SOUS LE LYS NOIR: Context For a Revolution

Hello, and welcome to the first official post of my brand new series: Sous le lys noir.

As I wrote in the introduction for the series, which you can read here, these posts will be dedicated to exploring the history and evolution of QCBM.

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Of course, a scene can’t spring into existence out of nowhere–there has to be a background and a history; two things which are especially important to métal noir Québécois for reasons upon which I will expand shortly.

These first few posts will cover in detail the most important elements that went into not only the various sounds of QCBM but also the themes and mentalities behind them. In that regard, the scene may be much more than meets the eye for many people. Québec’s political climate, culture, language and historical backdrop–especially the language and historical backdrop–are almost, if not just as important as the music itself. Much of what I will write today with regards to these topics will come as a bit of a shock to some people I’m sure, Canadian or otherwise; primarily to those unfamiliar with the history of the Belle Province. While it’s definitely possible to appreciate QCBM without this contextual information, being aware of it will help you to better understand the inner workings of the scene and hopefully take that appreciation of yours to the next level.

However, before we get to all that fun stuff, let’s talk music. For the sake of keeping the facts straight, there is no distinct sound to QCBM. However, there is also an inner core to the scene which does have a sound of its own. To me, there is a distinction between QCBM and simply black metal that is from Québec, although this is purely a creation of my own mind and by no means a factual division within the scene. This series, however, is based around that inner core, and all references I make to QCBM and all its aliases will refer to that aspect of the scene unless otherwise specified.

Musical Influences

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Joseph Allard pictured with Johnny Boivin, A.-S. Lavalle, Medard Bourgie and Ferdinand Boivin

Long before the arrival of metal music, the land now known as Québec had rich musical traditions of its own. French-Canadian folk music has been around since the first settlers arrived in the region, bringing with them their own traditions, customs and songs from Europe and elsewhere. This folkloric music was a proud legacy of the people of New France, enjoying a rich oral history through the sharing and passing on of its songs from generation to generation. Literary sources on the formative period of French-Canadian music may be few and far between, but we do know that it was kept alive and carried proudly by the colonists who had found new homes along the banks of the Saint-Laurent.

“De la Conquête (1759-1960) jusqu’au milieu du XXe siècle, les communautés francophones, rurales pour la plupart, persistent dans un isolement linguistique et culturel qui leur permet de sauvegarder la vitalité et la vigueur de leur culture traditionnelle.” –Historica Canada

(Translation: From the Conquest (1759-1960) until the middle of the 20th century, rural francophone colonies for the most part existed in a linguistic and cultural isolation which permitted them to safeguard the vitality and vigour of their traditional culture.)

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Much of New France, at the time, remained largely isolated from the cultures and traditions of the outside world. This was the perfect climate for accelerated development of a unique French-Canadian cultural identity, which included–among other things–a unique Québécois take on the French language, occurring naturally by preserving some older aspects of the language that grew outdated and gradually faded out of common use in France (more on that in the next post), and a strong musical identity that served as an important pillar to French-Canadian culture.

However, the oldest folk songs of New France of course weren’t unique to the region. Many of these songs had their diligently preserved roots in the settlers’ countries of origin, some dating back to the medieval ages. Over time, many of these songs took on French-Canadian flavours; subsequently, they adopted new identities, embodying the culture of the people that sang them. This practice was actually not unique to Québec, leading not only to many modern francophone nations developing different takes on the same repertoire, but also to versions of these songs existing in English, Spanish or even German (source). Still, many of these songs were adapted to convey themes of life in New France, thus lending to them an identity that French Canadians proudly claimed as their own.

“Complaintes ou satires, ces chansons reflètent les conditions de vie de la communauté canadienne-française : vie de Voyageurs, camps de bûcherons, désastres et malheurs, vie politique et communautaire.” –Historica Canada

(Translation: In complaint or satire, these songs reflected the conditions of life of the French-Canadian community: the lives of the Voyagers, logging camps, disasters and hard times, political and community life.)

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La Bolduc, center, with her harmonica. She is largely considered to be Québec’s first singer/songwriter and captivated many with her music in the 1930s.

The music of New France was always very functional, written for the purpose of accompanying various dances like le quadrille, le cotillon and la gigue. Over the years, this music mingled with influences from French, Celtic, and British music, always carefully preserving its roots.

Some of the most important instruments to Québec’s folk music were instruments such as the fiddle, the accordion and the harmonica, though the fiddle was of an importance far surpassing that of any other. Percussion instruments used in Québec were improvised or unorthodox items–such as spoons, small bones or even feet (source), which were commonplace and came to be known as an identifying feature of the region’s musical landscape. Many Québécois still uphold this tradition by learning to play music with these objects and passing the knowledge on to the next generation.

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Modern French-Canadian musical spoons. Photograph courtesy of Heritage Musical Spoons at musical spoons.ca

Fiddlers such as Joseph Allard (1873-1947), Jean Carignan (1916-1988) and Jos Bouchard (1905-1979) are to this day beloved by the Québécois. Multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Mary Bolduc (pictured above), also known as La Bolduc or Madame Bolduc, achieved immense popularity in the 1930s for her music, which blended the traditional folk music of both Québec and Ireland, landing her a prestigious status as the “Queen of Canadian Folksingers’.

Joseph Allard’s legacy in particular lives on today, enjoying the occasional allusion from QCBM bands such as Québec City’s Forteresse: arguably the most influential and well-known band of the scene’s history.

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Famed fiddler Joseph Allard. Does he look familiar?

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…Do you recognize him now? Here, he is featured on the cover of Forteresse’s  2006 LP ‘Metal Noir Québécois’–the album that gave the scene an identity.

It is these subtle influences that have consistently made their way into Québec’s black metal, helping to shape and mould it into its modern sound. Some bands, such as Forteresse or Hiverna, may include more blatant allusions to Québec’s traditional musical identity while others, such as Brume d’Automne or Délétère, may bear this influence in more understated ways, embedded deeply into riffs, melodies or other textural elements. The sound of modern QCBM became much more defined by the acknowledgement of Québec’s traditional roots in the years following 2006 and the release of ‘Métal Noir Québécois’. 

Releases prior to that time were much more focused on bringing in influences from the Norwegian Inner Circle, though early albums such as Sorcier des glace‘s ‘Snowland’ were able to provide groundwork, in that aspects of some early releases were able to open the door to black metal where French-Canadian folk music would not sound remotely out of place; in those years, the foundation had been laid, but no direct influence was yet noticeable.

Of course, other forms of Québécois history have played huge roles in the formation of the QCBM sound–factors going far beyond music, from non-musical history to culture to language to Québec’s relationship with the rest of Canada as we know it today, but those are well deserving of their own post; another tale for another time.


Be sure to watch out for the next post in the series:

SOUS LE LYS NOIR: Honour and Tradition

Thanks for reading!

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