Celestia embodies the wonderful paradox of melody in black metal as well as any other band, and, at once bleak and beautiful, Archaenae Perfectii (L’Arche Arcane des Parfaits) is a model instantiation of the lately proliferate French underground black metal scene. They occupy space at the more harmonious end of the spectrum with Alcest and Amesoeurs (they share space with Les Discrets, as well), but where their contemporaries have brushed blackness around the edges of brighter light, Celestia start with a black canvas and draw the contrasts in delicate turns. Dark as it is, Celestia’s third LP is awash in comely notes and elegant harmonies, winding and weaving their beauty through the tentative melancholy.
Each of Archaenae’s eight tracks (save one fully acoustic interlude) is a similar play on the overriding theme, blending beauty with blackness and lush acoustics with brusque distortion, often doing so in clearly delineated movements, but also layering and folding each within the other amid varying tempo and tenor. “Phoenemenae of Creation” takes the album to its perihelion within melodic black metal’s interlaced ellipses, skirting at once and often the familiar sounds of the best in the sub-genre, including most notably Alcest, Agalloch and Drudkh, without colliding their worlds. The loose loyalty to the scene’s code gives the record a sense of legitimacy without diluting its uniqueness.
Archaenae is not, however, merely a sullen, brooding affair, as it allows itself time with some genuinely fun moments, as with the rockin’ beats of “Demhiurghic Deity (Devilution).” Indeed, frequently it is the upbeat rolling rhythm of the drums that carry and feed the tremolo. Though the round, bouncy bass is sometimes barely audible through the din, it is surprisingly vibrant at lower volumes and does much to sustain songs whose notes are predominantly cast to the heights. “Dominus Crux Spiritus” is an exuberant piece that flirts with shoegaze but refuses to calm down enough except to stop outright for a momentary dance with angels in the middle and ends with a touching, resonant solo. And “Perfectii Ketter Katharos” has a genuine rock-and-roll spirit that just happens to wear its corpse-paint behind fully frocked antipathy. As fun as they are, just know that even these moments do inevitably return to swollen woe.
Recognizing the weight of authenticity in heavy metal and particularly in black metal, the production on this one is well within the strict parameters of the sound, which is to say it’s often shrill, even piercing. It’s no Nattens Madrigal, but it does come sometimes to the point of being uncomfortable at high volumes. More happily, the bass is given more than enough room to run, and run it does, busily bubbling throughout. In fact, the aim of this job seems to have been to render each slice of the higher range of sound as sharp as possible in order to maximize the contrast while retaining its grimness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the laying of Noktu’s vocals over the melodic moments. Full-on, evil rasps, these – a lot like Grutle at his most visceral – most assuredly separating Celestia from their cohort and maintaining a blackened air even when the music beneath drifts to brighter hues.
At just 33 minutes, Archaenae seems perhaps unduly brief, though brevity was probably the best strategy here, as it gives the album a transient, spectral quality. Not unlike the flitting shadow on the flame-lit wall, it’s here and gone; whispers its words and moves along. Just the sort of aloof, unassuming impact that French black metal has made on the larger metal world. That scene has achieved a rare level of epic awesomeness and Celestia is one of the bands with a rightful claim to a hand in catalyzing the movement. And Archaenae Perfectii (L’Arche Arcane des Parfaits) keeps them square at the forefront of an already incredibly rich harvest of gorgeous grimness from Gaul.