Poetry: so many in this era claim to hold the keys to the hidden tongues that are locked behind its ancient doors, but as the traditional cliché of “all bark and no bite” rightly implies, so often it is the few who rarely speak of themselves in such a light that are the true masters of word-craft. Even scarcer still are those who avoid the illusions of fantasy altogether and instead choose to weave the events of our collective history into such emotive, occasionally abstract verse. Jerome Reuter has proven himself, time and time again, to be among this elite group of artists in the neofolk genre who grow increasingly rare with every new generation of musicians that flood its borders. I say this without hesitation, and it is for good reason: Reuter is obviously intelligent, but it is his fearlessness to explore new areas both thematically and musically, to continue to reinvent his sound, to exist outside of neofolk’s status quo, and to frankly say what he feels (as many who have seen his live performances can attest to) that marks him as one of the most truly memorable musicians of our time.
From the industrial strength of Nera to the neoromantic melancholy and beauty of Flowers from Exile, and the iconic dark pop chorus of “Les Iles Noires” to the irrefutable proof of Reuter’s ever-evolving nature through “This Silver Coil”, Rome simply remains more inspiring with every new mask that it bears. Beyond the music, though, and as with any great poet, Reuter has always had a great deal to say and explore–especially in terms of the political and the historical, with the exception of and all due respect to Hell Money–and with A Passage to Rhodesia, he accompanies some frontiersmen to venture far outside of neofolk’s European fixations to the ill-fated southern African (unrecognized) nation of Rhodesia, which we know today as the Republic of Zimbabwe. While his music continues to shine on this new release from Germany’s Trisol imprint, it is his words that continue to impress the most while immediately evoking visions with the first solicitous verse of “The Ballad of the Red Flame Lilly”, through to the subtle hints that war is never-ending in “The River Eternal”:
Into the glowing Darkness
We travel the shining black serpent
That plugs us straight into the heart of this nightmare
At the end of this river is the end of this war
Of course, a river eternal never ends, and thus is the nature of man: to see the light, to know its warmth, but never be able to grasp it.
The fifteen-year Rhodesian Bush War of the 60s/70s is not a conflict that is widely discussed amongst those with a taste for history in the neofolk community as most seem to prefer conflicts that were “closer to home”, but its extreme racial challenges which were further complicated by the complexities of the Cold War, as well as the observations that come with the isolation and denial that grew increasingly rampant for the white minority who were in complete control of Rhodesia’s government as the situation continued its inevitable downward spiral, make it a subject that warrants exploration and attention. As with any conflict, there are two sides to the story, and both sides took part in their share of brutality and atrocities despite the “traditional” Christian values that the Rhodesian government claimed to represent in the face of the growing threat of Communism and even England’s own decadence. On A Passage to Rhodesia, Reuter understandably explores the path of the white Rhodesians, and the result is a considerable fall from grace as denial and an immeasurably independent spirit of rebellion led to the deaths of thousands in the face of a civil war which could not be won, in the face of a nation which would never be officially recognized, and in the face of a government which the entire world, with the exception of South Africa and Portugal, refused to accept. Of course, there were the tens of thousands of Matabele who were murdered or tortured by Mugabe’s regime in the years following independence, but that’s a discussion for another article, or another album.
Reuter’s voice throughout A Passage to Rhodesia is not his own, but rather the voice of those who struggled with the changing political and social landscapes of Rhodesia in those years. His is not the voice of Rhodesia’s leader Ian Smith, Black Nationalists Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe, the uncompromising defense minister P. K. van der Byl, or any other leader or politician of the time. The words found through the tracks of the first disc of A Passage to Rhodesia are the words of Rhodesia’s farmers, settlers, soldiers, laborers, and pioneers who in Rhodesia saw their hopes, dreams, values, and developing traditions taking flight, though they were doomed to being nothing more than temporal illusions. Indeed, disillusionment, sadness, regret, desperation, and denial dominate the lion’s share of the verse found on A Passage to Rhodesia, and with it comes equally despondent compositions. Lines like “It was wrong to come here”, “All that’s left…”, “All paled with the waste of it all”, “We could never have won this”, “Everything’s gone now”, and seemingly countless others are an inescapable presence on the first disc of the album–a constant smothering of spirit that fittingly lasts until the final moments of “The Past is another Country” surrealistically wakes us from the omnipresent despair. Perhaps I’m overstating the sadness of the album as it never quite becomes overbearing or burdensome, but it is certainly always present whether it be in the atmospheric interlude of “The River Eternal” or the broken down minimalism of “In a Wilderness of Spite”.
The music, as efficient as the words alone are at developing the album’s atmosphere, is among the most creative and emotionally striking since the perfect Flowers from Exile came to light five years ago. With the exception of the introductory track, “Electrocuting an Elephant”, the songs that make up the entire first half of the album, from “The Ballad of the Red Flame Lily” to “The River Eternal”, are among the most memorable that Reuter has ever crafted, especially the opening two. Both “The Ballad…” and “One Fire” contain remarkably catchy choruses that are infectious enough to literally keep you singing in your sleep. While the former follows a modestly electronic style of darkwave and develops one of the most agonizingly beautiful and unforgettable choruses in recent memory (and is in itself something of an anomaly as nothing else even remotely similar in style exists on A Passage to Rhodesia), its successor shadows it in similarly impressive memorability with a mirror-opposite approach: minimal, bombastic, and powerful, with even hints of seething sarcasm and the brutal reality of “one fire fights one fire / one nail, one nail” hammering the coffins closed.
The second disc isn’t likely to contain the same replay value as the first, but it is just as interesting for its content. None of the songs found here are of the folk variety, nor do they contain vocals. They do, however, contain a wealth of relevant historical samples and a large array of different industrial and ambient styles, from straight-forward martial industrial to that extremely unique meshing of classical music and dark electronics that projects like Autopsia have been perfecting for some three decades now. As such, the release contains two very different phases that will go a long way to please both Rome’s earliest fans and those who are addicted to Reuter’s melancholic folk genius. The track titles themselves recall lyrical moments from the initial disc so that the whole of the album is connected in ways other than just abstract compositions and samples from the conflict, country, and time period; examples of this are “The Rape Gate” from “The Fever Tree” and “The Great Divide” from “A Country Denied”.
For those who feel that Rome has faltered with his last couple of releases, A Passage to Rhodesia should be more than enough to silence the ongoing criticism. Beyond poetry, the passion that lies behind A Passage to Rhodesia is blatantly evident. While the notion of “there is something here for everybody” is a much overused cliché in music journalism, I can’t think of a more appropriate time to use it. Speaking from a purely personal perspective, this album is a monolithic effort and it is difficult to conceive of something with this much depth, both musically and thematically, having found full manifestation only two years removed from Rome’s last full effort. Even the Boards of Canada-esque “The Great Divide” on the second disc is an expansive, emotional wonder that says enough without needing to resort to the words that I have so obviously treasured. In the end, I simply don’t know what more a music lover in this scene could ask for. A Passage to Rhodesia may be as close to perfection as it gets.
01) Electrocuting an Elephant
02) Ballad of the Red Flame Lily
03) One Fire
04) A Farewell to Europe
05) The Fever Tree
06) Hate us and See if we Mind
07) The River Eternal
08) A Country Denied
09) Lullaby for Georgie
10) In a Wilderness of Spite
11) Bread and Wine
12) The Past is another Country
13) Ballad of the Red Flame Lily (Remix)
01) The Road to Rebellion
02) A Short 1000 Years
03) A Deafening Silence
04) High Ground
05) Matabele Land
06) The Rape Gate
07) The Whenwes of Rhodesia
08) Wishing for a Lost World
09) Open Grass
10) Ending an Era
11) The Great Divide