My encounters with German folk-metallers Finsterforst in the past have been brief and unfulfilling, consisting of a couple of aborted attempts to listen to tracks from their previous record “…zum Tode hin” before dismissing them as a mediocre Moonsorrow knock-off. As a result, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised when I sat down to listen to their third full-length “Rastlos” and discovered what is likely the best folk metal release of 2012. I don’t know whether the band themselves have developed in a more accessible direction or if I’ve just become more amenable to their 13-minute-granite-slab approach to songwriting, but whatever the reason, where I found them before to be grindingly flat and repetitious, this is a Finsterforst that I found spellbindingly atmospheric.
Despite the extent to which it draws influence from Moonsorrow, “Rastlos” feels in a way like a metal album that could only have come from Germany. Far be it from me to indulge in cultural typecasting, but more than almost any other band working in this genre, Finsterforst feel profoundly Wagnerian – an influence they no doubt inherit from Bathory as much as their own home at the borders of the Black Forest, but all the same, there’s a sense that that their recent and historical antecedents align rather neatly. Part of it is their commitment to evoking sheer ungodly size, and I don’t just mean in terms of running time. Well… I certainly domean that, actually. One does not create a folk metal album with five full-length compositions (plus two brief interludes) spanning a total of 75 minutes unless that’s what one sets out to do.
But it’s the contents of those minutes as well as their number which contribute to the sense of something vast looming against the horizon. The first track, “Nichts als Asche,” begins with the sounds of a lone, distant flute being played against the ambient sounds of birds and flowing steams, a calm which unmistakably heralds a storm. The entry of the thunderously heavy rhythm guitar is preceded by the fuzz of distortion, and when it does arrive, it accompanies a prolonged overture of drum fills, accumulating more and more potential energy before the song begins to move. It takes almost two minutes of its thirteen before the first riff begins in earnest, and when it does, it has the inexorable momentum of an oil tanker, or a marching army.
Finsterforst begin as they mean to continue; nothing on “Rastlos” happens suddenly, and everything is afforded great weight and import. The guitars and the drums pulse at relentless mid-tempos that sound like the beating heart of the earth. The orchestration is dominated by booming, resonant horns and ethereal male choirs that at times resemble Gregorian chant. The vocals are exchanged between Oliver Berlin’s straightforward guttural roar and Johannes Joseph’s languid baritone, both sounding so solemn and humourless that they might be performing at a funeral.
To read that description, it might sound like “Rastlos” is a slog, but it’s really rather wonderful. The tone is not one of heroism, but of grim, unwavering resolve, like that of a traveller on a journey to an uncertain destination but committed to go on without a backward glance. For 75 minutes it accumulates mass, each crescendo bringing with it the promise of still greater to come, the epic (that word was bound to show up eventually) scale gradually but noticeably expanding. The elegiac and comparatively soft “Stirbt Zuletzt” is followed by the dramatic, warlike “Ein Lichtschein” with its militant lead melody, which is in turn surpassed by the 22-minute finale “Flammenrausch,” a song of such colossal proportions that the mind reels from it. When you think it couldn’t possibly scale any greater heights of imperious grandeur, you’ll check and see that it’s less than halfway finished. When it finally ends and the dust has settled, the overriding impression is of total, cathartic finality, that something tremendously significant has occurred and definitively come to an end. “Rastlos” is a record that’s huge in every way it’s possible for music to be huge, but its elephantine dimensions are earned; more than that, they’re warranted. Few metal albums on the market in 2013 can provide an experience that’s epic in as holistic a way as this one does.
01 Nichts als Asche
03 Am Scheideweg
04 Stirbt Zuletzt
05 Ein Lichtschein
Genre: Folk metal