Envoyer les clowns, progenitors of black circus metal Pensees Nocturnes are back. Actually I just realised they snuck out an album in 2016 independently ‘À boire et à manger’ which I completely missed and it has been a long time since we last crossed paths via 2013 ‘Nom d’une pipe!’ It was right back in 2010 when I first heard this strange French troupe on ‘Grotesque’, an album that fascinated with its brand of carnivalesque and cosmic blackness which to me struck as a natural involvement of works such as Arcturus avant-garde masterpieces like ‘Aspera Hiems Symfonia.’ Fast forward to now and although we were taken to the far fringes of a cold and harsh environment in space ‘Grand Guignol Orchestra’ sees us very much on earth and spending 47 minutes visiting a ‘little circus near Paris.’ It’s a carnival of freaks too inhabited by strongmen, wolf boys and bearded women. Ring master Vaerohn has created a painstaking and fascinating album here from the music and beyond to the colourful album artwork and booklet inside; everything about this tells a story rich in imagination.

Of course it is in French but the Gallic charm adds to the mystery of it all and gives an even greater air of authenticity. After all the grand-guignol theatre originated here in the late 1890’s and this is the sort of era that I place the tales on this album deriving from. Although divided into 10 tracks with titles translating to ‘moist hair,’ Gauloises Or Gitanes,’ and ‘Nursery Rhyme To Drink,’ the music flows continuously without a pause at all. I found this particularly effective and it totally allows you to immerse yourself in its wonders. And what wonders they are, for a start the music is full of classical instruments as much as it is those of a more conventional nature. We have woodwind and brass aplenty and half the fun here is distinguishing what is what. As the album starts one imagines sad faced clowns sitting in dressing room miserable as sin, the last thing they want to do is entertain. It sounds like a clarinet bringing about this sense of pathos but perform they must, cue a burly oompah from the brass and wild cries from the circus ring master. There are some great howling blackened rasps in that respect but the vocals are as eclectic as the out-there musicianship, we get operatic parts further down the line with wondrous baritone along with splashes of female soprano.

I am not sure how far this circus has travelled but they seem to have picked things up along the way infected by the heady flavours of places they have passed through. Don’t be surprised by brief outbreaks of different dances, be prepared to waltz, foxtrot, tango and salsa. The circus is prone to go Santa Sangre and one can only hope to dodge the musical knife throwing exercise which comes flying at you from all angles. Track by track and telling you about every single nuance here would be impossible as this is so wild and shape-shifting but oh so fantastically constructed. It is also crying out to be played in entirety in a circus tent just outside Paris, what a total trip that would be. Did I mention there’s even what sounds like a didgeridoo suddenly thrown in along with possibly a kitchen sink? One thing is for sure no matter how many times you give this wildly entertaining album a listen you are always going to find something new.

There are other bands who have touched upon what is going on here, from the previously mentioned Arcturus through to Vulture Industries, Sigh, Shining Nor for the manic jazz spaz outs and The Diablo Swing Orchestra but believe me you have never quite heard an album like this! If you ever dreamed of running away to the circus here’s your chance even if it is only for ¾ of an hour. Be warned though escaping from its deliriously clutch might not be quite so easy.

(8.5/10 Pete Woods)