Founded by Christofer Johnsson over a quarter-century ago and heralded as one of the standard-bearers of symphonic metal, Swedish band Therion tend to set musical trends rather than follow them... so it wasn't so much a surprise to me to discover that the band has moved even further out of the metal domain to explore other realms of grand-scale gothic rock in their fifteenth studio album Les Fleurs Du Mal. The title (which translates as “The Flowers of Evil”) comes from a collection of darkly erotic poems by controversial 19th-century writer Charles Baudelaire, and it's a fitting concept for a band whose lyrics often focus on grandiose nightmare imagery and sinister seduction – except I guess this isn't technically a concept record; it's actually more of a unique approach to a covers album. Very unique in fact, since the tunes being covered here are all vintage French “chanson” pop songs and ballads (mainly from the '60s and '70s), all performed in their original language.
Yeah, I did a little WTF double-take there too. So we have that choice of theme, along with a further departure from the heavier side of gothic metal (a path the band was already taking in their previous release Sitra Ahra) and into the realm of operatic rock, which I imagine might piss off a few purists who want their symphonic metal to be more... well, metal. It seemed the band may have anticipated this, releasing the record indendently, instead of on their usual label, the legendary Nuclear Blast Records. But even as a huge fan of that genre myself, I resolved to go into this record with an open mind nestled between my headphones, and I was surprised at what I discovered after pressing play.
Although they've usually maintained a well-balanced variety of male and female vocals, Therion's increased tendency toward the latter comes fully into play on Les Fleurs, and the more feminine dynamic works best for these lighter retro pop melodies, some of which have a lighter feel in comparison to the band's previous material, especially on tracks like “Polichinelle” and the manically playful “Wahala Manitou.” But there's no mistaking that flamboyant, multi-layered and theatrically over-the-top approach that bears the Therion trademark, even if the only tracks here that truly feel like old-school Therion are the closing track (more on that below) and the hauntingly seductive “Lilith"...
While I'm not too familiar with the original versions, I do know that songs of the “chanson” period were intimate, playful and sometimes painfully melanchcoly (“J'ai le Mal de Toi” is a definite tear-jerker), but usually in a charming way; on this album, what began as simple and catchy melodies tend to become excessively melodramatic. While the scope of the music is not as overtly operatic as Sitra Ahra, the arrangements sometimes feel too big for the material – although to their credit, it does add some cinematic dimension in cuts like “Mon Amour, Mon Ami” and “Une Fleur Dans le Cœur,” which feature the band's full vocal ensemble at their best, and they do manage to serve up some hearty '80s era glam metal for the infectious “Je n’ai besoin que de tendresse,” and bring a more progressive, meditative mood to "Initials B.B." Also interesting is how the album is bookended with two different recordings of “Poupée de Cire, Poupée de Son,” both of which rank among the most memorable tracks in the collection. The first take is more rock-oriented, with a solo female vocal, while the second finds the band in classic mode, with mixed vocals and a more symphonic scope.
It's hard to compare Les Fleurs Du Mal to just about anything in Therion's catalog, but I have to commend them for taking such a daring and unique creative turn on this record. It's often excessive, flamboyant and flashy, but honestly that's not much of a sin in the world of gothic metal. It's actually a very cool way to breathe new life into these long-lost melodies, and the band's sweeping theatrical sound is still alive and well.