Paysage d'Hiver - Im Wald (2020)
The Swiss black metal scene has always been more about quality over quantity. I mean despite providing the world with one of its earliest & most revered blackened thrash metal icons in short-lived Zurich trio Hellhammer in the early 1980’s, the Swiss failed to develop any other significant contributors for the remainder of the decade. The early 1990’s would see the arrival of Samael as a considerable underground force, just in time for the Norwegians to take the metal world by storm & make the genre into a household name with metal fans across the globe. But by the time the mid-90’s had arrived Samael had jumped ship & headed away from their black metal roots to take up an admittedly classy industrial metal direction & in doing so left a gaping hole in the Swiss black metal world with no suitable replacements in sight. I have to admit that I’ve always questioned Samael’s timing given that they’d just released their finest black metal album in 1994’s “Ceremony Of Opposites” & the buzz around black metal was at an all-time high off the back of our old mates Varg & Euronymous. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo or found it to be illegible due to excessive blood-soaking. Interestingly though, unlike the rest of Scandinavia, Switzerland had no real intention of cashing in on extreme metal’s newest fad. They were patiently waiting for a hero. A hero that would lead them through the next twenty-odd years of black metal history.
The Second Wave of Black Metal didn’t take long to branch out artistically. Just eighteen months after Darkthrone took the world by storm with their “A Blaze In The Northern Sky” album, Varg Vikernes & his Burzum project would begin hinting at a more atmospheric form of black metal based on trance-like repetition & textured lo-fi production. The next few years would see him not only developing but also completely mastering the sound which would peak with his 1996 post-incarceration masterpiece “Filosofem”. Other Europeans quickly took note with artists like Ulver, In The Woods…, Blut aus Nord & Summoning all releasing significant recordings between 1994 & 1997.
This didn’t go unnoticed by 19 year-old Swiss multi-instrumentalist Tobias Mockl who would develop a major fascination with Burzum’s music & would subsequently put together a solo project with the sole intension of replicating his idol. He called this project Paysage d’Hiver (which is French for “winter landscape”) & 1998 would see Tobias (or “Wintherr” as he would call himself moving forwards) releasing the first in a long series of demo tapes based around the theme of winter. The series would continue for 15 years with Wintherr apparently determined not to have his image & vision tainted by commercialism. For this reason, he was very strict about keeping each release officially labelled as a demo rather than a proper album release. Each demo would also see him telling different parts of the one epic story & not always in chronological order.
Wintherr would quickly become the leader that Swiss black metal been waiting for & his influence would see the local scene producing a number of noteworthy exponents of this more atmospheric black metal sound over the next two decades. The most celebrated of which would be his collaborative project Darkspace & the solo work of his Darkspace band mate Zhaaral which went by the name of Sun Of The Blind but artists like Vinterriket, Tardigrada, Rorcal, Can Bardd & Nordlicht are also worth mentioning. I wasn’t fortunate enough to come into contact with Paysage d’Hiver until 2009 when I investigated his self-titled 1999 release after being recommended it by Ben & seeing it receiving genuine classic status on a number of online resources. I was suitably impressed but perhaps wasn’t drawn into the fanatical sort of response I saw it commanding of others. My subsequent experiences with Paysage d’Hiver have certainly wet my appetite for what is supposedly the project’s first legitimate album release though & a 120 minutes marathon it is too. It’s been a full seven years since the last Paysage d’Hiver record so perhaps he’s making up for lost time. Let’s see what “Im Wald” is all about, shall we?
“Im Wald” is to be released through Wintherr’s own label Kunsthall Produktionen which he runs with Nimosh of the band Nordlicht. This is no real surprise as all of the Paysage d’Hiver releases have been through Kunsthall thus far. Apparently the version of that I’ve been listening to is a rip of one of the copies supplied on USB sticks to those lucky enough to have been in attendance at the pre-release listening party on 25th January 2020. The proper release date is slated for 26th June 2020 which means that we’re well ahead of the game here. “Im Wald” is German for “In The Forest” which is a pretty generic title for a black metal release it has to be said however Paysage d’Hiver have a stronger claim to it than most. The attractive cover art is certainly reflective of the title & it delivers a suitable amount of dark & foreboding atmosphere to the table straight up.
There’s not been any reference to a third-party producer being responsible for overseeing the production of “Im Wald” that I’m aware of so one would assume that it’s another self-produced effort. Given the attention to detail that Wintherr has shown with his art over the years, it probably wasn’t ever an option to involve anyone else in the recording process. Particularly given that the drums & synths are programmed rather than being performed live in a studio & also the lo-fi recording qualities that Paysage d’Hiver has built their reputation on. And that lo-fi element is certainly still here on “Im Wald” however there’s a clarity to this material that wasn’t there on previous releases. The riffs & instrumentation are more decipherable than we’re used to from Wintherr. He’s always used the intentional blurring of the instrumental tracks as a tool for creating a cold atmosphere & he’s certainly still approached his craft in the same way here only he’s allowed just enough definition to give these tracks some additional melodic context which was a master stroke in my opinion. You can still expect the noisy guitar tracks to come at you in sweeping waves with the vocals held back in the mix so that they sound almost like a tortured animal crying out in agony in the background though. Also, much like on the self-titled release, you can expect to hear some of those strange alternate instruments layered over the top of the traditional black metal that don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the track. This is by no means a deal breaker but I just don’t feel that he’s ever quite worked out how to fully integrate those elements & they often sound misplaced to my ears.
“Im Wald” takes the form of thirteen tracks totaling a full two hours. Four or five of those tracks are made up of shorter interludes that are invariably drenched in field recordings of bitterly cold ice winds blowing through the trees of the darkest forests but are each unique in their musical direction. A couple of them ooze of “Filosofem”-period Burzum whilst “Eulengesang” is pure Aphex Twin & “Verweilen” reminds me heavily of “Satellite Serenade” by Japanese electronic producer Keiichi Suzuki. I’ve gotta say, the dude has taste! Those are some high quality & impressively diverse influences & every one of these interludes is unique & of a very high standard. In fact, they really help to break up what is essentially a very long album for extreme metal & I’d actually suggest that the interludes & atmospheric tracks may be the highlights of the first hour rather than the genuine black metal numbers. The black metal tracks also offer a fair bit of variety with each piece possessing its own unique personality. So much so that “Im Wald” can sound a little more like a compilation of different material than a cohesive album during the first half of the album. Thankfully things come together much more tightly through the back end though.
The tempo is quite hectic for an atmospheric black metal release & certainly seems faster than I can remember from my previous experiences with Paysage d’Hiver. In fact, when you take into account the clearer production & the more intense style it does see me reaching for your more traditional black metal tag quite regularly. This is a noticeably more metal-oriented release than we’ve heard from Paysage d’Hiver’s more recent works & it’s chock full of your classic Norwegian tremolo riffs delivered in a similarly repetitive vein to 90’s Darkthrone . These can often be trance-inducing only the drum programming has been beautifully composed to highlight the changes & keep the tracks building. The guitars come in the form of a truly ominous & ever swarming mass that’s full of darkness & forboding. It’s interesting that the guitar performances aren’t perfectly in time with the programmed drumming on some tracks (particularly during the first hour) however this somehow seems appropriate with a raw & lo-fi black metal release like this one. In direct contrast to the up-front guitars is the use of synthesizers which are employed very subtly & are a major ingredient in the impressive tension & huge climaxes that Wintherr has orchestrated, particularly during the back half of the album where the synths seem to creep up on you very slowly until they're lifting the tracks to greater heights than you realized possible earlier on in the piece.
There are no weak tracks included here although the first hour is not nearly as strong as the second which is as close to perfect as you’ll find in extreme metal. Almost every track possesses traces of pure genius but the ones that fail to truly fulfill their potential tend to suffer from some inappropriate melodic or artistic decisions. “Stimmen in wald” is a good example of this with its consistent use of slightly cheesy “Hammerheart”-era Bathory style choirs managing to partially nullify some strong instrumentation while opener “Im Winterwald” sees some excellent groundwork being somewhat tainted by an ill-advised progressive electronic melody midway through the track. “Alt” suffers a similar affliction with what sounds like an apparently unrelated acoustic guitar arpeggio being layered over some blasting black metal. I made similar comments about the “Paysage d’Hiver” album from twenty years earlier so it would seem that Wintherr is a slow learner in this regard. He’s simply much more effective when he concentrates on the main black metal tools.
Whereas a lot of Paysage d’Hiver’s discography relies heavily on mid-90’s Burzum for inspiration, “Im Wald” sees Wintherr drawing on a wider range of classic extreme metal influences with traces of Emperor being found in the huge atmospheres & back-of-the-mix vocal approach while certain tracks sound almost like tributes to “Monotheist” period Celtic Frost (“Weiter, immer weiter”), Primordial’s “To The Nameless Dead” album (“Le Reve Lucide”) & “Transilvanian Hunger”-era Darkthrone (“Kalteschauer”). All of those tracks are spectacularly successful in these undertakings though it has to be said & are at least as effective as their sources of inspiration. Burzum’s underlying menace is still visible throughout, even if it can be slightly offset by some of those imperfect melodic decisions in hour one. There’s a rare majesty to this music when Wintherr gets things just right. He possesses the rare ability to create music that represents the truest embodiment of a snow-filled winter & his years of making this style of music have seen him mastering the art of building tension; the releases of which usually come through incredibly well timed & executed changes in drum beat.
Wintherr’s vocal performance is worth discussing as it’s noticeably more effective than it was on an album like the self-titled. He’s always used his voice more as an additional instrument than as a focal point & intentionally blends it into the instrumentation rather than pushing it out to the front of the mix. His shrieking screams often bring to mind “Under The Sign Of The Black Mark” era Bathory in tone here however their positioning in the mix gives them a slightly different but no less frightening timbre. Nowhere is this better highlighted than in the second hour of “Im Wald” which needs to be discussed in a bit more detail because it’s essentially the best thing I’ve heard come out of the black metal scene in many years, if not decades! Wintherr uses quality riffs & repetition along with subtle rhythmic changes to build the tracks subtly over long periods before gradually bringing in synthesizers & additional guitar tracks for huge & cripplingly dark crescendos that can only be described as black metal mastery. Wintherr has an incredible understanding of what it is that makes the black metal classics so great. That quality seems to have been lost over the years & I’m thrilled to hear that we still have artists that appreciate & understand these key elements & characteristics & don’t feel the need to hide behind disparate genre-crossing or dilution of the black metal model but instead bask in the glory of a more pure approach to black metal. You will simply not find a better example of this than the epic 19 minute closer “So hallt es wider”. It completely releases the shackles & drives home everything that is so great about elite level black metal. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to label it as one of the most sinister & genuinely intimidating pieces of music ever written. It almost defies belief that we’re hearing this in 2020. It’s the truest musical embodiment of Scandinavian winter you’re ever likely to find; Varg included. In fact, it may just be the best black metal track ever recorded & the previously mentioned “Kalteschauer” isn’t all that far behind it either to be fair.
“Im Wald” is an absolutely massive undertaking & one gets the feeling that Wintherr has been honing & refining this material over a very long period with the specific intension of making his first proper album a release of extreme magnitude. If that was the case, then he’s achieved his goal in no uncertain terms. This is certainly not a perfect record but I think there’s a case for it being labelled as a classic one given the consistent quality & the sheer quantity of tracks that are at that elite level. To keep the listener completely engaged across an entire two hours of extreme metal is an achievement in itself & I wouldn’t be surprised if Wintherr has intentionally loaded the back end with the best material in order to ensure that his audience don’t lose interest over time. I have to say, despite any negative statements I made earlier, the first hour is of a very solid standard that’s not too far from Paysage d’Hiver’s self-titled release in terms of overall quality but I’m disappointed that he hasn’t trimmed off the fat & released a one hour album here. If that had happened then I may just be claiming it as one of the top few metal releases ever recorded & I don’t say that lightly at all. This is absolutely essential listening for all fans of the black metal genre.
For fans of: Burzum, Darkspace, Darkthrone
Unlocking The Blizzard
Although I've learned to relish the blurry realms of Atmospheric Black Metal over the past few years, I can't say that the genre impacted me in the way I've seen from others. From the cold anger of Burzum, to the folk inspired Soar, I've come to appreciate the monotonously discordant but rewarding style of the genre, but deep down I knew I never exactly got the full experience of what some of these albums can offer. Classic Atmospheric Black Metal albums have a knack for transporting listeners to icy, snow covered mountains as the freezing wind rips across the landscape, slowly draining the life and color out of the frigid atmosphere. The grinding, nondescript guitar riffing over pounding drums echoing from miles away as haggard, shrieking vocals pierce through the turbulence has been the tried and true formula since the subgenre's debut in the mid-1990's and, in a lot of ways, it hasn't changed much. Strides have been made to take Atmospheric Black Metal out of the snow covered hills and into other locales, even the farthest reaches of space with acts like Mare Cognitum, but if anyone wants an unadulterated experience of the subgenre, it's hard to stay away from the raw, wintery ambience that artists like Paysage D'Hiver pride themselves on. So, for the first time, an Atmospheric Black Metal album fully transported me to the blizzardy wilderness that it fiercely attempts to convey. And that album is Im Wald.
Even though I've been listening to albums like this for a few years now, Paysage D'Hiver had gone completely under my radar, with me forgoing late 1990's and early 2000's releases in favor of the mid 1990's classics and the more modern, 2010's releases. In many ways Wintherr, the man behind Paysage D'Hiver, has been carrying the torch of classic Atmospheric Black Metal by keeping the production quality on the low side and keeping his projects as a one person operation. There's something nostalgic about the way he continues to create this type of Metal in the way he does, even though I wasn't around and listening to this kind of stuff when it was first making waves in the Metal scenes. Although Wintherr has been producing albums that can clock in at over 50 minutes in length for the better part of 20 years now, it's only with the release of Im Wald that he says he's released his first true album. Although I scratched my head at this notion at first considering his self-titled "demo" is very much a full-fledged album in my eyes, I can see where he's coming from, given the structure and production quality for Im Wald is vastly different from the likes of Paysage D'Hiver or Winterkaelte. The absurdly low quality production that these earlier albums had is all but gone in Im Wald, and for some that's a deal breaker considering the history that Atmospheric Black Metal has. For me, I much prefer the more resonant and full sound that Im Wald has, allowing me to become fully engrossed in the cold wall of sound but still able to pick out memorable riffs and parts on every song. It's still not immediately approachable since most of the riffing is extremely similar throughout its gargantuan 2 hour runtime, but the more I listened to this record throughout the year the hidden details began to surface more and more.
It's not entirely wrong to say that this album doesn't cover any new ground whatsoever, with the basis of every long, drawn out track being a flurry of almost indiscernible tremolo picking that carries some sort of chord progression across its entirety. However, Im Wald feels like the most completely Atmospheric Black Metal package I've ever heard, with it transporting me into the cold, dark, snow covered forests right from the beginning. "Im Winterwald" showcases most of this albums' elements wonderfully, with a haunting tremolo chord progression, indiscernible vocals, a strangely satisfying kick and snare drum sound, and a mystifying synth towards the middle of the song. This type of song structure will be repeated throughout the rest of the album but in distinctly different ways, keeping the album consistent and cohesive but not too stagnant. I'd be lying if I didn't think that tracks like "Flug" have a progression that goes on for a bit too long and something like "Kälteschauer" feels a little redundant after an hour and a half of music, but I never really mind when I listen to the album cover to cover. Im Wald was able to grip me so tightly that I began to not really think about how long it was or how repetitive it could be, but to focus on what was happening in the moment and appreciate the satisfyingly sluggish progression of the riffs. "Über den Bäumen" and "Le rêve lucide" have incredible main riffs that hit incredibly hard despite not being very accented in the mix and always have suitable build up for maximum effect. These riffs aren't even the crowning jewel of Paysage D'Hiver's work though, since I found myself incredibly drawn to the extra little effects that he puts into certain songs that turn them into some of the best Atmospheric Black Metal I've ever heard. The transition from "Wurzel" to "Stimmen im Wald" with the male choir is easily one of the best transitions I've heard, and the faint but chilling vocals of "Weiter, immer weiter" to go along with the main riff is stunning. These small but substantial additions to the perfectly executed generic formula that Wintherr creates elevate these songs in a way that I can't really believe.
Among all the chaos and sometimes indistinguishable riffing, Im Wald is blanketed by a layer of atmospheric powder, with most of the intros and outros to the lengthy tracks being a mix of poorly recorded wind, swaying trees, and what I presume to be footsteps through the snow. There are even interludes to showcase these recordings, with "Schneeglitzern", "Wurzel", "Eulengesang", and "Verweilen" serving as short interludes to build atmosphere and to add a bit of ominous synth into the mix to set up the next track. There's a point to be made about these feeling like filler sometimes, but I personally think they serve as adequately spaced breaks in-between the rest of the chilling chaos. While most of the recordings themselves sound extremely similar, I'm assuming to keep the album grounded with a cohesive baseline, the small flourishes each one uses to distinguish themselves is satisfying and keeps the album moving after growing accustomed to how it progresses.
All in all, I think that Im Wald marks the first album that made me truly understand this kind of music on a deeper level than just throwing on Atmospheric Black Metal for some background noise. It challenged me with its seemingly reprehensible runtime and supposed monotony, only to have me wanting even more after two hours of it. I can understand why diehard fans of Atmospheric Black Metal would prefer Wintherr's self-titled release, since that one is so much more raw and really leans into the classic style, but Im Wald is able to bring that classic style into the modern era in a massive way. The riffs are crushing, the atmosphere is frigid and dark, the production is haphazard but rewarding, and it produced some of my favorite moments that I heard in all of 2020. I was finally able to walk through the blizzards in the snow covered forests whenever I decided to embark on the journey of this album this year, and it never disappointed.
I passed up on this for quite some time, finding myself put off by the marathon two hour run time. What an idiot! I have deprived myself for several months of one of the best black metal albums ever committed to plastic. I thought Paysage's self-titled was a great album, but with this double CD monster he has unleashed his masterpiece. Nobody, but nobody, is better at conveying the sense of being lost in a blizzard, miles from home or safety, than Wintherr. My first job after leaving school was in a frozen food factory and one of the duties was to clear conveyor belt blockages in blast freezers, the temperature of which was set at -40°C. It has taken forty years, but finally an album has reproduced the feeling of such bone-numbing coldness in musical form. Of course, what was missing then that is indeed present here is the abject feeling of isolation and despair of ever seeing journey's end. Fortunately I have never been hopelessly lost without shelter and fearing for my very survival, but now at least I know how it feels.
Heavily-influenced by early, black metal-era Burzum, Wintherr has brought the icy forest theme that runs through much of atmospheric black metal and, indeed, the overarching storyline of his own career, to it's apotheosis. Some albums seem more than just another release, feeling as if the artist has poured their entire being into the endeavour and I'm Wald, I would suggest, is one such album. As a huge fan of atmo-black, I would absolutely put this up on equal footing with any of the classics of the genre.
Winter has been a prominent theme found within the confines of the black metal subgenre since its inception. And everyone seems to have a different interpretation on what the titular season would sound like. Paysage D'Hiver have made it into a twenty plus year career.
I had heard a lot of things about this record through those who managed to pick up limited edition copies prior to its release (finally) on streaming services. And many had said that this was the return to form for Paysage D'Hiver; the one that would put Wintherr back on the map the same way the self titled record did in 1999.
This album felt like a throwback to the mid 1990s and the classic records by the band Burzum such as Filosofem, in which it combines the drone and ambient sounds with pummeling, lo-fi black metal to create something that is very repetitive, but somehow inescapably intoxicating.
And with albums such as this, I believe that the lo-fi production actually helps the artist get their desired atmosphere across. The way in which the vocals are so distorted behind a wall of guitars that are laden with static snow and reverb is very symbolic. The nature and field recordings that break up the metal portions are subtle and provide the listener with just enough recovery time before the next ten minute wave of black metal hits your ears.
I will say a couple things though. In the time between the self-titled record, Winterkaelte and this, the "winter" brand of black metal has changed drastically, and quite a few groups have come along and proven that this cold, dark atmosphere can be achieved through high quality production. As a result, this record does have a sense of nostalgia involved, but hardly lives up to the gold standards of ambient ABM. Also this album is too damn long! Seriously, I was struggling to find time just to listen to this thing in a single session with its two hour runtime. I was waiting for a rainy day to pop this thing out and almost three weeks later we still haven't seen any rain! I finally decided to just go for it, and I kid you not, we had a downpour by the time I got to "Flug".
I can make a lot of comparisons with this record. For one, it's atmosphere is very similar to Olhava's record Ladoga from earlier this year, although I do think this record is a more balanced experience then that one. The comparisons to Burzum are inescapable so if you like that branch of black metal, you are going to go gaga for this. For me, this record may never live up to the legendary status of Agalloch's Ashes Against The Grain or Fen's Winter, but the nostalgia factor is enough to grab my attention and keep it for as long as the titular season feels.