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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Bai Shui – Winter 冬

15/08/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Bai Shui
Title: Winter 冬
Label: Midnight Productions
Genre: Folk/ Ambient

01 遥远的告别    
02 草地上的脚印    
03 冬至    
04 路的那边    
05 纸鸢    
06 文竹    
07 戎之夜    
08 上桥,下桥    
09 李老头    
10 日落    
11 束河    
12 螃蟹歌    
13 那年的渡口

When this album arrived with the rest of the Heathen Harvest promo package it was difficult to work out what it was: almost the entire CD packaging is in Chinese. Fortunately there are one or two clues inside to let you know whatever it is you’re listening to, so I can informatively announce that this is the second album of Chinese folk ambient project Baishui. The track titles aren’t translated either and after a search around the internet I still can’t find any hints as to what they mean – that part will have to remain shrouded in mystery, and it’s one I find rather appealing. Chinese culture has great enigma, history and darkness to it, which is shown wonderfully in the traditional sound that the Winter package conveys musically and visually.

Baishui spends most of his creative time in the well-respected neofolk ensemble Bloody Woods, but his self-named albums have a far more atmospheric and traditional tinge to them. Winter’s artwork contains washed out pictures of geisha in light pastel dresses, alongside other traditional oriental themes: its overused but at least it looks authentic. I’d love to be able to get my hands on more of this kind of stuff since China holds such intrigue for me, however, since the chances of my getting on a plane in the near future are about the same as Forever Slave winning a Grammy, I probably won’t have the good fortune to visit the country in the near future – obviously things like this album, the Chinese Torture Chamber trilogy and multiple cheap restaurants with fan-folded napkins in Soho will have to suffice in the meantime.

There’s something very calming about the music that Baishui makes, each of the 13 tracks being a perfectly serene homage to traditional Chinese folk music. Baishui takes care of all the instruments on the album ranging from the guitar to Chinese flute, Xun and Xiao. If you haven’t the clue what some of these are, their sound will become instantly recognisable on hearing them. The artist uses all the instrumentation at hand to create an aura of mysticism, sometimes fashioning ethereal, ambient passages enshrouded with an inimitable Eastern edge, and other times simple folk imbued with Eastern melodies, all deftly played with skill. Baishui occasionally uses vocals – one track of which includes the uncredited use of female vocals – and though they’re not always as on-key as they could be, their gruffness adds a certain honestly and rawness which befits the music.

Unlike its namesake, Winter doesn’t always have a cold sound to it. At times it may be chilling, cold and bracing, though at others its sounds have a light, verdant freshness to them. There may not always be enough differentiation between the songs to grab every listener immediately since the album can take many goings over to appreciate its subtleties. However, in the sometimes dreary and uninventive world of neofolk it’s refreshing to come across something that actually feels born out of genuineness and love for its referenced culture and tradition, rather than experimentation with the folk sound out of some kind of romantic dream. It’s impossible to doubt the authenticity of Baishui’s sound, or the passion and devotion that created it.

Novalis Deux – Ghosts Over Europe

01/02/2009 § Leave a comment

Artist: Novalis Deux
Title: Ghosts Over Europe
Label: Ars Musica Diffundere / Black Rain
Genre: Neofolk

Track Listing:

01 Put On Your Shoes
02 Homecoming
03 Ghost Over Europe
04 Sleeping Violin
05 The Clown
06 Passing By
07 Rome
08 One Step
09 World In Flames
10 Your Hell

Novalis Deux have been around for a while, long enough for it to matter that they stick a number after their original name ‘Novalis’ in order to stop them from getting confused with the German progressive rock band of the same name. 2008 sees the release of their fourth full-length album but it hasn’t been an unmarked and frictionless road here. After an apparently difficult time concerning the loss of a drummer they decided not to throw in the towel as per their original plan but do what most self-respecting bands would do: get another one. And there you were thinking that neofolk bands didn’t have any drama in their lives. I’m still waiting to see Tenhi smash up a Stradivarius.

Ghosts Over Europe is the result of a two-year slog in which the band went from a line-up of three members to seven, now incorporating multiple instrumentalists and singers. Novalis Deux are not your typical neofolk band though: they toy around with a number of different styles – not in a haphazard avant-garde fashion, but in a more of an understated and modest way. It’s quite common to hear shades of folk and Goth bubbling away in the music as well as pop and electro but there’s no doubt that everything has been underlined with a bedrock of neofolk. Ghosts Over Europe is very much a folk record, just one with different twinges to add something fresher to the genre.

The album opens with the curiously named ‘Put On Your Shoes’, presumably an indication of moving forwards with the opening of the album. It’s one of the more accessible tracks with just guitar, military-style snare drumming and the dual vocals of Stev and Marcel leading into a catchy chorus before one of the album’s strongest tracks, ‘Homecoming’ begins, which features some beautiful female vocals and violin playing. Novalis Deux are clearly very serious about their work and all the instruments are played faultlessly, with the guitar sounding crisp and clean and the violin sliding round with composite skill. The title track and ‘One Step’ are also clear highlights, the latter opening up with some synths that wouldn’t be out of places at an EBM club before the clean guitars come in for the verse, which is something certainly unusual for a piece of folk music.

However, though some of the songs are quite likeable straight away, they can descend into repetition in some parts and pure bizarreness in others. The song that takes the most credit for this is ‘The Clown’ with its buoyant, riant bassline and lyrics about well, a clown, and though the band may have thought some dark humour was another good break from the norm, it doesn’t work as either parody, irony or sarcasm. As well as this, though there is great playing and singing in places, it’s still troublesome trying to find much feeling in the music. The emotion is certainly there in some parts but it doesn’t jump out at you straight away or convince you when you do find it, and as a result a lot of the album ends up as one massive piece of potential that promises a whole lot but doesn’t ultimately deliver, like a grade A guest who fails to make it to a party at the last moment.

Ghosts Over Europe attempts – and mostly succeeds – in doing something different with the neofolk sound. It’s just a shame that there is so much warmth and sensitivity missing from the music, meaning it’s quite common to be underwhelmed with the album in spite of many promising sections. The band are clearly quite confident in their sound from the solidity of the performances, but in spite of some catchy moments, good insights and competent instrumentals I couldn’t help coming away from the record thinking that something was missing – some real essence and depth. Ghosts Over Europe is a creature with head but no heart – great ideas but no soul – and it’s this which prevents it from being the moving, unobtrusive take on neofolk that it so nearly is.

Requiem Eternam – Medieval Times

15/12/2008 § Leave a comment

Artist: Requiem Eternam
Title: Medieval Times
Label: BloodDivine Records
Genre: Medieval/Neofolk

Track Listing:

01 Medieval Times
02 Heart of Knight
03 In the Name of God
04 Terrible Battle
05 The Great King
06 The Last Castle
07 Dreams for the Sky

Requiem Eternam [shouldn’t that be Requiem Aeternum?] is a two-person project focussed on creating medieval music with a religious theme. Phil X, the multifunction keyboardist and songwriter, has crafted this joyous septet “to serve his Lord Jesus-Christ through his art” so obviously Phil’s got an agenda that he needs to get across. Musically though, Requiem Eternam’s sound is very much in the vein of Dargaard with hints of neofolk such as you’d find in The Moon Lay Hidden Beneath the Cloud. It’s all dark, sinister, introspective stuff that we’ve heard before but with a highly Christian twist which supposedly lends it more weight and validity.

As good as the intentions are behind the music though, the shortcomings of Medieval Times become apparent from when the first note squeaks itself through your speakers. Before this, actually. Unsheathing this CD from the rest of the promo pack, I was greeted with artwork that looks like it’s been created using Clip Art in Windows 95. The low-res castles, armour and medieval imagery have been savagely thrust onto the CD panels with no finesse or imagination and may as well have been photocopied down a newsagents for 5p per sheet. And this is a microcosmic representation of the album in its entirety – the intention behind it is so clear and, to a point, enviable, but the execution is dreadful. I love medieval themes and music but they can tread a slender line between epic, elegant wonder and full-on naffness, and Medieval Times has set up camp firmly on the latter half of the divide.

The formula for songwriting here is pretty straightforward. You write one medieval-sounding folk passage and play it as often as the tempo will allow in a four and half minute song. You can also stick in samples from Hollywood films [such as Braveheart]; crows’ caws and battle sounds in order to perfect the medieval finish. If it sounds a bit hackneyed that’s because it is: the song elements have been chosen with such cliché and lack of thought that each of the seven numbers is devoid of heart and emotion as a result. They each come across as little more than fumbled musical mosaics which is surprising considering the author’s clear dedication to their theme, temporally and religiously.

If there’s one saving grace that the album possesses, it’s the female vocals which are done a beautiful service by the mysteriously named Claudia. The sleevenotes mention that she’s part of the Choir Santo Domingo and it’s easy to see why: each note is sung with a smooth, velvety grace in spite of being hammered with reverb, and it does lend an uplifting edge to the album. The reverb isn’t the only thing to note on the sound production though: the mastering is some of the shoddiest I’ve come across with loud sections ending up as inaudible fuzz, and some of the synth effects are so shamelessly cheesy that they would be quite happy in the soundtrack of a Nintendo game.

It’s very clear to see exactly what Medieval Times should have been – and what it wants to be – but it’s nowhere near the mark. It’s like the offcuts that bands such as Artesia and Dark Sanctuary would leave out of their music, and as a result it just ends up feeling like the runt of a very large litter that’s destined to be locked in a shed and fed scraps, huddling near any cracks of light for recognition. There is some potential here but it’s very minor and when there are other bands doing it with far more class and character, attempts like this just don’t cut it.

Waldsonne – Wanderer

15/12/2008 § Leave a comment

Artist: Waldsonne
Title: Wanderer
Label: RAIG
Genre: Neofolk

Track Listing:

01 Eternal Motion
02 Pain of Senses
03 Over the Earth
04 Sand
05 Leiben eines Mannes (Life of a Man)
06 Longing for Mistery [sic]
07 Call for the Sun
08 Village Revelry
09 Durch den Nebel (Through the Mist)
10 Autumn Fair
11 песнaя песня (Woodland Song)

Three years after their self-released EP Stahl, Neutral spin-off band Waldsonne return with their debut offering. The band consists of four members of Neutral, the main difference here being the inclusion of female vocals fronting the ensemble. As is standard fare for neofolk a lot of the songs are about trees, nature and the usual Mother Earth themes, the artwork confirming this with lots of pictures of twigs and bracken to make sure you’ve got the message. Actually it’s the same picture used three times: slightly unusual since you’d hardly think there was a shortage of bleak and dismal scenery in Russia. The Russian bands have been utilising this concept for years, it seems to sell well over on the more verdant areas of the urbane world.

It’s not like Waldsonne are enjoying the barrenness of the perpetual Winters though. Much of the subject matter of the album rotates around the need for bright weather and lush nature in stark contrast to the photography in the booklet. Maybe they’ve had enough of the whole place and rather than upping sticks and trekking West have decided to stay in Russia and plays songs about it instead. And I can’t say I don’t sympathise. As much as I love the romanticism of desolate climes it must get slightly depressing, especially when the rouble’s sinking along with the rest of the world economy and vodka indulgence is getting more expensive. Time to stock up on potatoes and get back to the home gin brewing – and you can even power clocks with the leftovers. Ingenious.

Wanderer is therefore quite a cathartic work. Its music and melodies, though not wildly original, will certainly appeal to many fans of neofolk, being traditional and accomplished for the most part. The guitar and mandolin passages are well-written and excellently played, so instrumentally at least, Waldsonne get off to a good start. The vocals are introduced in the second track Pain of Senses, provided by Veronika Martynova, but though they’re certainly not bad they lack a particular sheen and lustre. Monika is note perfect most of the time but there’s little conviction in her voice as she seems to sing a lot of the songs by numbers, vocally connecting the dots rather than feeling the music. Her lyrics are mostly in English and they’re often quite basic [calling the sun/where are you/come, come, come] but it’s the German numbers which she seems to go out of tune in, presumably because she’s having to concentrate more on the language.

Where the album generally shines is therefore the pure instrumental passages and some of these are quite strong such as the captivating Sand and Longing for Mistery[sic]. But though the harp, guitars and mandolins are all played with distinction, the violin suffers in the quieter sections. Anna-Noel Buzuk is capable of producing channelled, strong cadences in the louder segments but her violin screeches painfully through the softer parts. What’s worse still is the pipe-playing which is sometimes dreadfully off-key. This, in particular, really lets the album down and more than once an emotional musical fragment is spoiled by an out-of-place or flat instrument.

When Wanderer succeeds – which is more often than not – it’s a pleasurable and elevating experience. However, shoddy playing in some parts doesn’t make the listener feel relaxed in the hands of neofolk masters and by halfway through the album you’re left wandering whether the beauteous section you’re currently listening to is going to be ruined by an erratic bow or overenthusiastic piper. As a whole, listening to the album feels like completing a rally in an r-reg Vauxhall Astra: you’d still make it round the circuit but it could be done a lot better. What Wanderer shows more positively is a serious band with the competence to go much further with the second record. If the creases can be ironed out they could put out an excellent offering, though their debut suffers from one too many flaws to hold such an accolade.

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