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Montfaucon - Renaissance

by Devin C. Baker at 17 February 2017, 12:46 PM

Man, if there's one genre that's getting a little played-out, it's piano-heavy Uzbek Melodic Progressive Death-Doom inspired by 19th century French romanticism, amiright?? Of course I'm not right, because no one has ever heard such a thing, and I promise, even if you fever-dreamed that such a concoction might exist, you'd have no way of imagining how utterly captivating and inspired that very mélange is in the hands of the duo MONTFAUCON who debut with their stunning CD and digital download release “Renaissance”.

Glib intros aside, defining what MONTFAUCON are up to stylistically is a bit like nailing Jell-O to the wall. Yes, there are middle and slower tempos, deep growled vocals and an emotional lyricism to the music that indicate a Death-Doom palette in keeping with KATATONIA, SWALLOW THE SUN, THE MORNINGSIDE and the like, but that's just a thin basis for comparison. First off, keyboards are not an accessory for MONTFAUCON, adding flavor and flourish as is so often the case in Metal—piano and guitar are equal partners here, often trading focus, one dropping out to let the other shine, and vice-versa. The result is something quite elevated and theatrical, without the forced grandiosity that so often comes as “theatrical” baggage. Don't think gilded opera house, think Montmartre cabaret.  Song structures welcome this comparison, shifting tempos and moods fluidly within individual songs, like little movements comprising a mini-drama. Opener “Prisoner” exemplifies this tendency. A patient, deliberate minor-key piano figure sets a dour tone, is joined by guitars in a plod toward the gallows, then suddenly double-time kicks in for the verse, but not in the standard blast-beat kind of way; it's that setting-the-scene tension-building vamp often used in a light-operatic overture. The pace decelerates and re-accelerates over and over to great dramatic effect as piano and guitar take turns driving the action. One lays down the pulse as the other adorns, then they unite for a figure, then exchange roles. So much diversity of rhythm, it's dizzying. All the while, Valentin growls his plaintive tale in a lower Death growl, seasoned with some of that harried near-panicked bleat often found in Black metal.

Follow-up track “I Was A Warrior” begins slower, again, as Valentin intones a spoken intro to his next dramatic exposition. This time, Michel's keyboards are in harpsichord mode, giving the proceedings a true renaissance touch. The faster passages are even more direct and driving than before,  but it's the slower passages that truly impress, with a doomy plod played against a MAIDEN-esque gallop, a period of tense palm-muted chugging giving way to wide open harpsichord rolls, straight into some good old blast beats—there's even a moment of Post-rock chord-play in there.  Valentin spreads out and shows some impressive melodic lead chops on this one as well. Throughout the album, among his guitar tones is this elastic, chewy mid-range lead tone that just knocks me out. And, I don't know if I'm letting my imagination take me too far down the French romanticism rabbit-hole, but I swear I hear echoes of Parisian Musette and cabaret tango here and there.

A quick note on French romanticism: Victor Hugo was the most well-known of this period of mid-19th century literature; also of note are Alexandre Dumas (of The Three Musketeers fame) and George Sand.  “Why,” you may well ask, “is the album called 'Renaissance' if it's inspired by 19th century lit?” These writers looked backward to themes of loss and tragic heroes. For example, Hugo popularly lionized the doomed revolutionaries in Les Misérables from the century prior to his own, but the French Renaissance was also fertile ground for the backward glance—see the aforementioned Dumas and his famous titular swashbuckling trio. Anyway, moving on…

The third track, Alone, has become a fast favorite of mine, for how daring it is as a piece of Metal music, and that's saying something on this album that steps into and away from so many conventions. Michel's piano work is absolutely riveting, classical-inspired stuff, Valentin's voice is at its most expressive and emotional, his guitar accents inspired. This truly sounds like the work of two strong collaborators, each pushing the other to the benefit of the whole. Even more amazing, then, that they accomplish it all long-distance: Valentin lives in the San Francisco Bay area, Michel remains in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Having operated as a band in their home country, employment drew Valentin away. Years after the early drafts of some of these songs had made it to radio back home, they sought to resurrect the project. Passion, determination, and a bit of gear guidance from The Faceless guitarist Michael Keene, who helped Valentin assemble a home recording rig, and trans-continental magic was made.

Oh, and then of course, there's Dan Swanö.

Did I not mention him yet? Yeah, he mixed and mastered this sublime debut, and it has his fingerprints all over it. I can't claim to know what the raw tracks sounded like, but it's got a few Swanö hallmarks. It's really well-balanced, in that it occupies the stereo image comfortably, without spreading the field artificially wide. Everything has the space it needs to be heard individually, but the parts are unified, functioning as a whole. Bass is parked right underneath the guitar, discernible, but subordinate.  The vocal sits right up front, characteristically a teensy bit hot. Only complaint: there's a super-irritating trash-can, film-reel quality to the open hi-hat sound that's employed all over the record. I can't unhear it, but it's a minor kvetch.

I needn't parse each song further, because by now you've no doubt discerned that I dig this album, and highly recommend it. It's heartening to hear masterful musicians, craftsmen, work with established forms, combining and warping them into something fresh and compelling. While the subject matter may strike some as arcane (c'mon folks, there's more to the written word than Lovecraft and Tolkein) and the sonics are woven from diverse threads, “Renaissance” avoids coming off forced or gimmicky. It's dramatic and theatrical, but honest and earnest. With this debut, MONTFAUCON deserve to make an impact, and by rights should be ending up on more than a few year-end lists—they're sitting pretty high on mine.

Songwriting: 10
Originality: 9
Memorability: 9
Production: 9

4 Star Rating

1. Prisoner
2. I Was A Warrior
3. Alone
4. Mastermind
5. Insanity
6. The Last Night
Michel Cadenzar – Piano, Keyboards, Sampling
Valentin Mayasmin – Guitars, Bass, Vocals, Sampling
Record Label: Independent


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