Review by Daniel for Paysage d'Hiver - Im Wald (2020) Review by Daniel for Paysage d'Hiver - Im Wald (2020)

Daniel Daniel / April 16, 2020 / 2

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

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