The way I see it, there are two ways for bands in the densely-populated contemporary metal scene to find a distinctive voice. The first is to find a previously unexplored artistic direction to pursue — which is getting to be pretty much impossible thanks to the genre’s age and insanely deep bench. (Plus, it’s risky. You don’t want to end up as the world’s foremost ska/thrash hybrid.) The second is use the work of past innovators as a starting point and to refine or recombine their ideas into something that itself feels fresh and new. This tactic doesn’t sound glamorous, but it can produce great results; Black Sabbath themselves were arguably just a clever refinement of the day’s loud rock tropes at first.
France’s Plebeian Grandstand — love that name! — pursue this second route to incredible effect. As of False Highs, True Lows, their upcoming third LP, the Grandstand sound has two components:
1. The drug-nightmare scarytimes dissonance of black metal countrymen like Deathspell Omega and Aosoth.
2. The stark, personal intensity and tumbling rhythms of American ‘mathcore’ acts like Converge and Botch.
In practice, Plebeian Grandstand sound more like the former set of bands — this is probably 95% metal on a riff-by-riff basis — but ruthlessly compressed and stripped of the cinematic bells and whistles that spooky black metal acts love so much. The resultant songs are suffocatingly aggressive, so heavy on withering blastbeats and jagged time shifts that they can feel like a particularly weird species of death metal if you’re not paying attention.
But False Highs, True Lows bears a seriousness of purpose and resonance that extreme metal of any description rarely captures. Even as Plebeian Grandstand’s rhythm section lash themselves through one sequence of punishing, lopsided meters after another, guitarist Simon Chaubard constantly unspools skeletal, somber arpeggios, a boney clatter that’s strangely emotive in the context of the band’s violence. As with a lot of technically-inclined metal, Plebeian Grandstand’s music often evokes feelings of claustrophobia and isolation, but there’s a real sense of searching and defiance in those ever-shifting guitar chords — the sound of life, trapped in a dark hole to be sure, but endlessly striving to escape. Listen.