Being both enigmatic and instantly recognizable isn’t a task most bands are up for; French post-metal juggernauts Celeste are, as the kids say, built different. Just like their now-legendary red headlamps, their signature blend of (physically and mentally) devastating music has become ingrained in the minds of many a metal fan around the globe. As such, it should come as no surprise that we’re celebrating the 15th anniversary of their début record Nihiliste(s), which was released on February 9, 2008.
Amidst a flurry of red headlamps, a crushing rhythm section, and tortured vocals stands a band that in many ways has no peers. Sure, Celeste are hardly the only band to weld post-metal with a blackened sludge metal foundation, but their perspective on how it should be done is wholly unique. Sonically, Celeste started building their foundation with the EP Pessimiste(s), which cleared the way for Nihiliste(s), their debut LP.
Nihiliste(s) is an album that will utterly destroy you. Even though this was the band’s first album, they are incredibly articulate in what they are saying and how they are saying it. Yes, lyrically this is a very, very heavy album. If you’re like me and a non French-speaking person who translated the lyrics, you can no doubt relate to just how devastating the themes from song to song. Despair, abuse, violence, and of course nihilism are ideas that permeate these songs, but even without reading the lyrics the power of these emotions comes through fully. I think this is a clear indicator of just how good at their craft Celeste are, even from the beginning. The marriage of heavy-as-lead atmosphere with their hypnotic riff structure on “Au feu le savoir” as the intensity mounts throughout the song only to allow for a dynamic respite near the midpoint showcases just how well this album is written. The push and pull of this album is masterful.
Tracks such as “Au feu le savoir” and “Pour maintenir encore une fois la distance” showcase the grooves that Celeste finds their way into and this systematic approach is a sneaky one. This repetitive, rhythmic wall of sound slowly burrows its way into your skull. It doesn’t take long to find yourself mesmerized. Adding panic notes of dissonance along the way enhances on some levels the already dense spell it casts on the listener. The layering on this album is impeccable and is further proof – if it’s still needed – that slower music isn’t inherently boring.
There is something unsettling about how Celeste creates music, and while the instrumentation and vocals aren’t distinctly unique to their band, the outcome most certainly is. There is an evilness to it as on the track “Mais va vendre ton dédain”, but despair and pain are never left off of the emotional palette. This complex mass of feelings is what drives the album and to an extent the band itself, as their template hasn’t changed much since this initial release. The song structures certainly complement the labyrinthian web of feelings with their percussive, punchy moments when the vocals take respite and lay down the sludgy foundation when the lyrics are being shrieked in the band’s native French.
Nihiliste(s) is not only a fantastic debut but stands as one of the best in this microgenre of blackened, sludgy post-metal. The duration is perfect at just under 45 minutes; enough to properly exhaust the listener without being unreasonably tortuous. The production lets all the right notes shine and the individual performance by each band member coalesce into a whole that is greater than the parts. Few bands can hypnotize with such grace and ease while still annihilating the observer’s emotional state, Celeste are one-of-a-kind.
This year’s ASIR features seem to hit home with me unlike ever before. Granted we’ve barely rang 2023 in, but some spy tactics and having an acceptive editor has shown already that I get to speak a whole lot about albums that are important to me for various reasons, and from various angles. Last time we talked about the kiwi monoliths Ulcerate, and this piece’s artist holds similar gravitas when it comes to my own musical journey, perhaps to an even greater extent.
The French black metal/hardcore vessel Celeste are a prime example of a holistic act; ever since their inception, their sound, songwriting, lyrics and themes alongside the language used in them, song/album titles, artworks, and their overall appearance has stayed firm and true to themselves. The band’s debut Nihiliste(s) came out fifteen years ago to a noticeable and rather broad underground acclaim, which has grown and further penetrated the surface of the waters of a wider audience with the later five albums. I could sit here and go on about each of these endeavours separately, but alas, this is neither the time or the place for that. Instead, we’ll focus on the bullpen and ignition of the band’s career.
Nihiliste(s) is a rough album in all conveyable meanings of the word. Celeste are knownfor their utmost high-end production value, and although their debut has quite a bit of grit to it, you can hear how the general sound would later develop into what it is today. The captivating photographic cover – the band’s visual backbone – depicts a half-dressed girl laying on a bed, without instantly giving too much away. The photo’s ingrained dread and weight stems from the lyrical themes concerning domestic violence, abuse, betrayal, and other rather hefty subjects from pessimism to general negativity. I recall when I first saw the image; I felt a fixation towards it because of it being a striking shot, further emphasized by the concept, and also because an album cover had never moved me the way this one does. Same goes to Celeste’s later artworks, all of which revolve around photography and similar subjects, providing a unique visual stance for the band. I’ve heard that not all people see the artistic contention in featuring a half-nude teen on their artwork, but those people should maybe look deeper and consider the thematics as well, and suddenly there’s very little downright sexual or otherwise offending-ish content to look at. Sure, the lyrics feature plenty of that, but again, it has nothing to do with shock value or edgy dispositions as much as they’re a rugged and callous, unfiltered look into the real world and its prevalent issues.
Being rugged and callous also applies to the music, as hinted above. Nihiliste(s) perhaps is more ascetic sound-wise than its predecessor, but I’d argue it packs punch exactly because of that. While the band certainly hasn’t gone stale or easy on the ears since, the songwriting on Nihiliste(s) bites into your neck like a rabid rottweiler and doesn’t let go until you’re mauled into smithereens. ’Danger’ might be an odd word in this context, but I’d argue it’s an apt descriptor of the compositions, and the fact that as a listener you keep on being undermined and hit from the direction you expect the least, and even after countless listens, Nihiliste(s) surprises you with its innovative and unrestrained aural barrage.
”On pendra les femmes et les enfants en premier” is an opener of the ages, and I vividly remember how profoundly it struck me the second Celeste unleashed their fury upon my incautious ass. The band’s signature flavour seamlessly stitching together components from black metal to hardcore, sludge, post-metal, and doom, has been a sight to behold since the beginning. Good examples of this fluency follow right after the first track by means of the sludgier ”Au feu le savoir” and the oh so grating hardcore-oriented ”Mais va vendre ton dédain”, and what you have unveiling in your ears is the best trio of tracks to open an album that you could possibly imagine. And the best part? It isn’t exactly downhill from there.
The atmosphere on Nihiliste(s) dictates much of its value, and is emphasised via such tracks as ”Tu regardes trop fort, tu penses trop fort, tu parles trop fort” and ”Comme s’il suffisait de lever le doigt pour refaire”, where the more cacophonous terror subsides to let some more groove and hefty swings in. Celeste plays around with intensity as if they came up with the notion, and Nihiliste(s) excels in exactly this: holding the listener firmly in its grasp throughout its duration. Even if you could say the album overstays its welcome by a few minutes, that doesn’t diminish it one bit. Time, without a doubt, has taken its due, and I understand one of the reasons I hold it in such high regard stems from the fact that I had never heard anything like it when it initially swept me off my feet during my formative years, I can listen to Nihiliste(s) today (and have, many times) and say it’s a fantastic record, and I still haven’t heard anything quite like it, fifteen years later. And you know, that says something.
It’s nice to see and hear people find them and backtrack their back catalogue up until Nihliste(s) and the preceding EP Pessimiste(s) and emerge on the other side with a dumb grin on their faces. There is something primal to be enjoyed on this album, and you can make as many counterintuitive points about how it could be more this and less that, but again, that doesn’t really affect the facts. As it stands, Celeste have made a name for themselves for all the right reasons during their notable career, and I doubt that’ll change going forward. After all, when has this humanity ever had enough misery and bleakness?