Friday, October 13, 2017

Todesstoß - Ebne Graun

Todesstoß is a super weird band, which is worth mentioning just in case the cover art featuring a colorfully illuminated Charon-like figure standing over a cellophane wrapped body wasn’t a clear enough hint. When it comes to spotting a black metal band’s influences, the usual points of reference are Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem, Emperor, or Immortal. With Todesstoß though, the music is best thought of as exploring a more esoteric branch of black metal that was initially developed by a fellow German band: Bethlehem.

Quick history lesson. Bethlehem’s unique debut full-length Dark Metal was released in 1994, the same year as Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger. Naturally it wasn’t a release that simply copied other black metal bands, because it was still a nascent genre at the time and the concept of black metal hadn’t quite coalesced. As time went on though, Bethlehem became progressively weirder, with their 1996 release Dictius Te Necare and then Sardonischer Untergang im Zeichen irreligiöser Darbietung (aka S.U.I.Z.I.D.) in 1998. This is important because S.U.I.Z.I.D. is an excellent starting point for understanding what Todesstoß sounds like: massive warm bass, mid to slow tempo riffs, and pained wailing vocals that make you question the singer’s mental health. In other words, absolutely nothing like your typical icy Norwegian tremolo-picked black metal.

‘Ebne Graun’ is a single 46 minute long song, and it works out just great. After a ponderously slow introduction, the song moodily meanders around a recurring four chord theme. While the tempo never seems to vary, we still get a lot of variation, and some sections are played in double-time. In fact, the song has such a strong narrative feel, that you never really get a sense that Todesstoß is meditating on the main theme, and the repetition isn’t immediately obvious. The progression is merely the framework for the song’s structure, and with all of the empty space left by the slow pacing you are able to seep into each section’s unique flavor. ‘Ebne Graun’ draws you in slowly, piece by piece, and the downside of this strength is that you can’t really just sit and listen to one part of the album in the same way you don’t open a book and just read chapter 23.

The album starts off by establishing a mournful kind of discomfort using a dissonant ghostly organ melody that creates an overbearing and uncomfortable atmosphere. What makes things extremely weird is the medieval-styled flute. It feels really out of place until you start to recognize that periodically the flute jumps into some ridiculously high note and awkwardly lingers there for a moment. This weird mix combined with the off key notes really accents the unsettling introduction. Slowly the layers of typical instrumentation pop in, we don’t even have guitar and bass at the same time until about seven minutes in. So, not only is the tempo slow, but the song development itself is a gradual process, creating a languorous mood.

The features that most obviously distinguish the album are the vocals and the bass. To a lesser extent, the unique guitar work colors the overall feel, particularly with its high gain and less distorted than usual tone. This helps to set the mood because of how frequently notes will ring out for quite some time. More unusually, the bass takes an extremely active role as it sits high in the mix, has a larger presence than the lead guitar, and there isn’t even a rhythm guitar parroting it. Similarly, the drums take a light touch, often playing in half-time on what is already a meandering album. When the occasional chain rattling pops into the mix you can’t help but feel that you are slowly being ferried into the afterlife. Aside from quirky snare hits and some nice rolling fills, the percussion sits somewhat in the background. By placing snare hits off of the main beat Todesstoß throws off your sense of order without losing the album’s dirgey atmosphere. Fortunately the bass keeps the rhythm together fantastically. It serves as a point of clarity in comparison to the wild drums and distant guitars.

Vocals are pained howls that sound like the pathetic cries of someone having a breakdown. This is a huge contrast to how most metal vocalists go for the “demented” sound because typically singers are more focused on fitting into some kind of metal tough guy aesthetic. It’s also a different vocal style than the affected depressive (i.e. histrionic) black metal movement that Bethlehem has also influenced (e.g. trash like Shining). Drawn out moans like the one at around 24 minutes sound like a burn ward patient whose morphine drip just ran dry. Each vocal line has a dissociated feel as the lyrics are delivered in wildly varying pitches and levels of intensity, as if a madman started to explain his life story to you. You don’t understand what’s going on, there’s intermittent screaming, and things seem to shift from neutral, to sad, to angry without any regard to the story’s emotional context.

Overall ‘Ebne Graun’ is your gradual ferry ride into to hell. The deathbed suffering of someone contemplating all of their mistakes in life, every moment of remorse congealed into a single experience just before death. While this is a really solid album, keep in mind that you have to listen to the whole thing. While a huge number of metal bands relish long songs, ‘Ebne Graun’ is more than a closely related grouping of melodies - it’s one song and one experience. Unless you have 46 minutes to focus on one piece of music, you aren’t getting a real sense of the album. The slow build up, the engaging variations, and the inevitable ending are all moments that mean less when taken in isolation.

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