Cyclops and Princesses: The Beguiling World of Sortilège

On the evening of Saturday, the 4th of April 2009, my friend Alex and I found ourselves at Le Sax, a 300-seat music hall in Achères, a nondescript Parisian suburban town, to attend a concert by the band ADX. After the opening act, a man in the crowd told us that they were, after all, “the greatest French heavy metal band”. When I replied that I thought that title belonged to Sortilège, he sighed and agreed, “it’s a shame they are not around anymore”. The seventeen-year olds that we were, and that man, probably in his late fifties, fell silent for a minute, only to be brought back to the present when the lights went out and we heard the initial guitar riffs. The hall was only half-full and we spent the concert by the stage, headbanging and screaming. After the concert, it took us three hours through the night to somehow get back to our hometown on the opposite side of the suburbs. And all we talked about was Sortilège.

I had been introduced to the band two years before by a friend, who was already at the time a complete and exclusive fan of metal. New to this world, I listened to Larmes de héros, Sortilège’s second and last album, released in 1986. What struck me were the guitar solos. They sounded much more complex and layered than the others, especially those from other French heavy metal bands. Sure, they had speed and technique but what mattered was the expressive quality of the phrasing, coupled with a rapid legato. It was not the work of a metal or rock guitarist but of a real musician, an artist. Stéphane “L’Anguille” Dumont, Sortilège’s six-chord sniper, was cut from that same cloth.

Very quickly, another realization kicked in: the voice of the singer was one of the finest in the world of heavy metal. With a range of nearly three octaves, Christian “Zouille” Augustin could provide a levelling, melancholic counterpoint to the riffs (Quand un aveugle rêve) or a cry to cut through the night (best heard in Mourir pour une princesse).

Despite these individual talents and the elaborate structure of the music, it still remained faithful to heavy metal. Loud riffs spelt out through power chords, binary rhythm, saturated sound, all that was needed was there to make any metalhead headbang to the point of necessity. What was it about Sortilège, then, that made them so special? What gave them this special place, both in my life and in the world of heavy metal?

When listening to their music, one could not be blamed for imagining a bunch of long-haired musicians rocking the stage, running left and right, performing acrobatics. However, the rare video footage of Sortilège available on Youtube reveals a rather mild live performance. None of the band members move much, except for the perfunctory headbanging. They simply stand where they are on stage, and the music continues. Even Zouille, being the singer and therefore, typically, the designated loose cannon of most heavy metal bands, assumes a neutral disposition (except for his one eighty-degree jump, visible in the clip of Métamorphose). It was a far cry from the energy exhibited by stage giants such as Iron Maiden, Scorpions or Pantera.

This mild attitude, and what seemed almost like shyness on their part, acted as a mirror to my teenage self. Uneasy with the dominant aesthetics of the late 2000s and the social imperative of being, and acting, “cool”, I revelled in this old(-fashioned) music from the early 1980s, produced by five misfits, wearing their hair long, their pants tight and their bodies clad in leather and denim.

Listening to it soon became a path to originality. A way to set myself apart from the rest of the kids in high school. Even though I never dared to grow my hair longer than the lower end of my neck, my Perfecto and my torn jeans were enough to give me a sense of belonging and novelty among the dominant electro and hip-hop vibes.

More importantly, it was through Sortilege that I discovered that one could be both loud and discreet. That the rebellious spirit inherent to heavy metal did not necessarily need to translate into what is often fake or staged craziness. Ultimately, I started appreciating the band’s low-key attitude as much as their music.

For Sortilège, even during the golden years of heavy metal, always remained a confidential band, known only to the happy few. And this, of course, is what makes the clandestine knowing of them even more rewarding and beguiling.

Their manager, and those of the other French heavy metal bands, decided to pit members against one another. As a result, the fans, which were not legion in France, found themselves artificially divided and the following of each group remained extremely thin. The intimacy of the French scene accounts for most of Sortilège’s lack of success. France was never a rock-loving country, and it seemed immune to the heavy metal wave that swept through most of Europe in the early 1980s. Most of the bands, the money, the recording industry and the innovation took place in other countries, primarily Great Britain and Germany. In France, disco and pop had the upper hand. Even the few French rock bands which achieved success (Téléphone, Indochine) leant towards these genres at some point in their career and never approached hard rock or metal.

Many times, I have reflected upon my love for such an arcane musical genre. Was it a quest for originality, a rejection of the world that was slowly unfolding as I was entering adulthood or simply an attraction to good music? Listening to Sortilège these days, many years since I first came across their music, my reason and my heart may go towards the latter.

Good music, you say? Such few people in France seem to agree. Frankly, who could blame them? Who would want to listen to such quixotic lyrics:

The Cyclops of the Pond
Has never done Good
The Cyclops of the Pond
Is the apostle of the Evil One

When you sleep
And when you dream
He is the one taking you
Into his obscene nightmares

Sortilège’s lyrics were always full of mythical creatures (cyclops, Cerberus), magical deeds (metamorphosis, dead kings) and questionable characters (slave traders, gladiators). The extensive use of metaphors was not intended to describe realities close to us. In the rare songs that did (La harge des tordus or, quite literally, The wrath of the twisted), it was easy to understand that the heavy metal community itself was the core subject; their rejection by mainstream cultural standards was the reason for their wrath.

It was never about politics and that suited me very well. In the late 2000s, the French President Nicolas Sarkozy had begun to implement his muscular vision of a renewed French pride, steeped in a mythical narrative of French history, and an exclusionary conception of “Frenchness”. For the first time, a French ministry of national identity was created. This was the background against which all of us had to enter adulthood and I had no clear political leanings at the time. One could argue, in my defence, that there was little by way of a well-structured opposition, political or intellectual, to Sarkozy’s bulldozing nationalism; but I have to admit to the fact that Sortilège and heavy metal served as an escape for me. I preferred their fictional werewolves to the ones lurking around in our national parliament and television programmes.

Fast forward to January 2020. Alex and I were finishing our fourth beer in my parents’ kitchen when we stumbled upon the most unexpected news: Sortilège were back! Having decided to regroup the previous year, they had performed a set of resurgence gigs. When we found videos of these, what we saw was a group of men in their sixties, playing songs that had not been performed in the last thirty-four years, even less mobile than they were back then. The lead guitarist had not rejoined the band, yet nevertheless the lyrics still evoked the imaginary world that was the refuge for our uncomfortable teenage selves.

However, we did not care. Alex and I now listen to many different musical genres, have formed political opinions of our own and are trying to thread a precarious path for ourselves in this life. Sortilège, to us, is no more about intellectual and social formation, and it is not a nostalgia trip either. It has simply come down to heavy metal. The loudness of the sound, the quirk of the lyrics, the slight ridiculousness of the live performances, that is what we love about it. And music that remains, despite being less impressive than it was in its heyday, good.

No second thoughts were needed. Tickets were instantly bought. Yes, these gigs have been postponed three-times due to Covid, but it is now scheduled for 15th April 2022, two years after its initial date. And it is as if Sortilège time is relative. What is a couple of years in a wait of thirty-six? In amidst all the miasma and myths that this band evokes, there is one absolute and certain truth. Alex and I will be there, headbanging to cyclops and princesses in the flesh and in the front row, to the sound of Sortilège, the greatest French heavy metal band of all time.

Jean Baptiste is a French writer. He lives in London. His first novel “Le Plateau” was not published. He is currently writing his second one.

Album cover photo by vinylmeister (Flickr).

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