Having ground for almost a full two decades playing shows across France and its neighbouring countries and steadily building a momentum that has seen them grace the stage of Hellfest, among other festivals, all the while developing and honing their sound with each subsequent release, Hangman’s Chair is in no rush. True to doom, their latest effort, A Loner, takes well over two minutes to unleash its first riff. Up to this point, the band craft a sonic soundscape with a steady drumbeat pulsing underneath layered guitars, the tone of which simultaneously gives two contrasting impressions; the first of someone standing on a frosted pavement gazing up at the stars, the second, of that person being trapped in a void amongst them. Once frontman Cédric Toufouti’s haunting, mid-register vocals enter the scene, the impression is cemented in place. To quote one of the band’s previous full-length releases, this is not supposed to be positive. This isn’t music intended to be played over a beaming Summer volleyball game at the beach, or to suit the mood when you and your partner get under the covers (well, hopefully not anyway). It’s bleak. It’s desolate. It’s introspective, and reflective of the specific type of frustrations all too prevalent throughout modern, urban societies. It’s the sonic rendition of the death of hope.
You needn’t look any further than the track titles to know this, from the opening ‘An Ode to Breakdown’ and its ‘Cold and Distant’ successor, to title track ‘Loner’ and ‘Who Wants to Die Old?’. A line repeated throughout the latter, one of the album’s stand-outs, sums up a lot of the sense of alienation that runs throughout: “I don’t understand this world we live in.” It is a feeling that almost every human on the planet has experienced at one point or another, and this universality lends itself to the song and the album as a whole, as mutual experience and understanding is a vital aspect of why music is so important and able to bring together so many people.
It’s clear that, almost as if they’ve sliced a line from sternum to belly button and pried their chests open with their fingers in order to display cold, dead hearts to the world, the band have taken their collective struggles and transmuted them into an expansively depressive record that, despite not sounding similar, echoes one of the greatest, most sombre doom metal albums in existence, namely Warning’s Watching from a Distance. Both albums are pure lamentation. Both are invocations, examinations of the deep, dark places within, in which, one by one like flowers in a grave, hopes are laid to rest. But rarely forgotten.
While the album should be enjoyed as a cohesive whole as opposed to a bunch of individual songs, it can’t be ignored that it doesn’t quite feel more than the sum of its parts. But it doesn’t feel less than it, either. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, when combined with the general lack of changes in tempo, the sameness of some of the tracks, and the feeling of the formulaic that descends now and again, it’s clear that A Loner is not a perfect album, although some diehard doom heads might argue against this, citing the above criticisms as absolute staples of the genre and exactly what they crave.
It is the kind of album that requires more than just passive listening, however. It needs an attentive ear and room to breathe before its intricacies are fully revealed, and it also rewards repeated listens. One such example is the entirety of the tremendously atmospheric ‘Pariah and the Plague’, a phenomenal instrumental that swirls lush delayed guitars over distant ghostly drums to superb effect. It’s the kind of track that, given the right venue, could be played at any point in a live set – as the opening number, the middling track, the closer – without losing a fraction of its ethereal effect. Personally, I could see it working tremendously well as the centre of a three-song encore before the band end with a bang on ‘A Thousand Miles Away’, utilising a rare moment of ante-upped speed and aggression to really blow the crowd away and leave a lasting impression long after the gig is over and the crowd have fizzled back into their daily lives, however, depressing these may be.