Review: It’s Progressive. It’s Black. It’s Klabautamann.
Cut it out man, I’m just here to listen to some Klabautamann!
Klabautamann is one of those shape-shifting bands that changes their sound with every album. While I typically like that quality in bands, I hope this German duo cuts that shit out right now. Woah, a little aggressive there, you probably thought. Ok fine. Please stop where you are, Klabautamann. Is that better? So why am I asking a band to stop evolving? No, I’m not a record label trying to keep a sellout from experimenting. It’s very much the opposite. With Smaragd, they have found something truly special.
While always rooted in black metal, the band opted to take a step in a direction that I never knew I wanted. Their debut in 2003, Our Journey Through the Woods, is an aptly named folky-black metal album that draws strong parallels to Agalloch and the newest Fen. It’s really good! If you like that style, you’ll see that their debut is criminally underknown. The same could be said about the slightly more experimental follow-up Der Ort in 2005. Then, in 2009, they more or less dropped the folk in favor of jazz. From the forest to the streets, Merkur gives us the first sense that this band has some ingenuity to go along with all that raw talent. Their Opeth-y progressive side took a baby step forward in 2011’s The Old Chamber, but not quite in the same way as it will in Smaragd.
Now let’s get to the goods. While I am thoroughly impressed with this band’s back catalog, they have taken a path that will either earn them a grand reception or force them to run back to a road more traveled. If you couldn’t tell, I’m one of the ones standing to the side offering a refreshing beverage as they run on.
Right off the first riff, the Hammond Organ kicks in and the clean vocals take you by surprise. It’s still unquestionably black metal, the ripping tremolo riffs only stay away for a minute, but there is an abundance of true-prog-metal breaks scattered throughout. They act as a calming force, pure tranquility, before the horror of blackness takes you again. I’d hate to state any reference bands for these proggy sections because they would surely turn many off, so I’ll abstain. If it’s any consolation, I hate attempts to revive 70’s prog and while parallels can be drawn, I actually love this. The Opeth influence is strong, but never feels like a ripoff.
As both main members are primarily guitarists, you can correctly assume that the instrument is front and center throughout. When in black metal mode they give us some infectious trashing and in prog mode the clean tones invoke the depths of the ocean, serene but menacing. Along with the expert guitar work, they have a slew of guest performers doing vocals, playing a Hurdy Gurdy, keyboards, and trombone. The range of guests brings a welcome diversity to each song, but none of them stray too far from the central concept. Speaking of which, how about this cover art from Costin Chioreanu?
Another, much weirder, comparison that I want to make with this album is with Haken’s The Mountain. It never gets to that level of goofiness, but there’s more than one oddly syncopated clean vocal passage in Smaragd that makes me a happy listener. The emotional dynamic is addicting with crushing and melodic on one side and depressing and ecstatic on the other. These qualities cross-pollinate and create a stronger breed. Transitions can be jarring at times where I typically applaud bands that can morph from one idea to the next with me hardly noticing, but it’s a minor complaint. I should also mention that the production is ridiculous, pure honey to my fragile ears.
It’s not really Progressive Black Metal as much as it is both Progressive Metal and Black Metal separately. This is the distinction that is either going to go over well or very poorly with fans. In a time when bands are constantly blending genres, it’s kind of nice to have two opposing sides in one album that hardly touch. Separate but equal. Shit. I should rephrase that.
4.5 Out ov 5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Smaragd is out June 6 via Zeitgeister Music. Give ’em a follow on the Fbook.