It’s fair to say that those of a metal persuasion are sometimes a little blinkered when it comes to the history of post war musical evolution, a little prone to selective thinking as to those gold standard releases and musicians. It’s often forgotten that a parallel evolution took place just over the border in People’s Republic of Electronica. Sure we’ve all heard of Tangerine Dream, Kratwerk, Throbbing Gristle, we’ve come across a rave or two in our time and encountered Aphex Twin. But honest to god defectors are a rarity in metal. Anyone that does peer across the border would find a parallel evolution, filled with its own milestone artists, watershed releases, subgenre politics, and loosely defined coalitions.
That is…unless we consider black metal. One of the defining features that set early black metal apart was a recognition that extreme metal’s atmospheric and textural qualities were a novel phenomena in the rock oeuvre, and that they might bear similarities to various forms of electronic and ambient music in their use of minimal, sequential repetitions designed to invoke a state of hypnosis. Hence Euryonmous’ interest in Tangerine Dream, even enlisting Conrad Schnitzler to compose the intro to the ‘Deathcrush’ EP. Or Marko Laiho’s brief stint as a techno DJ. It should come as no surprise that both members of Summoning had electronic side projects, with Protector’s Ice Ages adopting a melodic EBM flavour and Silenius’s Kreuzweg Ost moving into martial ambient territory. More curious perhaps is Raymond Dillard Heflin’s EBM project Equitant, which he maintained alongside both Absu and the dark ambient project he shared with other members of the band in the form of Equimanthorn.
Equimanthorn are actually far less of an enigma in the world of black metal side projects. Their brand of ritualistic dark ambient is the ideal companion to the mythological, occultist metal of classic era Absu. But Heflin’s solo work under the Equitant moniker is a far more curious beast. By the mid-2000s this project had moved from dark ambient to a form of minimal industrial/EBM, a style that was undergoing something of a renaissance in goth circles in the early years of the 21st Century. At the time, goth may have felt like an unusual home for this brand of melodic industrial known as EBM, but there have always been close ties between the two that extend right back to the inception of synth music as a viable pop entity in the late 1970s. This marriage has only tightened in the contemporary picture thanks to synth wave’s resounding post Stranger Things popularity, with its darker iterations again finding a home within the modern goth club scene.
Where does this leave an album like Equitant’s ‘Konstruckteur’ released in 2005? Well, for one it seems very much aware of its potential for border hopping appeal across the metal, electronic, and goth spectrum, with bouncy German techno, minimal EBM, clean and light industrial, and some considerable dark ambient flirtation toward the second half of the album. Equitant walks the line between competing moods with grace, as tracks flitter between light and darkness but are kept accessible owing to their infectious grooves, well-defined melodies, and tonal range just beyond what we could safely call minimal. This is probably still too sparse to be considered anything remotely poppy, but the framework is there, and probably makes ‘Konstruckteur’ one of the most accessible albums to be released in the orbit of anything associated with the Absu name.
This is a lengthy album, essentially delivered in three major segments. The first is the most typically industrial. Although distortion is kept to a minimum, the synth loops retain a dark, menacing character that reminds us of the true pedigree behind this music. Simple, repeated sequences too reliably repetitive to be called themes are set out as establishing shots, underpinned by infectiously groovy drum patterns. These are then driven through one or two minor variations, making the best of the smallest shift in key, pitch, or synth patch to drive through developments whilst keeping the tempo largely consistent.
The second segment of this album could broadly be classed as dark ambient, although it maintains a thematic unity with the opening clutch of tracks. The main differences being the reigned in or absent percussion, along with a more drawn out melodic philosophy atop some much needed layers of textural intrigue. It’s surprising then that the final segment of ‘Konstruckteur’ ushers in a scene of colourful sugar coated synth melodies. We’re used to encountering ambient and electronic albums that make a point of their structural entropy, slowly dissolving the music away into darkness by the end of the album. But Equitant buck this trend by ending on an unusually bright note, and could look almost audacious when viewed from this angle.
As with a lot of minimal electro one may be tempted to situate this as an accompaniment to other activities, working, working out, computer games. Whilst the art of background music is a subtle one, there are inherent qualities to Equitant’s use of layered repetition, tone mixing, and melodic character that warrant interrogation on their own terms. These things carry with them their own unique form of tension and release as one pattern is sustained past the comfort zone, or subtle melodic developments are gradually unfolded over several measures, or the entire shape of a piece is altered by dropping artefacts of percussion in and out of the mix. All may be new territory for metal seasoned ears, but (for black metal fans at least) one may find the source of the music’s appeal actually arises from a very similar place.
Speaking of computer game music, Kreuzweg Ost’s interpretation of martial ambient literally sounds like overhearing someone play Age of Empires. Minimal percussion and Summoning’s penchant for simple looped and incrementally compounding melodies form the backdrop for endless samples of warfare, cannon fire, random German exclamations, and various military furnishings. For a newcomer its hard to know what to make of martial ambient outside of its use as a low budget soundtrack to Nazi propaganda videos. We can be sure in Sinelius’ case that his interest in this style is more aesthetic than it is political however, given how outspoken Summoning have been about the use of their music by certain far right groups.
Kreuzweg Ost’s second album ‘Edelrost’ reaches back to 19th Century German history for source material, and offers a curious mix of minimal industrial beats, epic military soundtracks, dungeon synth, near constant samples, and idiosyncratic looped melodies. Whilst his first album ‘Iron Avantgarde’ (2000) was a near impenetrable wall of nothing but static and samples with little to no music to sink the teeth into, ‘Edelrost’ does at least offer some melodic ideas if not an actual hook.
This rarely extends beyond one loop per track however, often consisting of a simple refrain somewhere between neofolk, martial music, and dungeon synth. These are broken up by noise samples and German spoken word. With each return of the melodic refrain the track feels like it is moving forward even if no new material is being added each time. This results in an interesting development-by-circularity sleight of hand as the tracks move us through these dark corridors and passages of noise with respites of brightness, leaving cavernous and minimal industrial beats to sit beneath, stitching the tracks together and maintaining that sense of forward motion in denial of their ontological stasis.
There’s no getting away from the overt military aesthetics of this music and its undeniable appeal to those who want to bring about a thousand year Reich. But Kreuzweg Ost seem to treat this genre more like scrapyard hunting. A place where music, sound art, and percussive experimentation meet, bringing out the musical qualities in the non-musical – the human voice, cannon fire, marching regiments – and re-evaluating the inherently melodic in ways that call this tradition into question. It can sometimes come across as if someone were tuning a radio into stations from the past. But there is something oddly immersive about how Kreuzweg Ost incrementally drag the listener into this disjointed world of fragmented history, where fantasy and reality meet in oddly twisted ways.
In this way, they achieve a sense of progression across each track via the manipulation of contrasting textures and moods as opposed to the traditional melodic developments. Once one wraps their head around this, they can stop waiting for the minimal keyboard refrains to resurface, and instead view them as a feature of a much broader sonic tapestry, one whose sense of motion sprouts from multifaceted levels of sound manipulation. It is a form of artistry both vertical as well as horizontal, and – as with all truly experimental music – it can be fucking abrasive at first listen. Its appeal cannot be divined by reference to adjacent form of music, even other brands of minimal industrial and ambient that border this subgenre.
Here we have two side cuts from well within the metal cannon made worthy by the fact that they offer an entirely different experience both from each other and from the usual black metal side project fare. For that reason they must be assessed entirely on their own merits and not in relation to one another or to the more well known projects their masterminds are associated with. Listening expectations will therefore play an important role. What did we expect to hear and how far do these albums diverge from this?
For ‘Konstruckteur’ it could be said that we are not that far outside the remit of minimal electro/industrial. Structurally the album holds a few surprises. But despite the competent arrangements, characterful melodies, and willingness to meld lengthy passages of dark ambient seamlessly alongside rhythm driven techno, the album is a very familiar artefact. The same could not be said of ‘Edelrost’. Even by martial ambient’s standards Silenius’ fingerprints can still be heard beneath the more typical martial traits and near constant sampling, and the weird manipulation of medievalist melodies alongside industrial static and other electronic features makes for a bizarrely juxtaposed listening experience that one must really get their head into to fully understand what the hell is going on. So by virtue of the intellectual demands this album places on the listener alone it becomes the pick of the week.