Paysage D’Hiver – literally ‘Winter Landscape’ – might just be the epitome of the black metal trope that from extreme chaos emerges form and beauty. Or, perhaps to look at it another way, as the band’s sole member Wintherr said in an interview a few years back, the blackness, the cold, the intense sound – or lack of it – all strip away the senses and so all you’re left with is what’s inside. Yes, black metal may have its issues, but it also has the sort of raw emotion across a spectrum rarely served up outside of the extreme metal genre. Joy, even sheer bliss; melancholy and depression, meditation, reflection, wistfulness –and perhaps something much darker too. Despite that interview, Wintherr, from Switzerland, has largely kept his head down since the band’s inception in or around 1997. When he has emerged (more frequently in recent times) from the edge of the wood where he lives – in an old medieval house, by all accounts – it was to reveal someone in tune with the spiritual side of the music, who would rather not let the public gaze destroy the self-reflection that he tightly holds onto to allow his creative spark to catch.
And from that spark has come a blazing winter furnace in the form of Im Wald – undoubtedly one of the year’s landmark black metal releases. It is a monster of an album – the only one from Paysage D’Hiver to get full album billing (the rest are oddly regarded as splits and demos). But certainly this is the first proper Paysage D’Hiver release since 2013’s Das Tor (baring a couple of splits, with Drudkh and fellow Swiss black metallers Nordlicht).
It’s a release that manages to use every inch of its running time to let Wintherr’s latest exploration of his multi-layered, subtle lo-fi sound, albeit one that has gradually been blended with an ever-sharper production. Far from blurring into one amorphous mass of swirling blizzard sound as the uninitiated might imagine, Im Wald’s lengthy probes into forests and landscapes familiar and unknown all have the focused vision of a lurking predator and – perhaps not surprising for someone that might sometimes only release one or two tracks in the space of several years – each one a journey in itself. Im Wald doesn’t so much peddle its wares as blossom. And not so much like snowdrops in spring as the ever-whitening winter landscape hardening its resolve against a black and bleak background. Steeped in the essence of early 1990s black metal, Im Wald is predictably harsh, relentless but with blurred, fuzzy, can I even say, warm, edges…? A mix somewhere between the icy blast of Darkthrone, Emperor and, of course, Wintherr’s other more cosmic project, Darkspace.
As an aside, I have personally – and this is obviously a purely aural rather than aesthetic assessment – never completely bought into the sinking negativity associated with black metal. Yes, a lot of black metal is bluntly delivered with a message of anger and hostility. But to me, the rasping vocals here sound more like something primitive than simply negative, a confused id rather than lashing ego, spiralling in the blizzard, on the brink of helplessness, but somehow still in control borne from some essence buried deep within. More ethereal than evil. I say this because, to enter the gates of tracks like Stimmen Im Wald, Fug and Le Rêve Lucide is to enter a dreamlike state. The feeling is disorientating, even bewildering, but not intimidating.
After the first two 12- minute tracks, which pass fleetingly while at the same time delivering just about anything you’re ever likely to want from a two hour Paysage D’Hiver extravaganza, it almost feels like everything after is a bonus. But in what follows, as well as the strange music box charm of Schneeglitzern and the stargazing Eulengesang, there’s yet more intensity – tracks like Alt which emerge from nowhere only to make it feel like the skies have opened up to drench monochromatic landscapes and snow-covered forest clearings in nature from both above and below. The tracks are as much pure noise as they are black metal. Crafted from pieces of sound that should have struggled to create something so sublime. And despite the length, which could have been an excruciating effort in the wrong hands, Wintherr never feels like he’s lost control of the creative process or the editing board. Anyone that has ever arrived at the end of a lengthy black metal track and reflected that they could have listened to the same evolving refrains for the rest of the day will know exactly what I mean. In the right hands – as here – things are neither too long or too anything else. They just are.
The blistering, silvery serenity of the first part of the album takes a more introspective turn during the closing tracks – if you can call them that because we’re barely two thirds through this blackened shoegaze extravaganza. It’s not exactly jarring but it does feel like the album enters a different phase under the thundering surge of Kaelteschauer which hones into view like an obsidian event horizon against the cosmic firmament – almost as if Wintherr begins to merge with his Darkspace persona.
The appropriately named Weiter, Immer Weiter (Further, Always Further) – an ominous march driven ever onwards by a gut-wrenching vocal performance from Wintherr drives the albums journey into even darker territory, like the utter blackness that proceeds dawn. But, as if the winterland meditation of the Im Wald has opened doors to more astral levels, the feeling of disorientation seems to amplify. The intensity changes, receding even perhaps, but, if anything, the feeling of weightless introspection becomes even more acute – as if you are now witnessing Wintherr descending further into his own dreamlike meditation. Darkness tolls and spirals as everything is poured into the final moments of Im Wald, which only seems to cause the gravity well created by this mass of music to begin to dissipate, collapsing in on itself. Until gradually, slowly, it all begins to fade. Greys return to seep into the white and the black as if the hint of dawn is emerging on the far edges of the landscape. Reality returning, empyrean nature both cosmic and terrestrial, recede.
As the silence descends, you might almost expect to find Wintherr standing there, staring back at you, or at least see his corpse-painted black figure shuffling back into the forest. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, you’re standing alone, cold, sated, but at the same time with a part of you missing somewhere in the blue-white snow of dawn’s early light. It’s rare for an extreme black metal album to touch something deep within for its entire two-hour length, but this one almost certainly will – at least for some. For others, marvel at the good bits – there are plenty of them even for black metal cynics – or just feel free to put it to one side as the work of another one-man black metal band that sounds a little like all the rest.
(9.5/10 Reverend Darkstanley)