Metall fur Germania: Dark Tribe and Isegrim

Germany is something of an enigma in metal circles. An argument could be made for its being the capital of the metal world. Yet despite its status as a cultural hub for the metal community, outside of thrash/speed metal it has never led the world in a particular style or unique regional flavour in the same way as many of their European neighbours. By the end of the Cold War, industrial music experienced an odd marriage with American alt rock in the form of NIN et al, and for Germany, that meant the rise of Rammstein and the Neue Deutsche Härte in monopolising the attention of mainstream critics. In terms of underground metal, there’s no shortage of artists to delve into, but they all too often feel like disconnected also-rans; the small discography of Ungod, the short-lived Torchure, the iconoclastic Absurd, the patchy legacy of Naragaroth, the atypical Nagelfar. Perhaps it’s appropriate that we take a closer look at two obscure outfits from this land of cultural crossroads, at the crossroads of the centuries. What’s interesting about these two artists in particular is their melding of American black metal styles with a distinctive European flavour.

Dark Tribe took an interesting approach to flavouring black metal with industrial stylings. Interesting because rather than simply smashing out a few war metal tracks and adding some synths and edgy samples to shift the general atmosphere towards the synthetic, their whole ethos is geared towards creating repetitive, dirt simple percussive riffs, and hammering home their inherent repetition ad absurdum. At least, that was the general idea on their first album ‘Geboren an den Ufern des Wahnsinns’ released in 2002. The actual industrial tones applied are very minimal. Some sequencers crop up now and then, the drums are programmed but fit snuggly into the raw aesthetic of the whole album. The tinny guitars, the frantic vocals with a haunting, clean accompaniment, the sonic corridors formed of simple, repetitive riffs, all invite comparisons to Black Funeral. But whilst the latter offered a dark, ritualistic interpretation of the style, Dark Tribe make more use of staccato chords and choppy rhythms to create an undeniably imposing atmosphere.

Simple discordant riffs, made up of basic ascending and descending chord progressions work in unison with pounding drum patterns, defined by a kind of stop/start direction of travel that pretty much defines the whole flow of the album. Much like Ildjarn, this rudimentary framework is hammered into the listener’s mind well past the dictates of good taste. Only the slightest variation in pitch or tempo is offered from track to track. Screeching vocals cut through this razor-sharp assembly line of fragmentary musical elements with frantic aural ejaculations, broken up by clean chanting that follows the guitar lines. This frequent concession to some kind of melodic centre breaks up the boundless monotony of the central instrumentation. But much like Ildjarn – and in a manner admittedly much easier to spot – Dark Tribe use this discordant barrage to provide additional contrast to melodies that actually emerge as the album progresses.

What becomes apparent after each corner and turn of ‘Geboren an den Ufern des Wahnsinns’ is a kind of frantic race to find tranquillity. As brief clean guitar harmonies emerge, or tones that are not sharp distortion, or vocals set at a different pitch emerge from the barrage. These musicians are able to get a whole lot of mileage out of even the most subtle adjustment having laid the groundwork of contrast before us. It’s an approach, with many risks. For instance, many decry Ildjarn as a step to far in this direction and dismiss his body of work out of hand. But Dark Tribe offer far more in the way of conventional black metal riffage along the way to keep the less jaded listener interested. In many ways this album’s obvious uniqueness stems more from the percussive choices made than the riffs themselves. The simple, pounding repetition fitting of harsh industrial completely dictates the rhythmic flow of the guitars, and thus lends them an unsettling quality, even when working through fairly standard chord progressions in the black metal tradition.

The short lived Isegrim only managed to put out one LP in their careers, but ‘Dominus Inferus Ushanas’ released in 2000 achieves more than many needlessly lengthy discographies for efficiency of messaging. This is an interesting rendering of sweeping Swedish metal in the tradition of Necrophic or early Marduk slammed together with the undeniable occultism of Demoncy. This is apparent in some of the choices in production but also the shape of the guiding riffs on each track. For instance, the guitar tone offers a descent colouring of bottom end in line with American black metal of the time. The drums also have that programmed quality despite the playful interaction with the guitars. The vocals also operate at that ghoulish level of ritualistic metal, with a good dose of lower end death growls chucked in for good measure.

The riffs themselves, when not constructed of nods to an older school of simple power chord sequences, often break into soaring tremolo picked minor key passages very reminiscent of Demoncy. They smuggle in hidden complexity in their extension of cadence. Resolution is often a much longer time in coming than expected. But what makes ‘Dominus Inferus Ushanas’ more interesting than just a decent rendering of Demoncy style black metal is the melding of these elements with some vey European techniques. These more occult stylings often lead into traditionally melodic passages; they sound almost triumph when played both in contrast with the dirty blackened thrash riffs but also the momentum of the music itself. This is not just a question of speed but one of energy. Many mid-tempo passages blast by thanks to the constant yet subtle shifting of the rhythm section to compliment each new riff as it takes shape.

Many of these riffs would be at home on a Swedish blackened death metal album from the likes of Dawn, Sacramentum, or the aforementioned Necrophobic. And here they are melded with elements of old school blackened thrash and dirty ritualistic black metal. But this is no confused mess of ideas. These contrasting traditions are consolidated into an exhilarating and focused piece of extreme metal that offers more thematic and emotional depth than many of their counterparts. This last point is certainly true of black metal as it was in 2000. A rare diamond in the rough at a time when black metal was entering a period of stagnation and self-recrimination. Isegrim have achieved this through simple yet effective tricks such as adding short link riffs to connect up different passages, a diverse array of tempos and guitar techniques, all of which are harnessed into a focused and undeniable aesthetic thanks to the guitar tone and dramatic vocal delivery that seems to revel in this albums unbridled energy.

In one sense we could say that, beyond looking at Germany alone, these two albums are European interpretations of fledging American styles. Or we could say that they were poking at the creative edges of black metal when the genre had reached a risky age, at the tail end of the second wave, and tragedy or farse awaited in equal measure. However you wish to look at it, these are two buried gems from a small time period not known for such things. Although the styles are markedly different, tradition dictates that we come down on one side or the other. For my money I’m going with Isegrim. It may be less obviously original, containing many familiar elements, but what originality it does offer is made more compelling by being buried somewhat in the album’s overt drama. Dark Tribe’s ‘Geboren an den Ufern des Wahnsinns’ is certainly more of an odd ball piece. But it so jarring, such an exhausting listen, that it operates more as a well of ideas – or the tearing down of stagnant conventions – than it does something that I would wish to listen even in semi-regular rotation.

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