Herbst9 – Ušumgal Kalamma
01/01/2012 § Leave a comment
It’s difficult for me to accurately express my tremendous admiration for this project. Herbst9 are one of the few remaining envoys of communication from civilisations past, carrying into the 21st century a musical dedication and interpretation of the true tenets and beliefs of Sumer. Since the genesis of this enterprise, Henry Emich and Frank Merten have never faltered in producing some of the finest works the ritual ambient genre has ever seen. Ušumgal Kalamma [Dragon of the Land] is no different and this time round we are greeted with a full double album of original material to close the Mesopotamian trilogy that started with “Buried Under Time and Sand”. I have no reservation in saying that Ušumgal Kalamma is the finest of the three albums: it’s a refined, mature and reverential gift to the present day, born from unending research, respect and fascination for the past. But unlike others who use ancient civilisation purely as an inspiration, Hersbt9 seems to have been birthed directly from it. There is something so genuine and unquestionably sincere about this project which makes the orthodoxy of its sound so effective and compelling.
Ušumgal Kalamma continues the venerative path of its predecessors but also weaves in selective new elements, both thematically and musically. Of particular note is the citing of, and quoting from, the Akkadian poem “Ludlul Bel Nemeqi” [I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom]. The core of the poem centres on the physical unalleviated suffering of Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan, but who perseveres in his faith and dedication to the gods in spite of having no knowledge as to how long his afflictions will draw out or what indeed he is being punished for. The tone of overcoming prolonged suffering seems to be a prevalent theme on the album, with the tracks “She Filled The Wells Of The Land With Blood” and “Birds Of Sorrow Are Building Nests On These Flanks” referring to the trials of the goddess Inana and her efforts to triumph in the face of oppression. The first of these tracks is particularly important since it is a quote from the tale of Inana’s rape by Shukaletuda, where in delivering a plague to the land of her oppressor she turns the water to blood. This is not only a mark of revenge and retribution but it also strongly signifies the power of femininity and sexual affirmation, the River of Death. Sexuality is a theme which has always been loosely implied and employed in the works of Herbst9, unavoidable largely by even the mention of Inana, but here it appears again, especially the incantation which begins “Ereškigal, Rise From Your Throne” carries a remarkably sensual feel to it.
Disc one gives us more of the traditional sounds that many listeners of this project’s later works will be familiar with. As with “Buried Under Time and Sand” and “The Gods are Small Birds but I am the Falcon” the disc contains nearly an hour of exuberant, ritualistic ambience soaked in a trench-deep and sometimes unsettlingly dark tone, with heavy use of vocal incantation, both male and female, in English and Akkadian. As usual the ancient sound of this work is authentically employed with no hint of interest or attention given to the importance of the modern age. Herbst9′s intention is not solely to stand in awe of Sumer but to use it as a reverential path and tool in the same way as a craftsman might hone new objects out of old, trustworthy materials through understanding, experience and imagination. Sumer is not a labelled exhibit but an integral, symbiotic life-force that sparks within the musical heart of this project, in turn spawning new creations through age-old practises.
Disc two sees the use of a slightly more ambient and ethereal sound than on previous albums. Whereas in the past, older works may have been slightly heavied by the weight of sampling, the balance has been struck perfectly here. This time round Herbst9 uses an intricate and interactive use of its influences to create a calmer, introspective theme through employing sparse use of vocal samples and drones. Not only this, but here we see a new influence nudging its way to the fore, as in the excellent “The Sage Lord Ašimbabbar” Emich and Merten use the sound of a guzheng to create a uniquely Far Eastern feel. This rears its head again for the stirring finale “The Great Child of Suen” which incorporates further Far Eastern atmospherics before crossing over to more accustomed Near Eastern territories in its closing half. This change is a welcome and intriguing addition to the work of this project, and one which which gives this album a new temporal and spiritual perspective.
It is this exchange of new and familiar sounds, an intensely mystical atmosphere and skilful execution that makes Ušumgal Kalamma the immense success that it is. Maybe it is because the project has such a fine comprehension of the timelessness and relevance of past tradition that the music comes across with such soul and meaning. Piecing together the authority from thousands of years of convention, this album comes across as a multiple-layered work of astonishing depth and brilliance. Albums such as these truly are what ritual ambient music should be about, using the understanding of ancient thought to explore our own emotional processes and to improve and enhance our existence on this Earth. Ušumgal Kalamma is both a perfectly fulfilled fantasy and a dark reverie for those with an interest in this genre, and on a slightly more modest level, the crowning pinnacle of the band’s musical and devotional output so far.
– Sackler Gallery, British Museum, 31st December 2011