Sunday, 14 March 2010

Klabautamann - Merkur (2009) 95/100.

I sometimes wonder whether image should still play such a significant role in black metal music in modern society. When introduced to Klabautamann, I noticed that a particular well known picture of the duo was circulating the internet to mass hysteria. The members of this delightfully intricate band were posing with smiles across their faces under a colourful umbrella. When I think of the genre that is black metal, that image isn’t synonymous with the ideals of the genre. Moments after having seen this picture, my mind reverted back to its old ways and unadventurous, perhaps even blinkered views on how musicians should conduct themselves when they’re in the public eye as they have an image to uphold. Due to this, I ignored the presence of Klabautamann until I read a glowing review based on this latest full-length, entitled ‘Merkur’. At the time of reading it, I was going through a usual phase of mine whereby I was frantically searching for bass-heavy black metal bands, perhaps those with a jazz fusion influence.

The reviews stated that ‘Merkur’ was indeed a record in this particular mould, not only dealing with possible jazz fusion, but also elements of Viking metal a la Enslaved and a whole host of other, intriguing assets which drew me back into the circle of explorers and away from the dark outskirts where the unadventurous loom, waiting to strike down any black metal record that challenged the traditions by interweaving other elements, ones not normally associated with the genres long running history. Positivity flowed from off the page and I was instantly swept up into the stream and in being so, I decided to neglect black metals supposed universal image and opt to listen to the fresh face that is ‘Merkur’. Having listened to the record on repeat a number of times, I surmise that this is one of a kind. Although Klabautamann can be compared to bands like Enslaved, as the vocalist, Tim Steffens, sounds almost identical to the mid-era Enslaved vocals provided by the ever present Grutle, a man who helped inspire a generation of progressive black metal and Viking metal musicians.

Although definitely an innovative record, easily melding areas of progressive metal and rock, as well as other notable genres and sub-genres, there are elements the black metal crowd will know well, such as tremolo based riffs and bass heavy drumming. The vocals even, as stated, are often traditional sounding, taking on an influence which isn’t usually opted for by bands -- Enslaved. The instrumentation of the Norwegians may be “cloned” by others, but the vocals of Grutle have often stood alone. In the form of strong vocalist Tim Steffens, we have a man who can perform a similar type of vocals which provides a generous amount of traditional elements to a record full of character and life. For me, the vocals aren’t the central point of the record, though they do play a part in shifting the approach of songs like ‘Der Wald ist ein Meer’ when they vary to a cleaner, harmonious style which doesn’t conjure up images of a vengeful mother nature (since the lyrics revolve around natural aspects of life such as the woods and seas).

Songs like the aforementioned show how the record becomes gradually more expansive and expressive. At the beginning, the record isn’t as creative and the style isn’t dominated by innovative passages. It isn’t until the middle where the full force of this record reveals itself in its incredible bass lines, acoustics, piano segments, clean vocals and general progressive based style. Songs like the self-titled go a long way in highlighting the impressive song writing skills of Klabautamann, a truly underrated German act. The song has notable black metal aspects such as the whirlwind like sound of the distortion, but these areas of the songs don’t create as much positivity as the progressive based parts, like when the distortion fades, the vocals seep into the background and the bass comes to life, combining with funky guitars with an upbeat sound and smoother, relaxing riffs alongside slower percussion passages. I love the bands ability to fuse genres together.

Underlying progressive based aspects would even hint at a psychedelic rock influence, perhaps from giants like Pink Floyd. Musicianship is never brought into question as the duo expertly draw the vast array of inspirations together on songs like ‘Lurker in the Moonlight’ with its heavier guitar based sections and then lighter, airier passages with electric acoustics, mid-paced drumming and an integral bass. By the end of the record, the cleaner aspects are projected with grace and beauty like no other band has managed in recent times, as shown wonderfully on the emotive ‘Naotun’. When I think of ‘Merkur’, I remember the olden day bands who pioneered such innovation before them. Acts like In The Woods…, or the delightful roaming bass of early Forgotten Woods records, perhaps even treasures like Ved Buens Ende. These bands instantly spring to mind because of the eclectic, adventurous style of Klabautamann and the fact that this record could lead to a cult status, potentially influencing bands themselves in the not-so-distant future. ‘Merkur’ is a top-notch effort, stringing together a variety of sounds and influences with maximum affect. One of 2009’s underrated masterpieces.

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