The distant past is full of mystery. We can pore over written records and examine the ruins of buildings, but it is up to our imagination to truly resurrect these dead places and the people who inhabited them. Whether by following tradition faithfully or letting it serve as inspiration, history can be a powerful muse for the creative-minded. Until time travel is perfected (which I hope never happens), the farther back one’s mind’s eye looks, the deeper the mystery becomes, and the possibilities grow alongside.
The duo of Frank Merten and Henry Emich have been recording as Herbst9 since 1999. Over the years, the identity of the project has seen little change. Herbst9 is steeped in ancient history: the crumbling sand-choked empire of Egypt, the legends of the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, and the mythologies of the haunted underworld. The music reflects their identity in an assured manner: rhythmic ritual drumming, chimes, flutes, bells, and strings punctuate the modern trappings of drones and samples. Herbst9 has developed something of a trademark drone—a horn-like blare that shifts between chords in measured patterns—that can be found throughout the project’s discography. Much of Herbst9’s inspiration is taken directly from myths of the old world, and their albums are often windows into the stories that have been handed down through generations. Merten and Emich are students of history, and bear an obvious love and respect for the tales of gods and beasts, and how the infant race of man interacted with these elemental beings.
With such a distinct sonic profile, Herbst9 is among the more cinematic acts that the dark ambient genre has to offer, presenting a more traditional listening experience. While many artists aim to create a collaborative relationship between producer and listener, attempting to engage the imagination of the listener in a subtle and suggestive manner, Herbst9 is rarely so aesthetic. Not to imply that their work isn’t excellent, mind you, because it certainly is, but the strength of the presentation and concept often leaves little room for creative interpretation on the part of the consumer. While its contemporaries may strive to create a subjective soundtrack, Herbst9 is very objective about its mood, content, and experience, and pulls it off in stunning fashion.
Over the course of eight albums, Merten and Emich have refined their technique, adding wrinkles here and expanding details there until everything flows as smoothly and majestically as the Nile itself. The album Usumgal Kalamma showed a marked jump in both technical prowess and songwriting, and the same level has been applied to Fragmentary, a two-disc set of reworked live tracks, alternate versions, and unreleased material.
“Blood Whisper,” the final track on the first disc, is perhaps the finest example of the sound of Herbst9. Taken from the album :Eta Carinae: (2001), the track begins with plucked sitar strings and looped chimes, evoking an ancient atmosphere of solemn robed figures, flame-filled braziers, vaulted stone temples, blood rituals, and whispering shadows of the divine. A looped female chant emerges, backed by more sitar chords, violin, and languid ritualistic percussion, with that delicious drone blare shifting through its measured gears underneath it all. It’s a mesmerizing example of the old fused with the new, and a testament to how dedicated Merten and Emich are to the history and myth that is such an integral part of their artistic expression.
Fans won’t want to pass up this collection either—if not for the new material, then for the new interpretations of existing tracks. “The Sage Lord Asimbabbar,” for example, has lost all traces of the wonderful stringwork dominating the original version on Usumgal Kalamma, and gives focus to the swirling tones and slow drums that dwell in the background. It’s debatable whether this new version trumps the original, but it’s new angles like this that keep Fragmentary from being a mere retread of untouched work. Likewise, the Fragmentary version of “Napisunu Utumma” is half the length of the original, streamlined and beefed up with more measured drumming, to the point of possessing a surprising groove. This is something Herbst9 is not normally noted for, and it’s a welcome twist. I prefer the versatility and evolution of the original on Usumgal Kalamma, but this new vision’s leaner and meaner incarnation is definitely worth a listen.
Fragmentary is not just a showcase of Herbst9 at its new-found peak, but is also a strong entry point for anyone not yet familiar with one of dark ambient’s most fascinating acts. While I wish there was a bit more content from 2008’s superlative The Gods Are Small Birds, but I Am the Falcon, Fragmentary has a good range of material, and the reworking ensures the album doesn’t sound as disjointed as its title might suggest. Tracks from the debut album, From a Dark Chasm Below, segue smoothly into the two new “Warkatu” efforts, showing how the project has remained true to its ancient muse from its inception until today. Merten and Emich rewrite and preserve their own history while shedding what light they will on the beliefs of the ancient world. Herbst9 brings the past closer to the modern age, reminding us of a time when the line between worlds was blurred and gods were thought to walk among men. Fragmentary may serve as a portal to this lost era; listen for yourself to be sure.
01) Buried Under Time and Sand
02) Warkatu I
03) Napissunu Mutumma
04) From Below
05) In the Vein of Purusa
06) The Sage Lord Asimbabbar
08) Blood Whisper
01) The Laments Begin
02) Ningirsu Usumgal
03) She Filled the Wells of the Land with Blood
04) Warkatu II
05) Causa Mortis
06) Ereskigal, Rise from Your Throne
07) Mimer I
08) Mimer II