Chemins Noirs (english)

"Some events are so incalculably large that they exceed historical dimensions. This is true of natural disasters. The disappearance of Atlantis (assuming it ever existed) was not a historical catastrophe, a catastrophe that took place in history; rather, as the ultimate event in the history of Atlantis, it was something that failed to enter history: something historically supraliminal. The same is true of nuclear testing, to say nothing of atomic warfare. Their preparations may still belong to history, since those who undertake them still hope to achieve certain precise objectives. But the moment they achieve these objectives, the moment the war begins, history will be over. On the day of the first explosions, the historical dimension, too, will explode. "At the end of the road looms ever more clearly the specter of general annihilation." (Einstein, in his message to Italian nuclear physicists.) What will remain will no longer be a historical situation, but a field of ruins under which will be buried everything that had once been history. If, despite everything, man were to survive, it would no longer be as a historical being, but as a pitiful residue; as a contaminated nature within a contaminated nature." 

(Gunther Anders, The Obsolescence of Man)

The musician behind the name Chemins Noirs began his career – which he himself acknowledges to be discreet and not very prolific – in the world of black metal and its B-side, the dark atmospheric bands now considered to be the precursors of the very boring dungeon synth scene.

"I've always listened to heavy metal, thrash, pretty unhealthy stuff, with medieval, macabre imagery... But discovering the black scene and the bands we now call dungeon synth was really a huge shock. For the first time, I had the feeling that it was no longer just a question of aesthetics or provocation, but of an authentic, first-degree approach that involved the entire existence of those who undertook it. I soon listened to the likes of Mortiis, of course, but also Perunwit and Lord Wind from Poland, people like Balam, Kirke Aske or Solfataris in France, and above all the Austrian scene with Grabesmond or Pazuzu, whose darkness was infinitely greater, and who mixed its medieval music with oriental, tribal influences, which have never been equalled, or even really imitated, since."

At the start of '96, we were just at the beginning of the great black metal "craze" that was to hit France, and still a little further away from the Internet for all and the growing ease of distributing one's own music and discovering that of others. When you're a teenager, time like that is an eternity.

"I soon started playing myself, but I was bored by working in a group. I composed a few keyboard intros on my own for some friends who had their own black metal band. Their cassette got around a bit, and that enabled me to make a few contacts in the French death metal and black metal scene. We wrote to each other every two or three weeks. We copied demos, exchanged flyers... I knew next to nothing about the French BM scene and the really important people in it. And anyway, I was mostly interested in atmo projects, as they called them back then. I bought as many demos as I could from Holy Records, Adipocere or Impure Creations. I wrote to people whose music I liked. I remember at one point Metallian magazine had a sort of classified ads page where you could find pen pals. It was very exciting to make contacts and introduce each other to the music we were composing – it was also a lot more technically challenging at the time when people our age, between sixteen and twenty, didn't really have access to sophisticated equipment. Recording even a very naive demo was still a pretty admirable thing to do."

After a year and a few months of copying material privately to correspondents, Chemins Noirs released its first proper demo, La Grande Paix de la Désolation, at the end of 1996. It never gained access to the distribution catalogs of the day (Adipocere, Holy Records), but by dint of flyers and word of mouth, some forty copies were sold.

"It was a pretty good score for the time and for a complete unknown, even if most of the copies were not sold but sent out as part of exchanges with other musicians with little distros like there were a number of back then. But I've never wanted to reissue it or send it to a YouTube channel like The Dungeon Synth Archives. For me, it's music linked to an era, to tastes and preoccupations that I've outgrown. I'm not denying anything, but I don't live in the cult of what I did twenty years ago."

Chemins Noirs' musical style at the time was in a vein the artist describes as Dark Medieval.

"It was one of the names we used at the time to designate music that today belongs to what we call dungeon synth. We had no idea what the real dark ambient scene was, like Lustmord et al. I was really, specifically, claiming the dark medieval label. A few of us were sending each other tapes and having our own little private scene. It was us against the rest of the world, with all that adolescent swagger and pretension. We weren't the only ones in the genre, though, there was a whole medievalist trend in black metal, with Noctis in the south of France."

With its harpsichords, bombards, timpani and flutes, poorly imitated by cheap keyboards, and its imagery entirely focused on castles, witchcraft and epidemics, the dark medieval scene was inextricably linked to the black scene, with no bridges whatsoever to the goth or industrial worlds.

"We never listened to stuff like The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath a Cloud or Dead Can Dance. And obviously, with the projects I corresponded with, we influenced each other. We wanted to create our own style, our own sound, our own imagery. I was 100% into that artistic identity and didn't want to know anything else – and mentally I was living in that era and that black aesthetic. It wasn't just an aesthetic positioning. It was visceral. I completely rejected the modern world, which seemed ugly, decadent, unnecessarily complex, excessively civilized and policed. I dreamed of a world less populated, more barbaric, rougher in every way. With an obvious fascination for the macabre, the sickly, the diabolical."

But in the early 2000s, after several purely medievalist cassettes, Chemins Noirs took a long break before starting to release CD-Rs far less marked by the black scene: 

"I changed my style after a few demos – around 2000, 2001. I was getting bored musically, and I was already listening less to black music at the time. I'd also moved to a really miserable, run-down, disaster-stricken region. To tell the truth, at first glance, it had a sort of Groland [1] feel to it, but a not-at-all-funny Groland, with suicides, alcoholism, incest, and a real, barely-concealed practice of witchcraft in a number of houses. This was true both of the basic French and of the gypsies, of whom there were many in this area. It fascinated me. The medieval aesthetic I'd been practicing up until then seemed a bit silly, a bit of an adolescent-RPG fan, next to this environment, which was very real."

It's fair to say that Chemins Noirs really found its way from this period onwards; an evolution towards a stripped-down, discordant, melancholy style, inspired by folk music, but increasingly timeless.

"I've simplified my music a lot over the years, after an initial period when I'd rather tried to enrich and complexify it, to impress the world and show what I could do – on my last two really dark medieval demos I could have ten tracks playing at the same time, constant variations and so on. As I was using a keyboard and a PC it was technically pretty easy. But I ended up dropping MIDI and playing live, without sequencing, directly to tape. And reducing my music to its skeleton. I think in a way I got fed up with mannerisms and unnecessary complexity and reproduced what Darkthrone did after Soulside Journey. I discovered the power of minimalism, of primitiveness."

Around the same time, he started living in what you might call a neo-rural community.

"It was a rather pompous way of saying that we rented a big house in the country, and a good part of our time consisted of looking after the gigantic vegetable garden, the orchard, the chickens and so on. It was hard work, and to be honest, the results were catastrophic, unable to support us entirely as we'd planned, but it remains a good period in my life. At the same time, we were losing touch with reality, and after a few months of this regime, we couldn't even bear to hear a car engine or a plane in the sky – not to mention music on loudspeakers or other nuisances of modern life. I remember we used to say to each other, half-jokingly: I can't wait for the oil to run out. I continued with the music, but in a more distant, secondary way."

Eden Empoisonné marks the end of Chemins Noirs' career. The demo was released on a mini CD-R limited to a hundred copies, most of which were not sold. But the artist also offered the tracks for free on Soulseek and as free downloads from the project's website.

"I felt I'd done the trick, musically speaking and thematically speaking. I wasn't going to release another demo, but I saw this old English film, Threads, and it made such a deep impression on me that I decided to do something on the theme. I've always been sensitive to outside influences."

Threads is a British film released in 1984 that depicts a nuclear conflict and its aftermath with a realism rarely, if ever, achieved, even by its near-contemporary equivalent The Day After. We follow the members of two families – united by a forthcoming wedding and a baby – during the few days preceding and following an atomic war; the growing international tension, the anxiety that turns to revolt and then to resigned amazement, then the attack itself, the death of most of the film's characters, and the haggard survival of those who remain. The film, with its chillingly documentary voiceover and on-screen statistics, leaves no ambiguity as to the fact that a nuclear conflict and its consequences would mark the pure and simple, definitive end of civilization, if not of humanity.

A short, minimalist work that no longer has anything medieval or aesthetically close to the world of black metal, Eden Empoisonné is a montage of samples from the film with three melodies interpreted by a synthetic guitar sound, clumsy, trembling, sick, like the world resulting from the atrocious war depicted in the film.

"Technically speaking, I've moved away from the folk style I developed after my first dark medieval period. I recycled some MIDI melodies I'd already used on other, much older pieces, but modified the intervals between the notes to give them that jerky, arrhythmic, slightly weird and wobbly feel. I didn't want the music to be beautiful. Nor did I want it to be rich; I think it's my most minimalist work, my poorest, even. But that's entirely justified by what the music is trying to portray. All the samples, voices and sound effects we hear come from the film itself."

Indeed, the second and third musical sequences feature the speech of the anti-nuclear activist and pacifist, played by Maggie Ford.

This speech, with its famous line, "You cannot win a nuclear war", almost ends the album.

"I then added the soundtrack to a strange sequence in which a whole group of people are heard moaning and groaning as they walk through the countryside, in a kind of strange half-light - a scene that floored me when I first saw it. It also struck me, in retrospect, as a good illustration of T. S. Elliot's famous phrase:

This is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper.

The most terrifying thing is not the attack itself, but the Hell on Earth that follows. After the lake of flames, another Hell, cold, silent, bleak and definitive. This is the meaning of the second speech, which closes the album."

The dark paths of Satanism are thus also those on which the survivors advance in the final part of Threads. This new meaning, obviously unpublished, is perhaps the result of the phenomenon described in another English post-apocalyptic work, The Road, by Nigel Kneale, where 18th-century English villagers are confronted with ghostly apparitions in the forest bordering their village – apparitions which are in fact echoes, sent in all directions of Time, of an atomic war taking place in the future, which they obviously cannot understand.

In any case, the album's completion was accompanied by a realization of the very nature of Chemins Noirs and the imaginary world it had been trying to put into images and music for years.

"Over the course of the demos, I had composed several tracks with very similar titles and themes: Le Pays Maudit, Terre Ensorcellée and so on. I was obsessed by this idea and this mental image of an agricultural, rural, primitive country, but which instead of being verdant would be grey, dead, sterile, degenerate – and its inhabitants with it. It wasn't until I got older that I realized that this was my own way of living out the fear of atomic war, of the end of civilization, and of the world itself, that hung over everyone in the 70s and 80s. In a way, Eden Empoisonné closes the Chemins Noirs cycle by revealing the true meaning of these visions I've always had. This cursed, sickly, barren, haunted land was not set in a legendary Middle Ages, but in our future. I chose the title Eden Empoisonné (Poisoned Eden) as a kind of response to the neo-primitivist fantasies of my communal years. Because it's obviously never going to happen, this kind of return to the state of nature, in peace, harmony, equality and prosperity. Nor even the return to healthy barbarism that some in the black metal or neofolk world fantasize about. There will be nothing left."

*

[1] Groland (GRD) or the Présipauté of Groland is a fictional country that is the setting for a series of mockumentary television shows and films. It is a micro-state at an undisclosed location, created as a satire of France and European microstates by Benoît Delépine, Christian Borde and Christophe Salengro.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Groland)