Herbst9 – The Gods Are Small Birds, But I Am The Falcon

15/01/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Herbst9
Title: The Gods Are Small Birds, But I Am The Falcon
Label: Loki Foundation
Genre: Ritual Ambient

Track Listing:

01 The Lament Begins
02 Must I Die? (Because Of My Holy Songs)
03 Threshold Of Tears
04 Enenuru
05 The Gods Are Small Birds, But I Am The Falcon
06 White Ashes (Black Smoke)
07 …And Everything Around Him Answered
08 Shaking Ground
09 Ilimmu

I remember being struck by Herbst9’s ability to create ambient music when I first came across them three years ago. It’s rare to find a band with such thorough dedication not only to the music they create but to the themes behind it. Their latest work is yet another impressive addition to their catalogue, expanding on their obsession with Sumerian history: its people, ideas and spirituality. And yes, it’s becoming increasingly common for dark ambient and death metal bands to cite Sumer’s gods and magic as influential to their dour and brooding music, but for Herbst9 such an interest is a genuine fascination. This is not just another ambient record using the masque of Sumer to slap preternatural artwork on an album while the band tweets and drawls on ad nauseam for over an hour – each work of Herbst9’s is an inspired dedication to ancient Mesopotamia, and their latest album hones this ardour to a satisfyingly sharp point.

Whereas the band’s previous albums have focussed heavily on the gods, kings and ethos of Sumer, their latest seems to be dedicated largely to one person. The cryptic song titles and subject matter refer to the goddess Inanna and her worship through the eyes of the priestess Enheduanna, a Sumerian author who spent a large portion of her life writing hymns to her. The album title is a direct quote from one of the period’s many dedications to the goddess though it’s unclear whether the songs here are meant to be a homage to her or a representation of her religious rituals and it’s most likely that they’re a bridge between the two. Inanna is quite a favourite of the band – her name appearing in its Assyrian form Ishtar on the track listing to Buried Under Time and Sand but now, three years on, she has an entire album addressing her. I can’t say I don’t lavish the idea – if you’re going to write an album in the form of an hour-long incantation then who better to make the subject than an age-old goddess of sex and warfare? Anyone else seems like a waste in comparison.

All nine tracks on The Gods are Small Birds don’t feel all that separate from each other. In the band’s previous works there was an obvious break in the theme between each song, though now they’re more strung together as separate movements of the same opus. “The Lament Begins” ushers us in with soft, shamanistic vocals before the deep drones come in to start the conjuration proper, and they hardly leave us for the majority of the album. Herbst9 take a far more vocal tack on this album with many of the songs incorporating chants and distorted vocals along with the wall of sound that we often find ourselves enclosed in. According to the rubric that came with the promo, some of these audio samples are field recordings taken from authentic sacrifices and rituals, and they’re at their strongest in numbers like “Threshold of Tears” and the excellent “Enenuru” which is simultaneously beautiful and chilling. As the songs progress we become used to hearing pained wails drifting over the drones and each number builds to a steady climax before leading us in to the next part of the album. The ambience is thick with spirituality and sorcery, and at no point do we dare question its potential.

It’s not as if there’s no variety in the songs though: the distinction is just not as stark and obvious. The title track is a much more subdued but sinister number to those which have gone before it with soft, slow beats shuffling in the background while wraithlike vocals twist their moans around the samples; whereas other tracks such as “…And Everything Around him Answered” are more direct in their approach, employing gusty, windlike rushes and the tap of slow tribal percussion before building into an ocean of distant screams. Ilimmu is the most melodic, with the drones shifting measure while soft chimes uplift us, bringing an end to what has been a dizzyingly vivid experience. It is a venture which is sometimes elevating and sometimes unsettling, but always intense.

The Gods Are Small Birds is such a rounded piece of work that it’s hard to pick out anything negative to say about it. It’s more of a uniform, linear piece than previous discs, having more in tone with the older albums of Amon and the newer offerings from Finland’s Halo Manash. However, Herbst9 manage to create ritual ambient with even more texture, more flavour and more richness, with each musical layer being a perfect ingredient in their grand musical edifice. Along with other long-established greats such as Raison d’être they can proudly rank themselves at the very pinnacle of their field, and their latest album is perfect justification of such a position.

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