This is the fourth album by French prog rock band Nil but their first for the Canadian record label Unicorn Records. Their earlier self-released albums created something of a stir but now with the backing of a record label they have the chance to show off their musical wares to a potentially even bigger audience. The question is, do they have what it takes? And my answer, despite a couple of reservations (both of which may say more about me than the album), is yes.
Nil are now a quintet (I say now because the band only relatively recently invited vocalist Roselyne Berthet to join full-time after she participated on their third album) and they produce a very dark, moody symphonic prog style, a bit heavier than most symphonic prog at times but never into the realms of prog metal; a bit more novel and experimental too, though not quite avant-garde.
The band's line-up is fairly predictable for a prog five-piece – there's a drummer/percussionist (Frank Niebel), a bass and stick player (Samuel Maurin), a keyboardist (Benjamin Croizy who plays some classic analogue keys on this album including a mighty mellotron), a guitarist (David Maurin who, a little more surprisingly, also plays the flute) and a vocalist (the aforementioned Roselyne Berthet) – but it's their dense, almost claustrophobic compositions, the building up of layers of instrumentation and the use of Berthet's sublime and soaring soprano vocals (albeit quite sparingly across the entirety of the album) that means their sound stands out from the bulk of symphonic progressive music. The intensity of much of the music is one thing that immediately strikes you and there's no doubt that these guys can play with the best of them.
The material ranges from the epic opener “Le Gardien”, which is about 20 minutes long but pleasingly never feels like it and makes particularly wonderful use of Berthet's vocals, through to “Linceul” (French for shroud, apparently), by far the shortest track at a little over three minutes, a creepy and melancholic showcase for Berthet's voice with some sparse and sombre keyboards and guitar synths, and lengthy all instrumental tracks such as “Déregénération” and “198”, which both go to prove that these guys really have the musical chops for this genre.
As for musical reference points, well that's a tricky one. I've read reviews that suggest they adopt a traditionally French approach to progressive rock but as my exposure to French prog has so far been decidedly minimal, limited to a little Magma and Malicorne, I couldn't possibly say whether that was true or who they sound like. But basically, if you do like the darker and heavier side of symphonic prog, interspersed with a few jazzy elements, and you like female vocalists then you should at the very least be reasonably happy with this album.
As I mentioned earlier, though, I do have two slight reservations. The first relates to the French lyrics. I know a lot of non-English bands try to write lyrics in English so they can break into the English-speaking market, often with rather terrible results, but I know why they do it… because there's people like me who can't quite get on with lyrics in a foreign language. I'll admit that it's a prejudice of mine but if I can't understand the lyrics then I find it harder to connect personally with the music. In a sense the music speaks for itself but I still feel like I'm missing something at times.
My other reservation relates to the cold, cerebral and sometimes even self-indulgent nature of some of the music. It's often quite difficult, demanding and depressing music and I find that the combination of that with the French lyrics results in an album that I can appreciate for all its technical strengths but I sometimes struggle to form a rapport with it.
As I said before, this probably reveals more about me than it does the album and there's certainly no doubt that this is a technically assured, complex, and bold piece of work with a strong and original sound to it. My honest assessment of it is that it's brilliant but by no means an easy or even entirely pleasant listen.
One last thing, though, do check out the band's amazing album artwork and website – they both impressed me and capture the album's mood perfectly.
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(All Album Reviews by avestin)
This French band has released 3 previous albums and their preceding album was a remarkable achievement. A concept album made up of two acts over 40 minutes and without interruptions. Here Nil changes to an album made up of 6 tracks, two of which are instrumentals.
“Le Gardien” begins softly with a guitar playing two chords, accompanied by synth and the voice of Roselyne, the female vocalist. This goes on for 2:10 minutes and then the music becomes more dynamic and faster due to the synth speeding things up ad in come the drums and the rest of the band joins in. Roselyne does a very good job with her beautiful voice, creating some haunting melodies. Though her voice is more appropriate for plain singing in a low key, she manages to deliver the right emotions in all the ways she sings here. “Le Gardien”’s sound and appealing sound owes it to her voice and the keyboards as well. The guitar part is good but a bit repetitive sounding, and it will change in the coming other songs. This songs spans over 20 minutes in length and as all other songs here, switches tempo and swings between slow, contemplative drum-less parts to more energetic guitar and keyboard driven parts. To me this is a beautiful song filled with much emotions, harmonies and good vocal parts. However, I suspect some might find this song boring, repetitive and going nowhere. While I can understand this criticism I do not agree with it and all I can say is that this is eventually determined by your taste and this song is to my taste. A criticism I accept about this song (which does not apply to the other songs here) is that it may sound hollow, as if it misses some more sounds filling it, like there are instruments not present that should be. Maybe this problem could have been resolved in the making of this album. Another thing is that towards the 17th minute it sounds as if the songs ends and then it reemerges sounding like a different song altogether. This is not a problem, but why not separate it to two songs?
The second song, “Linceul”, is a blurry hazy song made up of a synth playing continuous chords and Roselyne speaking/singing with it. This song functions more a border between the first song and the rest of the album which is different in style and so to allow us to understand that we are about to listen to something else. It may sound as filler and to me it is not particularly interesting. It is quite short (almost 4 minutes) and in comparison with the other tracks, it should get minor attention.
“Deregeneration” is an instrumental and it is a more dynamic track, original with much more active guitar and keyboards. The music keeps on changing moods and shape during this one and Nil comes up with new twists and adds more flavors to it all the time. The music switches from calm and heavenly to distortion guitar lead with a scary atmosphere enhanced by the keyboards. In this track you hear well all the instruments players and their playing abilities. There is no extravaganza and bombastic playing, but rather an elegant show of capabilities. This is also true regarding the next track. This track Nil shows a slight tendency towards RIO. This is varied and original music.
198 is another instrumental and here like in the first track they begin softly and quietly without drums and they switch to a full blown song after about 40 seconds. Like in “Deregeneration” the composition here is original and varied with many contradicting moods within it. In its concept it resembles the previous track and it is as good.
“Abandon” is a good song and has a sort of free-jazz feel in some parts. What I appreciate most here is the shifts from disharmonic to harmonic tunes, greatly aided by Roselyne’s voice. The songs’ ending is superbly done.
“Derives” is a repetitive musical part, around which the keyboards, drums and Roselyne’s voice revolve and add their enriching elements to it. She only sings at the very end, when the music begins to fade. It is a fitting closing track.
Nil knows how to create captivating original and interesting music. They put in it different ingredients that seem maybe to contradict each other, but the result is excellent and the music is beautiful. This album has enriched me and given me much pleasure and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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