There is folk, and then there is black metal. For some, never the twain shall meet. On its own and in the absence of any sub-categorical prefixes, with its typically clear-cut softness, the influence of tradition/nostalgia, and the sole reliance on acoustic instrumentation, traditional folk music is capable of being lovely, if not moving. One could then deduce that the other side of this coin can only be something harsh, cold, dark, and electric, which is essentially the sonic representation of black metal. The latter has the propensity to be equally moving and at least subjectively lovely, but in a much more visceral or cathartic manner. While all genres can easily be poorly performed, there is something particular about the ease with which black metal and folk can go wrong, never mind the attempts at merging such contrasting opposites together and the subsequent auditory disasters that occur.
Since its beginning in 1990 with the band Skyclad and the release of the viking metal pillar that is Bathory‘s Hammerheart, for example, folk metal has taken several different paths and forms; the merits of which are debated amongst metal fans. Provided with some generalized developments into an all-too-common kitsch, a tawdry aesthetic, and the sensation that perhaps you should be drinking beer with pirates and/or wearing your favorite Hot Topic poet shirt while shredding on a mandolin, there is a disdain many serious or “purist” listeners of black metal feel towards this subgenre, leading them to be a bit reticent to give any form of folk music a chance when it pertains to anything heavy. But as Friedrich Nietzsche—who is so frequently referenced and often held in high esteem amongst creators and fans of dark music—once said, “There are no absolute truths.”
Zur Ew’gen Ruh, released in November of 2014 on Percht (a Steinklang Industries sublabel), is a collaborative album created by the alpine folk band Sturmpercht in conjunction with Stefan Traunmuller‘s solo black metal project, Rauhnåcht. For those that like black metal but have a non-existent interest in folk, while variety is the spice of life, this is probably not the album for you. If you appreciate both genres, however, yet possess a purist’s skepticism towards their fusion, then this is a refreshing release that deserves some of your attention.
Remaining consistent with the idiosyncratic presentations of their former releases, Sturmpercht yet again delivers with a package manifesting a weight of thoughtful intent, immediately combating some of the aforementioned kitsch that is unfortunately present on a great deal of folk metal records. The simple and earth-toned imagery of a forest with translucent overlays is much easier to take seriously than, say, a brightly colored Celtic-font-imbued band logo that has been stiffly placed upon over-processed photography. Sure, one might argue, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” but presentation is important, and while there are always exceptions (no absolute truths), it’s fairly easy to tell what you’re about to hear if an album cover is a photo of a band clearly confused about which culture their folk is derived from as the members don some strange combination of modernized Roman armor, leather straps, and Anglo-Saxon peasant shirts. You will not experience any such confusion here as there are no cultural or influential inconsistencies within this album.
The first song, “Geist” (Ghost)—with its supremely forlorn and dark-folk beginning—consists of guitars, flute, violin, harp, the ever so magnificent and haunting hurdy gurdy, minimal and thunderous reverb-laden percussion, and exquisite vocal harmonies. The power of these instruments and melodies combined form an auditory apparition of a guide, presenting the duration of Zur Ew’gen Ruh, which translates as “to eternal rest.” The songwriting found in this first track particularly is excellent. The steady progressions build in ways that keep your ears interested all the way to where the music then tumbles off the expected cliff into the inevitable pit of metal, complete with blackened, grating vocals.
The album consists of four actual songs with double the number of tracks, each track essentially alternating between collaborators—starting with folk and then being matched, mirrored, or revisited with black metal. Sturmpercht and Rauhnåcht each draw upon the same Alpine folklore, traditions, customs, and superstitions individually and collectively, and on this recording they maintain similar musical characteristics, instrumentation, and phrasing in a considerate fashion. The folk maintains its darkness while the initially mid-tempo black metal gradually intensifies throughout, but their commonalities combine nicely to form something cohesive. The authenticity and maturity of the arrangements certainly distinguish their endeavor from some of the less serious efforts that exist within this subgenre. This is specifically evident in “Die Tausendjahrige Eiche,” where the two play off of each other in a nearly cinematic way before building to the triumphant ending, which is the title track of the album. There are plenty of spaces such as this where the “black and white” merge, gracefully revealing the capacity for a gray area to harmoniously exist between the two, and it is this capacity for each element to be powerful both independently and integratively that seals the success of this collaboration.
02) Die Drei Eisheiligen
03) Zur Ewgen Ruh
04) Die Tausendjahrige Eiche