Everyone who cares at all about heavy music knows that the eighties into the early nineties were truly exciting times in music history. There are always going to bands copying other bands, but at least many of those creating extreme metal during that time were still regularly attempting to push the envelope rather than emulate those which came before them. Even still, most genres were simply evolving within, rather than outside of, themselves, and only a handful of projects and bands were truly pioneers of new forms and contexts of these sounds.
Considering this, from their beginning, Bethlehem seemed particularly disinterested in fitting any sort of mold or catering to the expectations of others. With the release of their self-titled demo in 1992, they were purportedly banned from playing multiple cities throughout Germany for the first few years of their existence due to the shock induced by their material and accusations that they were “Satanists.” In addition to documented mention of the trials and tribulations endured by each member, this presumably only fueled them in continuing on their self-directed path, which ultimately led to the creation of the album Dark Metal. It was with this debut full-length that they established themselves as the progenitors of a new sub-genre bearing the same title of the release—an opus which encompassed facets of black metal, doom metal, and gothic rock. Not long after Dark Metal came the far more intense Dictius te Necare, followed by Sardonischer Untergang im Zeichen irreligiöser Darbietung (a.k.a. S.U.i.Z.i.D.), thus completing the trifecta for which Bethlehem are so well-known and upon which all future expectations of the band have essentially been placed per the vast majority of conversations I’ve participated in regarding them. Though, again, we return to the concept that this is visceral music serving as an outlet for the creators, not for the sake of pleasing others. After the release of S.U.i.Z.i.D., Bethlehem continued investigating different forms of auditory expression, consequently causing some of their original fans to lose interest. While the albums that lay between S.U.i.Z.i.D. and their most recent full-length release—which they boldly elected to be self-titled—aren’t anything I am particularly interested in, I recognize the need for musicians to explore their craft beyond any perceived boundaries, self-imposed or otherwise. While the albums to follow the first three sonic immersions into darkness, depression, and lunacy aren’t necessarily going to appease those appreciative of the very particular sort of madness that was formerly present, the later releases were still reasonable explorations into other realms. But in time, most of us also feel a need to revisit themes from our pasts, and it’s exceptionally nice when you can do so with different perspectives that alter the way they are conceived.
In early December of 2016, Bethlehem unveiled one such revisiting of their past. The decision to have it be a self-titled album is of particular interest as doing so immediately seemed to demand everyone’s attention. I’m sure there are motives for doing so that are completely invisible to an outsider’s eye, but it seems safe to speculate that this is an act representative of a clear nod to the full circle being made with its release; especially considering that, as mentioned before, the first piece that Bethlehem produced was a self-titled demo. Provided that Jürgen Bartsch is the only remaining original member with a lineup that is otherwise fairly consistently evolving, it’s also interesting to hear how the band’s newest members, Onielar and Karzov, have contributed to this creation. While I’d venture to say that some will claim Onielar is only emulating the styles of some of their former vocalists, the reality is that her vocals are still hers, though also befitting to this semi-transgression to the past. She is already established as a strong vocalist with Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult and has now only further demonstrated her abilities with a strikingly multi-dimensional performance on this record. She encompasses the aggressive despondence heard in Andreas Classen on Dark Metal, the maniacal hostility of Rainer Landfermann on Dictius te Necare, as well as the torment and anguish of Marco Kehren, and the occasional lunacy or detached emptiness of Catherin Campen on S.U.i.Z.i.D. Being a vocalist for Bethlehem cannot be an easy task, and that is both regardless of and in addition to having to meet or raise the bar that was set in their earlier days. That said, Onielar was an excellent candidate to take this on. Were any presumable expectations to take the form of some sort of beast with a head, she savagely saws that head off with a knife on this album.
Regarding Karzov, his guitar playing on this release is also compelling. He’s effectively grasped and displayed certain stylistic nuances from the first three albums, thus maintaining their dark metal sound. In addition to this, you’ll hear the expected, faster black metal segments, plus the more industrial metal presence heard in some of the later releases, but Karzov also provides us with a few newer elements, or adaptations of that which was already contributing to the formation of dark metal as a genre. An example of the latter would be on “Arg tot frohlockt kein Kind,” which is essentially a dark metal enhanced post-punk song featuring riffs that are surprisingly reminiscent of Killing Joke at times. Regardless of tone, there are similarities in these new song structures in comparison to their older catalog as well. For example, on “Kalt’ Ritt in leicht faltiger Leere,” there is a fair amount of the anticipated full-throttle heavy passages that are then contrasted with abrupt bridges, interludes, and changes in tempo. Though this happens on various songs throughout the recording, something that was less expected is that this album does exhibit songs with slightly more consistent, or somewhat “traditional” structures, as well. Such as with “Kein Mampf mit Kutzenzangen,” which sounds like a perfect blend of something off of Dark Metal and S.U.i.Z.i.D., but also features ethereal synth soundscapes that could be associated with any of the Cure’s more depressing material. That said, Bartsch’s bass and synth playing on this album is also skillfully executed and diverse, and is imperative to the darkness depicted in their music. All things considered, Bethlehem have simply continued to excel at essentially dragging their listener through audible highs and lows, establishing a nearly palpable sense of mental instability. Their success with doing so is present in the alternations of movements within the songs as well as in the alternations of moods of each song as a whole. While I cannot say they have matched the intensity of Dictius te Necare, I also don’t think that’s the point and this recent work of theirs is still strong nonetheless. They have managed to go back to their roots while still encompassing most of their entire history at the same time, which I dare say ultimately makes this being a self-titled release even more suitable.
Bethlehem does come across to me as a band that is serious about what they’re doing and their pursuits, but they also don’t come off as the sort of band that would take themselves altogether too terribly seriously either. That said, my only real qualm with this album is that they start it off with the brief eruption of a belch. Alternately, though I don’t fully understand starting an album that way, it strangely also makes some sense. Yet again, it creates that impression that they don’t really care what you think, they’re simply doing what they want and that’s always been their approach. That is a trait I will always appreciate in any musician or artist. This, merged with the fact that this album did satiate my desire to experience something more engaging and intense than the last half of their catalog, is why—in addition to their first three albums—Bethlehem will continue to make its way into the rotation on my stereo in the years to come.
01) Fickselbomber Panzerplauze
02) Kalt’ Ritt in leicht faltiger Leere
03) Kynokephale Freuden im Sumpfleben
04) Die Dunkelheit darbt
05) Gängel Gängel Gang
06) Arg tot fohlockt kein Kind
07) Verderbnisheilung in sterbend’ Mahr
08) Wahn schmiedet Sarg
09) Verdammnis straft gezugeltes Aas
10) Kein Mampf mit Kutzenzangen