It took all of a single song for me to be more impressed with Hymnes de la Montagne Noire than last year's La Seigneurie des Loups, and this is all due to the marked improvements in songwriting skill and atmosphere that involve the listener directly through the driving, memorable riffs and an excellent, balanced use of synthesizers. Sole instrumentalist Zifond has not exactly created a more complex outlet than his prior full-lengths, but Hymnes is the sort of effort which so successfully infuses the nostalgia of black metal's Golden Age (the mid 90s) of second wave development into a burst of controlled chaos that haunts the Canadian wilds.
There remains a clear Scandinavian undercurrent to this recording, and I was very often reminded of the late 80s Bathory shift towards pagan hymns of myth and warfare that manifest through the steady, marching and crashing guitars; or a bit of earlier Mayhem and Enslaved. The riffs in "Hymne I - La grande faucheuse ouvre le marche" are nothing more than bark-skinned, minimal and sturdy patterns of chords upon which Zifond's salacious, wretched rasp is slathered like an acidic spiderweb, but as they gradually twist their course throughout the six minutes of the track, they take the listener on an obscure, epic cold evening pilgrimage. The slight spikes of screaming synthesizers and distant rasps create an apt, biting atmosphere that fully supports the central rhythm and machine-like drumming, and he never sticks with a particular riff so long that the listener grows tired, even on more expansive pieces like "Hymne III – Là où demeure la sorcière des neiges" or "Hymne V – Le chemin de la montagne noire", both of which eclipse the 10 minute mark.
Neige et Noirceur also has this distinct ability to drop out of an aggressive partition into a segue of wintry ambiance or chordal resonance, reminiscent of some of Emperor's better material (In the Nightside Eclipse, for one), without feeling disjointed. This technique can often seem like a cheap ploy to section out longer tracks, but just about every time it happened on this recording I was quite eager to hear just what would explode out of the headphones next. But certain tracks are also adept at a gradual buildup, like the briefer "L'aube des magiciens" as it transfers from scintillating acoustic lines and whispered winds to pummeling, thundered chords glazed in frosted fingers of melody. The only song I wasn't quite feeling was the closer "Les Bûcherons", a cover of a 1983 tune from some French punkers Bérurier Noir, but this is only because it takes on a more sewage like style of vocals, and despite the applied wintry overtones, it snapped me out of the core experience. Then again, it's placed last on the album, so it's hardly an obstruction to the better content.
Hymnes de la Montagne Noire might not be the most novel or unique recording on the Quebec scene, and the riffs might never pass 'quality' territory into that of the profound, but it's an adequately absorbing listen that carefully melds between the aesthetics of darkness and sublime grace and never lets the audience stir despite what might normally seem a bloated sense for composition. The only numbing you'll feel here is the cold clutch of the dead season as it creeps into your joints and freezes your soul, and that's more than acceptable.
Verdict: Win [7.75/10]