Do you believe in destiny? In the power of fortune over the tides of fate? Are the threads of happenstance so tightly woven that one’s future is irrevocably set in stone, decided upon from the providence of birth? Since 2008, it would seem as though Nice, France’s Darkenhöld have been destined with the task of propelling their listeners into the ancient past. Across the course of now five albums, they have consistently delivered delightful excursions into a mythical age. Since their earliest days, the band has immersed themselves in the archaic days of yore: a time of stone and steel, a time when the crossbow was considered a warcrime and gunpowder a weapon of mass destruction.
Musically, the medieval style of black metal in the post-second wave can trace its roots back to Satyricon’s debut, Dark Medieval Times. In the same year, Emperor’s In The Nightside Eclipse would inform this sub-style as well, more indirectly through the full realization of symphonic black metal. Similarly, Dimmu Borgir’s For All Tid could arguably hold some weight on the style, however the medieval style is more or less of a subset of symphonic black metal, or at the very least informed by it. While many black metal bands of the mid-to-late 90’s jumped on the Dimmu Borgir / Cradle Of Filth wagon, a handful in the underground honed the symphonic style in on the fantastical side of the dark ages. Wallachia and Ancient certainly held their own in Norway and Abigor leaned fully into the style over in Austria, but it was really a small band out of the most unlikely places as the sovereign state of Monaco that brought the style to French-speaking municipalities. Godkiller’s greatly overlooked 1996 EP The Rebirth Of The Middle Ages doubled the ante on Dark Medieval Times, streamlining the black metal tremolo riffing with the dungeon synth orchestrals in a way that raised the standard of ancient war over the battlefield of black metal. Jump forward to the era of Darkenhöld, and the French connection remains strong.
While Darkenhöld’s style and production have changed fairly minimally over the course of five long players, each album is a different adventure. As every castle, keep, and fortress has its own identity, its own strengths and weaknesses, fortitudes and follies, so do each of Darkenhöld’s records. Whirlwindingly melodic, bombastically symphonic, and folkishly of its time, Arcanes & Sortilèges stands as no exception.
There’s something to be said for utilizing one’s mother tongue in black metal. Regardless of whether or not the listener understands the language, a certain dynamic that transcends comprehension can be invoked simply through the delivery, through the way in which the words are inflected and strung together across the song. Darkenhöld’s native speech breaks clearly through the production, and while I have no idea what they are singing about, and, even with the benefit of Google Translate, it doesn’t quite come across, the lyrics are sheer poetry for a time long past. Sure, it’s a romanticized vision, but the yearning for a fantastical, mysterious world of the past is felt by “L’Ost de la Forteresse.” While still spat by the vile tongue of black metal, the impact is softened with the spoken word interludes across ethereal choirs and echoing timpani that provide the subtle undertouches that elevate the album to a highlight of the Darkenhöld catalogue. All tricks used before, but like the shrilling solo that breaks out mid-song, they feel utilized to a greater potential.
While mentioned earlier that Darkenhöld are certainly bringing it in the guitar melodies, further evidence of their regal riffery is to be found on “Mystique de la Vouivre.” Seamlessly shifting distinctly classical European melodies across a thunderous drum performance packed with rumbling toms, running kicks, and a driving mid-section, the song quiets to a bit of fingerpicking over thunder samples—an eerie quiet sets in. It’s as though time stands still for a moment before the victorious return of the tremolo riff, accompanied with a solo section over a furious blast beat that drives the point home with even further conviction for a highlight moment of the first half of Arcanes & Sortilèges.
The second half of the record continues playing with the successful tactics utilized in the first. Following the atmospheric interlude of “La Tour de l’Alchimiste,” “Héraldique” finds that folkish swing and again hits a quiet section similar to that of the one found on “Mystique de la Vouivre.” The way the tracks play out, it was certainly intended to be listened to on vinyl with the interlude and pause to flip the record to separate the two. They aren’t carbon copies, as the “Héraldique” payoff is a bit more in the realms of mid-tempo melancholy, yet they do carry a similar enough impact that placing the tracks on opposing sides of the record was a smart choice. “Bestiaire Fantastique” brings the urgent energy back to the record. The synth choirs that usually have greater impact in the slower moments of the band add impact to the vigor of the track—the In The Nightside Eclipse influence is felt most strongly here, not just in the synth utilization, but in the swift changes coupled by drum fills. It shifts across tempos and moods without ever falling off the rails. Around each passage and within each corridor of this castle that Darkenhöld are constructing (remembering?) lies a new surprise, and they keep that momentum going from the tom fill at the beginning to the winding down of the album with a final stand on “Le Sanctuaire Embrasé,” before the synth outro of “Dans le Cabinet de l’Archimage” ultimately brings Arcanes & Sortilèges to appropriate closure.
While Arcanes & Sortilèges doesn’t present anything new to Darkenhöld, each element feels maximized to its fullest potential—it’s a showcase of the band’s greatest strengths working in harmony with one another. The softer moments add impactful dynamics to the more aggressive sections, and it feels as though the band is restless and refusing to stay too locked in to a section. The album is well-paced and expertly executed, as one would hope from a band coming into their twelfth year of experience. Packed with shifts and surprises, Darkenhöld certainly refuse to remain still or grow stagnant as they continue to fulfill their destiny of casting their listeners into another time and place, with every bit of romanticism and grandeur one could hope from a medieval black metal album.