As a young black metal fan, sated of Norwegian black metal, and suitably disillusioned by one-dimensional American ambient black metal, Eastern Europe promised a bold new frontier of artists, as yet untapped. For the British, there’s something mysterious about this large landmass but a few thousand miles away. The land of Dracula and Countess Bathory. The destination for the characters of Algernon Blackwood’s ghost tales, owing to its vast and grim forest landscapes.
Black metal is now an internationally recognised facet of Norwegian culture. But what made their brand of black metal so special was the fact that there was no typical Norwegian style. Emperor, Burzum, Immortal, Darkthrone, all were uniquely different from one another, and all have a long line of different subgenres formed in their wake. For Eastern Europe, the music was linked much closer to a sense of national identity through the very music itself. They took many of the typical techniques of black metal as it was in the mid-1990s and blended them with their own local folk music traditions, and grounded the music in their own pagan history and mythology.
Negura Bunget (Romanian for ‘line-up change’) formed back in 1995 as a duo. They developed a fluid, grim, and epic take on black metal with their first clutch of releases. While keyboards were used sparingly, the guitars being the chief guide for the music, this still oozed a cold, open atmosphere that calls to mind the vast forests of their homeland. ‘Om’ (2006) is seen by many to be their watershed release. And with good reason. It sees them marry their slow, meandering black metal with more use of keyboards, additional percussion, and even slower builds and falls than their previous works.
The thing to note about the music of Negura Bunget, is that it reeeeeally takes its time. This is very slow for black metal. But the drums are nevertheless busy, working their way through fills and builds to complement the guitars as they develop and contrast riffs. Vocals vary from a mid-range black metal growl to clean singing and chanting. The album is designed to favour these waves of atmosphere produced by the guitars and keyboards above all else. The drums are sharp and crisp by comparison, allowing for much needed rhythmic clarity beneath the reverb laden guitars. The music tends to lumber from one key or mood to the next, and in musical terms each transition can take an age to unfold. Clear and busy drums offset some of this by grounding the music in something more tangible. Dark, cold, atmospheric, but with a uniquely Eastern European character to it.
The tracks themselves are shorter than earlier releases, but they are all interconnected, making the album feel like one long, extended piece. The music is written with two guitars in mind, as they work their way through complementary riffs that are intertwined. This leaves the keyboards to add texture and atmosphere, but they do play a more lead role than on previous releases. All this makes for an album rich in musical ideas and creativity, with a unified theme and mood tying the whole thing together. Highly recommended.
But in the midst of the vast, fog covered forests lie pockets of light, where folk drink and make merry. Enter Nokturanl Mortum, probably one of the happiest sounding bands to have emerged from the Ukrainian black scene. Yet twas not always so. Their early work was defined by dark yet melodic black metal that lent heavily on the use of keyboards and folk flourishes. Then in the mid-2000s everything changed with the release of ‘Weltanschauung’ in 2005. Like Negura Buinget’s ‘Om’ it was something of a watershed moment for the band. It saw Nokturnal Mortum leave the dark and evil aesthetic in favour of a more celebratory take on black metal, heavily influenced by folk music as well prog rock of the 1970s. It paved the way for the now legendary ‘Voice of Steel’ (2009), and is worth exploring for that reason alone.
Although this album ultimately sees Nokturnal Mortum move closer to conventional rock, albeit with a black metal aesthetic, it is still masterfully composed. It is rhythmically energetic, but it sticks close to the cheery folk music which constitute many of the interludes weaved throughout the album. Vocals are still very much in the black metal area, but the lyrics are somewhat audible, and even melodic in their distortion at times. Again, the guitars are heavily distorted, but this is deliberately curtailed to allow the melodies and leads visibility in the mix. One gets the sense that the rough and ready production was a matter of necessity rather than choice, as the epic and triumphalist folk metal they are leaning towards would lend itself to more polished production.
But for all the cheer, this is still a powerful and imposing work. It is far superior to the pop-in-disguise carnival that makes up much of the folk metal brand today. Weltanschauung is a great example of how music can be energetic, and….fun *shudders* but still extreme. By extreme I do not just mean the usual hallmarks of black metal, I am also referring to a certain level of sophistication in composition, an ambition to create lasting music, whose appeal stretches far beyond mere novelty. There may be a few imperfections in the canvas when it comes to ‘Weltanschauung’, but as a first step into a very different world for Nokturnal Mortum it remains impressive. It is folk metal in more than just the use of random instruments and silly costumes, there is power and celebration within the music which is rare within what is otherwise a very black metal album.
We essentially have two sides of the same coin this week. Eastern European metal is a vast world to explore, and it has many treasures to offer. But these two albums make for a great starting point, being as they are, two very different ways to approach black metal. So in large part the pick of the week will depend on which style you prefer, or just today’s mood. But from my own perspective I have to go with Nokturnal Mortum simply because I look at this album as a first pass at creating ‘The Voice of Steel’, which for my money is one of the best albums of the century. That alone earns it a place as pick of the week. After the release of ‘Om’, Negura Bunget were dogged by internal disputes, eventually splitting completely, with other members forming Dordeduh, well worth looking into. Drummer Negru continuing with a different line up, released ‘Varstele Pamantului’ in 2010, and although it was a solid release his vision of a revolving line up policy to explore different musical traditions never came to fruition owing to his untimely death. If there was any steam left in this project, we’ll never know.