Usually when I review an album, I know if I like it or not. Grotesque, the sophomore release by Pensées Nocturnes, is perhaps the first case where I don't. There are moments of wonderful orchestration, romantic interludes, odd sounds and blistering metal. Overall it's like a musical version of a macabre circus you'd never want to visit. Oh yeah, there is also the recurrence of a man shrieking; really, that's all he does.
Pensées Nocturnes (which means night thoughts in French) formed in 2008 and is the brainchild of a man named Vaerohn. Dealing with themes of nihilism and solitude, it is pretty remarkable that a single person created Grotesque. It's a venture into a mysterious, horrific afterlife that lasts just under an hour. Essentially, the album consists of three styles of music constantly shifting between each other: orchestral passages, earthy avant-garde instrumental movements, and jackhammer drums with the vocals of a man being tortured. Consider it John Williams' soundtrack to a French snuff film.
Grotesque begins with the brilliant classical prologue of "Vulgum Pecus." It really does sound like the famous Star Wars theme mixed with chilling sounds from spectators, like we're entering a ghostly amusement park. It's playful, foreboding and very interesting. The strings build to a climax as it segues into "Paria," which is quiet for about fifteen seconds before the trouble begins. Vaerohn interrupts the ambience with his death metal influence of screaming and double bass drum repetition. Suddenly the album becomes almost unlistenable until the intriguing classical dynamics come back. And they are worth hearing, as Vaerohn crafts his moods masterfully. There is clever interplay between viola, piano, guitar, bass, drums, etc.
This sentiment remains true for the entirety of Grotesque, as the same problem constantly reasserts itself. Vaerohn contradicts his own genius by placing useless noise throughout a suite of brilliantly eerie and affective music. The way orchestral interludes assert themselves is fantastic, but the magic is dispersed just as quickly when more shrieking and pounding riffs come. It's like Arch Enemy is constantly disrupting Oingo Boingo's evil Vaudeville aesthetic. Why?
I admit I'm not a fan of black/death metal, but if the growling is made tolerable by interesting music, I can enjoy the work overall. I love the tranquil acoustics of Agalloch and one of my favorite artists of all time is Opeth. These bands make their harsh vocals more intricate to their overall sound; they have more of a reason to include such a technique into their melting pot. Plus, they actually recite lyrics (honestly, I just hear Vaerohn screaming). I can definitely hear a possible influence of The Mantle and Morningrise with Pensées Nocturnes musically, though.
With Grotesque, these random moments of noise are simply unfitting and distracting. They take away from the enjoyment. It doesn't flow well enough and doesn't seem necessary at all. All the emotion and mood Vaerohn wants to represent is done so with the music itself (and very well at that). I would love to have him edit out all the unnecessary vocal agony and let his skill at creating masterfully haunting instrumental scores stand alone. There are many moments of exquisite beauty and captivating mystery/fear, but there are also almost as many of annoying, mindless death rattles. Take that as you will.
1. Vulgum Pecus 03:11
2. Paria 09:21
3. Rahu 07:07
4. Eros 04:30
5. Monosis 09:33
6. Hel 09:59
7. Thokk 08:18
8. Suivant 02:05