As everyone knows by now, I’ve more or less laid claim to all new releases hailing from Deutschland. This week brings yet another such release. The guys in Helrunar come to us from the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany (pffft….Dortmund fans) and have been challenging our ears with foreboding, pagan black metal since 2001. Four years removed from their last full length, Sól, they return to us in 2015 with the unsurprisingly dark Niederkunfft, and certainly do not disappoint.
I could tell immediately that this wasn’t going to be what I expected stylistically from something categorized as pagan black metal. This wasn’t a band I’d listened to in the past, but the genre seemed straightforward enough. I thought I’d be in for a high paced fusion of standard black metal—tremolo picking, blast beats, etc.—mixed with those of the grandiosity and lyrical content of pagan metal. Instead, we kick things off with a far more calculated, deliberate feel. Every note, phrase, and word has a certain emphasis, giving the album a sound better described as doom metal. This is especially true on “Der Endkrist” and “Magdeburg brent,” for example. To emphasize this personality, every so often, Helrunar attempt to haunt us with these dark, echoing choir vocals that carry an imposing weight. They do this rather successfully, using this vocal style to match the changes of pace in their instrumental parts. Through these tactics, Niederkunfft bring an incredibly despair-ridden weight to their genre.
That being said, they don’t entirely neglect the more traditional black metal foundations. These elements show their faces on the likes of “Totentanz,” but as an enhancement more than anything. We find increased tempos and more overall energy, but not at the expense of the album’s personality. The production is raw in just the right way, matching the band’s emotion without losing the ability to pick out any individual notes. It’s a good take on the imperfect production I’ve grown to appreciate. As you listen to how the band layers harsh growls over jagged percussion and precise leads, you can’t help but become immersed in it. “Devils, Devils Everywhere” emphasizes all this in a single seven minute track. (And yes, I forgive the ridiculousness of that title.) All told, the album’s ability to not lose touch with some of the faster black metal styles prevents it from ever becoming stale. It’s a fusion that serves the almost-hour-long listen well.
Continuing on, we take a necessary break with “Grimmig Tod.” The timing couldn’t be better; the preceding five tracks start to feel like a real burden, thanks to their intense feeling of despair. Honestly, just the break from the instrumentals that fill this album is enough to get us back on our feet. The track itself is a bit goofy—with half-sung clean vocals that have virtually none of the dark emotion to them that their predecessors did—making this a respite on a number of levels. We close with the two longest tracks on the album—“Die Kirch ist umgekehret” and “The Hiebner Prophecy”—covering over 20 minutes of listening combined. These two cover everything this album offered to this point: we go back and forth between the harsher and more choir-style vocals that emphasize a more epic, atmospheric feel; the tempo changes frequently as we continuously sway from near complete stops to a far more intense galloping cadence. Together, these two songs help remind us of everything we’ve covered without feeling like anything has been recycled.
I’ll admit: the first few times through, Niederkunnft didn’t do a ton for me, I simply didn’t pull much value out of it. But as I kept going back to it, I began to understand everything it had to offer. It may not be something I revisit all that often, but it is filled with far more emotion and power than I anticipated, and definitely more than I expected from this genre. It carries an unrelenting weight to it that really take a toll on its listener. The lyrics being predominantly in German only help this cause. Sure, there are moments where the songs may drag a bit, but with the influences at play here, this isn’t entirely unexpected. It’s a solid album from start to finish but should be listened to in the proper circumstances—as its unrelenting sorrow is unavoidable.
“Ein Bier… bitte.”