that subsists at the bottom of Métal noir québécois. Unlike Canada as a whole, and unlike any other Canadian province, Quebec has a genuine identity. While the rest of us clearly possess certain aspects by which we are distinguished, as an Albertan is distinguished from a Torontonian, and while Anglophone Canadians in general are distinguished from any other nationality, the fact is that there is nothing beyond a shared language, a shared Constitution, a few shared interests and economic factors, and those frigid mannerisms that characterize all northern peoples that ties us together, that makes us all Canadian. Our nation is something formulaic, the product of merely economic enterprises; it is the very definition of a ‘cookie-cutter country’.
Quebec, on the other hand, was more lovingly carved. Imbued from the beginning with Roman Catholicism at the heart of her colonizing mission, Quebec, and other French-Canadians, retained much of the continental culture of their homeland, even surpassing France in its Catholic fervour and social conservatism; for a long while Quebec was known as one of the strongest of all the Catholic regions in the Church. This religiosity was deeply stamped upon the conditions of their new home, which meant that, like the Creole of Louisiana or the Mestizos of the Southwest or the Métis of the Canadian Prairies, the Catholic French of Quebec stood opposed to the Protestant and secularist attitudes that were shaping the rest of the country; they were opposed on religious grounds, which meant that they were opposed on cultural grounds. The divide between them generally consisted of a materialistic, capitalistic, puritanical, and individualistic inheritance from the British on the part of the Anglo-Canadians, and a communal, festive, familial, and traditional spirit on the part of the French-Canadians (Dr. John Rao discusses the essential differences that spawn these two conflicting ecclesiastic attitudes here). So while they were secularized along with the rest of Canada (namely in The Quiet Revolution in the years following 1959), the people of Quebec even today participate in a culture that was fundamentally formed by their Catholic faith, even if it is by now almost entirely residual and derivative by nature, with the once strong Catholic feeling a distant memory in their collective consciousness. This can be observed in the superiority of their architecture, the emphasis placed on social aesthetics, the volume and quality of their vineyards, the more European style of their urban design, even in the negative sense in the way that they curse, viz., in the form of sacres, which profane the Catholic sacraments. While they were originally used as a means to rebel against the strong Catholic social control, sacres remain omnipresent in Quebec, signalling the triumph of the Liberal sentiment instead of their former ‘oppression’.
Quebec was (and is) likewise conditioned by its implacable antithesis to the rest of the country; it is not for no reason that so many natives of the province feign ignorance of the English language when Anglophone visitors try speaking with them. Since it is quite impossible to fully assimilate Quebecois culture into the overarching ‘Canadian culture’, it becomes something altogether more independent; it stands out more by virtue of the fact that it exists in spite of the government in Ottawa and the rest of Canada. That we live in a bilingual nation when the vast majority of French speakers dwell in a province larger than any European country is something of an ongoing farce in today’s world where nationalism is defined almost exclusively by language; it is a farce which does not go unrecognized, however, as repeated attempts at attaining full autonomy for Quebec have shown.
Black metal is if nothing else characterized by its reactionary spirit, and thus serves as the most capable medium for this ‘antithesis’ to be artistically presented. For reasons which are better articulated elsewhere, black metal is also intimately affiliated with nationalistic politics; whether of the rah rah RAC pro-Aryan anti-Jew type or the simple advocacy of national liberty, nationalism is never far away from black metal. This explains why Quebec is such a hotbed for the genre, with bands such as Akitsa, Forteresse, Brume d’Automne, Neige Éternelle, and Monarque all deeply expressive in their love for Quebec, and at times in their longing to separate. While the passion for independence is not as pronounced as it once was, it is certainly still there, and nowhere is it present in as menacing, incisive, and sincere form as in Métal noir québécois; whether the musicians feel it as something tragic or as inspiration to fight, Quebec nationalism is wonderfully wielded by the black metal art.
“To enter in a relation with the Other, it is necessary to first be yourself. That is why a sane globalization of modern life first supposes [the existence of] solid identities. Because an excessive or misunderstood globalization could also shred cultures, melt them into a uniform culture, from which the world has nothing to gain…. An ordered world is a world of independent nations, open to each other in the respect of their differences and similarities. That is what I have called the fertile logic of nationalities and universalities.” – Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Black metal got a late start in Quebec. While the halcyon days of European black metal were already a fading memory by 1999, they were just beginning in the New World. Akitsa released their first demo, Sorcier des Glaces had put out their opus Snowland the year before, and Frozen Shadows had just completed what would be the masterpiece of the whole movement, Dans les bras des immortels. Although they had already produced the Empires de glace demo in 1996, that effort was primitive, undeveloped, premature, and seemed like a hasty post-script to the already fulfilled Norwegian statement; it was hardly a poor effort, in fact it was very good in and of itself, but it offered nothing whatsoever to what was hitherto accomplished, and certainly could not act as a genuine foundation for Quebec black metal as an independent entity.
That foundation was found in Dans les bras des immortels. While both Snowland and Akitsa‘s demo Totale servitude preceded it chronologically, it is clear that Frozen Shadows are the true fathers of QBM insofar as their music achieved an unprecedented synthetic quality that easily transplanted the essence of the Norwegian Second Wave into what would be the First Wave of Métal noir québécois. This does not mean, however, that the other two records are not also of unquestionable pertinence; both of them were instrumental in the genesis of the QBM tradition, each offering something uniquely valuable. Snowland, for example, excelled in evoking the dismal, frigid atmospheres of the winter landscape by prioritizing bleak melodies slicing through a percussive nakedness and a sparse, spacious production; melancholic motifs and odes to nature characterize this album, which is itself a tribute to the cold, inhuman beauty of the natural world and the guilt-ridden alienation engendered by our trespass upon it. This great loneliness in the vastness of creation is deeply impressed into this album. Totale servitude, on the other hand, is notable for its utterly raw and barbaric insight into the ‘punkier element’ of black metal; the endless drive of the D-beat propels the narrative into scathing anti-social polemics. The subtle, naturalistic beauty of Snowland is replaced by an uncompromising vista into urban ugliness and the existential stagnancy that proceeds from that unnatural habitat.
The fact nevertheless remains that neither of these exceptional releases quite reach the same heights that Dans les bras des immortels scaled and mastered. The qualitative divide between the chiefly consists in the impeccably organic, impeccably European sense of songwriting that Frozen Shadows have exemplified: there is no significant difference between immortels and any one of the continental classics, at least so far as the a priori measure of quality goes. This is true in that there is a definite presence of universality herein, by which we mean that while this album patently belongs stylistically to the ‘old-school’, it avoids any accusation of it being a facsimile by virtue of its universality, viz., its creative autonomy, its mastery over its own genius, its possession of self. Whereas one can group hordes of bands into the camp of slavish imitation, we cannot do so with Frozen Shadows because they have imitated not the form but the essence; this album would look as appropriate in the ranks of the Norwegian pantheon as it does as the de facto leader of Quebec black metal.
In more concrete terms, Dans les bras des immortels reveals every fundamental aspect that makes black metal what it is. We can discern its ‘epic’ nature from the first, from the keyboard overture that signals the tremendous depth and nocturnal virtues which prevail throughout the listen; there is immediately a mythological sense of dread and darkness, like Dante’s verse inscribed on the gate to Hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. The song titles, such as “Funeral Moon” and the eponymous “In the Arms of the Immortals” (translated from French), strengthen this impression of a broad, penetrating, surreal, and perpetual darkness while the orchestral and cyclic song structures do likewise, swaying and shifting like a symphonic movement, creating crises and then resolving them.
The fantastic and epic nature of black metal is manifest in both its best and worst progeny; this is an art form in love with the mythical, with Moorcock and Tolkien, with heroes and villains, with Christ and the Devil. These are themes that imbue the music with solemnity, with a dramatic density that contributes enormously to its gravitas – but only if the ‘cheese factor’, which afflicts black metal as much as it afflicts power metal, is safely avoided. There is no such worry for Frozen Shadows, however, beyond the generic forest album cover and their bemusing band name; Dans les bras des immortels wears its ‘epicness’ naturally, exuding a strong sense of grandeur and majesty rather than something mawkish like an Immortal album after they stopped making good music. Faithfully following the paragon of absolute black metal, immortels is guided by its idea of the clarity that issues from the awareness of death and of the fragility of the things with which we comfort ourselves to suppress this fear; we are thus inevitably reminded of the crucial nihilistic statement that drives this entire art form: only death is real. Permeated by the familiar themes of darkness and decay, this album is poised at the threshold of eternity, urging us to peer into the other side, to die and embrace the immortality therein.
“If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I become free to become myself.” – Martin Heidegger
The most telling example of how immortels epitomizes ‘essential black metal’, of Frozen Shadows‘ ‘universality’, consists in the artist’s technique, namely in what was mentioned above, the idea that the music sounds like it would be just as familiar with the original Second Wave bands as it is with those of its countrymen. The fact that Frozen Shadows were the most explicitly nationalistic between them, Akitsa, and Sorcier des Glaces at the time of this album’s creation does not diminish this notion; it only makes it more curious since musically the other two make a much more distinctly Quebecois impression. This point is important to stress because it pertains to our thesis that immortels represents not an artistic entity belonging only to the Quebec tradition, but also to the kernel of all black metal; it belongs to a very select number of albums made after 1995 that stay loyal not only to the spirit of the style a la Teitanblood and Peste Noire, but to the actual technique as well! The vast majority of bands that attempt this fail miserably, managing at best to faintly refresh the sound, or at worst in the absence of originality make a mockery of the originals. The universality of Frozen Shadows means that they are apotheosized into the black metal divinity despite their late arrival to the campaign.
This universality is obviously not accomplished by stupidly plagiarizing the Norwegian masters, or else every Johnny and Jack band would be so divinized. There needs to be some measure of originality, then, something that announces the artist’s hold on the essence, a hold that signifies it as his own while at the same time not deviating from the established rules. In the case of Dans les bras des immortels, there is a definite resemblance to two particular ‘Norwegian masters’: Immortal‘s Pure Holocaust and Emperor‘s In the Nightside Eclipse. Inheriting Immortal‘s visceral rhythmic sense, which is enhanced by hyper-speed blast beats, and Emperor‘s opulent, supremely dignified style of songwriting, not to mention the same reserved, precise use of keyboards to the effect of creating grandeur, Frozen Shadows successfully synthesize the two classics into one of their own; the puerility of Holocaust is skillfully negated by the seriousness of Nightside while the abstract pomp of the latter is made more direct by the propulsive urgency of the former. Frozen Shadows straddle the line between the two albums, and immortels is their marriage.
We have spoken a lot about this band’s universality, its intimate connection with the black metal elite, and so forth, but Frozen Shadows are nevertheless a renowned, integral element of Métal noir québécois. Our claim that immortels has ascended into some ‘pantheon’ of musical gods does not mean that, like Heracles losing his human form upon his ascension to Mt. Olympus, it ceases to be Quebecois; it simply means that, like the Ingres painting The Apotheosis of Homer where the poet is divinized by Victory yet remains beautifully human in form, the band share in both the colossal honour of being mentioned in the same breath as Immortal and Emperor as well as being a founding party of a monumental black metal movement that includes the likes of Akitsa, Sorcier des Glaces, Forteresse, Neige et Noirceur, Monarque, Neige Éternelle, and all the rest. For this is another essential characteristic of black metal: its tendency not only to react negatively against facile social deceptions, but equally to act positively in the sense of creating something meaningful and worthwhile, something real, which in this case is its national fealty.
So we have come full circle. Frozen Shadows belong to that part of our Canadian country that retains some sense about who they are; while the rest of us have yet to generate any common identity at all, Quebec has one to lose, and are, sadly, losing it. That identity is nevertheless one still worth defending, and it plants the seed for those who would defend it, which is where Métal noir québécois comes in. Inspired by the culture which largely derives from the Catholicism many of them claim to despise, bands like Frozen Shadows reach into the reservoir of frightful reactive energy indigenous to black metal to unleash an aural and psychological maelstrom; these are songs of hate but they are birthed by love, a love of what they own and hope to own forever. Dans les bras des immortels is objectively a musical masterpiece, capable of being appreciated by anyone of taste, but it is also a cultural gem prized above all by the province that forged it; like Dvorak to the Czechs or Yeats to the Irish, Frozen Shadows are in love with their country, and their country is in love with them.
Dans les bras des immortels
1. Dans les bras des immortels (9:23)
2. Forsaken Whispers (4:17)
3. Beyond the Pallid Vales (7:31)
4. Of Pain and Insufferable Torment (4:14)
5. Au seuil des ténèbres (4:30)
6. Lunes funèbres (9:52)
7. Under Horrid Skies (7:38)
Total time: 47:25
A Grand Tyranny – Our interview with OT of Akitsa.
Molti nemici, molto onore – Our review of Akitsa‘s 2010 album Au crépuscule de l’espérance.
Métal noir québécois – Our review of Forteresse‘s 2006 album, from a historical québécois perspective.
“Don’t Enter!” – Québec Week – Small reviews of Gris and Grimoire.