The French metal revolution

The digital age has made it more than apparent that great heavy music can be found in all manner of unexpected places, but there was once a time when the phrase ‘French metal’ was either regarded as an oxymoron or a rather cruel attempt at a joke by metal fans on this side of the English Channel. In truth, France has long had a healthy and fertile underground metal scene but until the arrival and eventual commercial breakthrough of Gojira a few years ago, most metalheads would have struggled to name more than a couple of worthwhile French bands. That situation has clearly changed in recent years and there has been a steady deluge of often extraordinary heavy bands emerging from France and threatening to follow in the footsteps of Bayonne’s most famous sons. Nonetheless, there is something tantalisingly unfamiliar about the French metal scene, as if its participants have been echoing the genre’s evolution behind closed doors for decades.

When metal was at its global commercial peak during the ’80s, France’s contribution was undeniably negligible. They did have homegrown bands, but thanks in part to a persistent language barrier and the fact that the vast majority of media attention remained focused on bands from America, the UK and other parts of Western Europe, the likes of H Bomb, ADX, Sortilège, Attentat Rock and Blaspheme never came close to outgrowing their hard-earned popularity at home. The one occasion when French metal peered successfully over the battlements was when Anthrax released their version of Antisocial, a song originally by Nanterre hard rockers Trust; a band whose other claim to fame was that Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain passed briefly through their ranks. That one-off glimmer of hope notwithstanding, the French metal scene remained largely unknown and unsung beyond the country’s borders. According to Laurent Merle, founder and owner of revered French metal label Listenable Records – home to Gojira until their move to Roadrunner in 201. – the problems facing French bands were predominantly logistical./o:p

“There were a lot of great bands in France in the ’80. and ’90s, the scene here has never had the support or the connections to make it easy for bands to achieve success elsewhere,” he tells Hammer. “We haven’t had the promoters or the opportunities over the years. The underground is very healthy, but in terms of commercial success it has never really happened until Gojira.” /o:p

For kids growing up in France, of course, the metal scene was a far more accessible and appealing phenomenon. Although born in Belgium, Soilwork drummer Dirk Verbeuren spent most of his adolescence living in France and experienced the scene’s evolution first-hand, first as a fan and then later as a member of his own band, Scarve. /o:p

The dawn of the ’90. ushered in a broader mentality among metal fans and France was not immune to its subsequent effects. Bands like Loudblast and Massacra began to garner attention overseas, if only on an underground level. As Dirk explains, the ’90. were far from the ideal decade for any grassroots scene to be successfully cultivated. /o:p

“Loudblast was definitely a big band for me at that time,” he states. “There were other bands like Massacra, Supuration and Mercyless too, but the thing with those bands is that they were big in France when I was a teenager but they never really broke outside of France. When we formed Scarve in ’94. the whole scene was slowing down. It wasn’t a great time for metal, for anyone! Bands became more and more underground instead of getting bigger, and there wasn’t that much of a scene anymore. But there were a lot of underground things happening. I guess it’s the knowledge of knowing how to export ourselves that was really lacking.”/o:p

Despite the various obstacles in its way, French metal did start to have more of an impact during the ’90. as bands from all points along the metallic continuum started to either exploit new technological opportunities or simply gain popularity via the old-school approach of word-of-mouth and cult notoriety. Bands like avant-garde black metallers Blut Aus Nord, Mütiilation and Deathspell Omega began to impose their own unique creative values onto a style that was flourishing in Scandinavia and elsewhere, while bands like Scarve and Gojira – who originally formed way back in 199. - were starting to propagate a more accessible but no less unique hybrid of modern metal styles, albeit still hogtied by a lack of overseas media interest. /o:p

Perhaps the key to French metal’s eventual growth and redefinition was the contribution of native record labels like Listenable, Osmose Productions, Holy and Adipocere, all of whom made a point of signing French acts and attempting to spread the word on a bigger scale. The impact of Listenable Records in particular cannot be overstated: aside from bringing Gojira to our attention, Laurent Merle’s label has been instrumental in promoting French metal bands alongside an impressively diverse roster of acts from other countries. Curiously enough, the label’s first release was a limited edition seven-inch single by the UK’s own lords of funereal doom, My Dying Bride./o:p

“I was doing my own fanzine called Peardrop and I had always wanted to give away a free seven-inch single with the magazine,” Laurent recalls. “I made contact with My Dying Bride and we ended up releasing the God Is Alone seven-inch for them in 1991. and that’s how it all started. I gave up my job and threw every-thing into the label a few years later in 199. and somehow we have survived ever since.”/o:p

“For My Dying Bride, the French have been invaluable,” MDB guitarist Andrew Craighan tells Hammer. “They are the only country where we have won any kind of award! We released our first vinyl through Listenable back in the pre-internet, underground days. The French as a whole don’t seem to get much credit or any real recognition in metal, but they are there, as vibrant and as important as any other scene on the planet. We wouldn’t have had the start we had without them, and that’s a very hard thing to admit as an Englishman!”/o:p

Anyone who has followed Gojira’s career will know that it was during their many years on Listenable that the band managed to escape their home scene’s limitations and embark on a mission to conquer the world. As a result, frontman Joseph Duplantier is more than happy to sing the praises of the label and the man who continues to run it to this day./o:p

“I would say that Laurent is a superhero!” he says. “This guy’s incredible. He was an English teacher but he stopped everything and started his label. When I talk to musicians and they ask which label we were on back in the day and I say it was Listenable, every time they say, ‘Ah, Laurent! I love that guy!’ Whether it’s Morbid Angel or whoever, he’s very good at making contacts. It was crucial, signing to Listenable. He’s the one, the only guy in France who has all these contacts, through the old school tape-trading way. He created a giant network of people with that DIY ethos. He’s a super-passionate guy and we owe him a lot.”/o:p

“There are a number of labels in France but Laurent has always had a more savvy approach when it came to promoting and being professional,” adds Dirk Verbeuren. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be as good as Dave Lombardo and not place any limits on myself and Laurent’s always had that approach too. He wants to stay independent and do things his own way and he has a vision. He saw the potential in Gojira and look at them now! The first time I saw them they just blew me away and I knew straight away that they’d break through internationally. But Laurent helped to make it happen. With Scarve we were trying hard too, but it never picked up for us the way it did for Gojira. I just think we didn’t have our shit together as well as they did! Ha ha!”/o:p

Although Joseph Duplantier is reluctant to assume the mantle of ambassador for the French metal scene, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Gojira’s success has inspired a surge of frequently remarkable bands from our Gallic neighbours, many of whom seem to share their standard bearers’ knack for approaching heavy music in a fresh and often daring way. Bands like Dagoba, Hacride, Trepalium, Eths, Gorod, Betraying The Martyrs and Klone have all received widespread acclaim in recent times and with everything from power metal – see Listenable signings Adagio – to more purposefully uncommercial extreme metal acts like Svart Crown, Benighted and Necrowretch being snapped up by international labels, it’s plain that French metal is enjoying a golden age. Laurent believes that. “French bands often have an avant-garde touch,” he says. “If Gojira were American it would’ve been easier for them to be recognised, but then maybe they wouldn’t have sounded like Gojira in the first place!”/o:p

“We noticed things changing about 1. years ago,” adds Joe Duplantier. “It took us a long time to cross borders, because before we signed to Listenable we didn’t have the contacts. Now there are more great French bands appearing all the time.”/o:p

Its metal scene may have told a somewhat problematic story so far, but France is swiftly proving itself to be one of the most distinctive breeding grounds for heavy music. The days when bands would languish in obscurity because they had no way of promoting themselves are long gone. And if they keep producing bands like Gojira, it’s hard to imagine anyone regarding French metal as a joke in the future. Vive la révolution, non?/o:p

“The French take pride in who they are,” concludes Dirk Verbeuren. “They have a long history and that comes with a stubbornness at certain points! Bands want to keep their identity and they may even sing in French too. That’s admirable, I think. They want to do things their own way.”

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.