Apoptose – Bannwald

19/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Those unfamiliar with Germany’s Apoptose are missing out on one of the strongest contributors to the dark ambient genre. Normally saturated by the likes of Lustmord and the well-known throng of CMI staples such as Raison d’être and Desiderii Marginis, the meek and modest Apoptose rarely get a look-in at the top end. However, Apoptose are deserving of much more notoriety than they currently receive, chiefly due to the immense amount of focus and variation that goes into each release. Apoptose’s music is not filled with long swathes of dark ambient backwashes, its intention is not to drop you into a ‘dark zone’ and let you meander around for an hour without handing anything else to you. Each album is an exploration on a particular theme, filled with variety, thick ambience, atmosphere, wonder and discovery, all without overboiling the pot. 2010′s “Bannwald” has just appeared here at HH for review, and it’s better late than never for one of the finest works dark ambient has seen in recent years.

“Bannwald” is wholly dedicated to witchcraft, specifically witchcraft and the lore of the forest. The entire album drips with symbolism and references to it, of which it’s important for us to delve into to gain a full understanding of the 50 minutes of music which comprise this release. The word ‘Bannwald’ refers to a specific untouched forested area, a wooded wilderness which is allowed to develop on its own with no interference or influence from human intervention. The Bannwald exists within the Kellerwald [“bare forest” or “charcoal forest”], a low mountainous region in Hesse, central Germany, which is subject to special conservation status. As a result of its conservation, much of the Kellerwald thrives with its own natural life, with ravens, black storks, peregrines and red deer being some of the main inhabitants. But the inner Bannwald seems to take on a life of its own, and being left to evolve as it may, it takes on a certain natural mysticism and sentience. It’s little surprise then, that the literal translation of the word ‘Bannwald’ is “spell forest”.

The photography for the album art is exquisite, evoking the natural mystique of the forest as one might well expect. Even though such imagery is all too common within dark ambient and black metal, there’s something more genuine and apt about its usage here. A detailed examination of the front cover reveals an inverted photograph of a figure with arms outstretched, reflected in a forest lake. But closer scrutiny reveals it to be made of the same rough bark as the trees around it, implying that this being is something born from – and part of – the forest itself, reminding us that we are all part of nature when many of us see ourselves as distinct and separate from it. The artwork reminds us of our impersonal, replaceable nature, our inexclusiveness among the rest of the natural world whilst hinting at the higher spiritual potential lying deadened within so many of us. One of the most striking things about the cover is the stark resemblance the wood-man bears to the humanoid stick figures that appear hanging from trees in the excellent film “The Blair Witch Project”. The similarity seems too striking to be unintentional.

The track names all have a link to the theme of witchcraft or forest folklore. “Die Drei Schwestern” [The Three Witches] is an obvious reference to the trio who control and plague the events of Macbeth. “Hexenring” contains a female vocal chant of the well-known Merry Meet as sung by Liz Crow and Heike Robertson from the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall, England. The way the track begins with the light, upbeat vocals only to gradually slide into a more baleful but melodic ambient piece is a clever and affecting concept. As it progresses, the song makes continued references to the figure of Baba Yaga, a haggish witch from Slavic folkore who lives in the forest and consumes children.

The duo of “Vivian Und Wiebke” and “Berkanas Traum” link to each other rather fittingly. Vivian and Wiebke [the German version of the Norwegian title ‘Vibeke’] were the names of two storms which hit Germany back to back in the Winter of 1990. These storms caused widespread destruction to the forests of Southern Germany, the worst thing about them being they hit almost immediately after one another. The track isn’t a particularly tumultuous affair itself though, and seems to reference the calm between both storms on the 27th and 28th February, a period when most people didn’t know the worst was yet to come. “Berkanas Traum” [Berkana’s Dream] references the rune Berkana, that of feminine energy and rebirth, presumably mentioned here to hint at the rebirth of the forest after the preceding storms. However, it’s vital to note that the Berkana rune is that of the birch tree which, due to their flexible nature, represents youth and fecundity. It was for this particular trait that birchwood was most commonly said to be used by witches for making broomsticks, a concept whose roots lay in fertility rituals where dancers would ride broomsticks through fields, the height of jumping signalling how high the grain should grow in the coming year. Berkana has a far more positive side though, representing new life after death and the bond between mother and infant. Nevertheless, Apoptose’s titling of the track as Berkana’s Dream seems to imply only a hope for rebirth and nourishment, rather than the reality.

While being rich in symbolism, it is the music of Bannwald which is by far its strongest point. It is an album deeply involved in the mysticism and importance of the forest and how it develops its own spiritual life, how witchcraft is a naturally occurring practice springing out from the woods themselves. The album’s sound is rich, melodic and unsettling, with each track having its own personality, strength and signature cadence. By far the greatest of these lie in the excellent “Hexenring”, “Haltet Euch Fern!” and “Ein Jahr Und Ein Tag”, all of which contain the creaking, dense whispers, chants and melodies of the deep woodland dusk. Even though Bannwald bases itself heavily on folklore, it’s still very much a work of sinister dark ambient, but one which concentrates on the darker, minimalistic essences of folk inspired by the blacker domains of creation. It speaks to us and resonates with centuries of ancient traditional knowledge. It is alive as much as nature.

Being involved heavily with the magick of witchcraft and access beyond the veil of worlds, Bannwald seems most appropriate in the time of Samhain and its following darker months, a period in which it really comes into its own. It is the spirit of a deeply dark and natural realm, its authenticity coming across with searing conviction. Bannwald is not only a touching work of dark ambient – but an emotional and beautiful one – something which is sadly rare within the genre. Like Apoptose’s other albums, his deep understanding and attachment to the meaning of his work cedes excellent results, and therefore Bannwald is not only an album, but a timeless sacred rite. With two months of the dark half of the year to go, it’s still the perfect time to appreciate this work. This spirit will then rest before its reawakening next Samhain.

Rating: 5/5

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