REVIEW: UNGFELL – ES GRAUET
Roosters crow. A goat’s bell jangles. Alpine winds sweep through the edelweiss. On the crags above, an ancient evil rises, casting shadows over a peaceable horsecart rumbling along the cobbles of the village street.
In Ungfell’s Switzerland, the quaint and the terrifying coexist. This is less Calvin’s Switzerland than that of Paracelsus, where the natural and supernatural are inextricable. On Es grauet (which means “it dawns” or “dawn breaks” but can also connote horror), Ungfell’s third full-length, the listener gets a tour of the Confœderatio Helvetica as likely to evoke the Balrog (see the album art) as pastoral life. This is a terrifying place where devils and imps lurk in crevasses—it is as if Ungfell were personally offended by accusations of Swiss languor and felt compelled to unleash their native evils on the world.
Like many black metal bands working in a pre- or proto-Christian mode, Ungfell fuses homespun, Medieval-sounding elements with trve brvtality. The classic BM riffage emerges quickly from the background on “Es grauet überm Dorf” (“Dawn breaks over the village”). The landscape here is treacherous—no quiet moment or acoustic interlude lasts very long before we’re off into the next vision of Alpine horror, accompanied by furious, emotive guitar and a punishing rhythm section.
The lyrics are in Swiss German, so a rough translation of the titles helps provide context (Schwyzerdütsch is real weird, so this may not be 100%):
- Dawn Breaks over the Village (As Has Never Been Seen Before)
- Devil’s Visage (How a Whore Receives Two Children)
- The Black Amslä (How the Goofe Becomes Pfaffä (?))
- Murder in the Valley (How a Secret Murder Is Committed)
- The Bone Song (How an Accused Is Tortured and Receives Visions)
- Quick Prayer (How the Woman Is Executed as a Witch)
- The Unholy Pfaffä from Heinzerberg (How Death and Corruption Descend on the Village)
- The Rock Quarry (How the Evil Is Buried)
I admittedly have no idea about Black Amslä, Goofe, and Pfaffä, so for the purposes of this review I’m assuming they’re evil spirits. The big picture is a tale of evil descending and then being driven out, and the emotions of the songs follow this arc. This is an album meant to be experienced as a whole, a tale told around the campfire: “It seems everything started out normally that day in the village—that is, until…”
Blistering blast beats from drummer Vâlant and piercing tremolo riffs set the pastures ablaze, but each song brings back moments of life in the mountains—a cow mooing, a far-off horn—before diving back into the melee. It’s rare for an album to have such a consummate sense of place. If “Es grauet überm Dorf” sets the scene, “Tyfels Antlitz” feels like the moment of unholy conception. Frontman Menetekel tells us of the devil’s visit while his riffs cascade like a brook down the side of the Matterhorn. On songs such as this one, the difference in harsh vocals from their previous LP is especially clear—where Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz is delivered mostly in a shrill shriek, Es grauet has a much more abrasive and varied delivery, with the sung parts augmenting this atmosphere. “D Schwarzämsla” follows as a moment of ominous tranquility before we’re thrust back into “Mord im Tobel.”
Throughout Es grauet and its predecessor, Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz, Ungfell seems unafraid of being a little goofy. During the bridge in “Mord im Tobel,” right around 4:20, the “boing” of a mouth harp springs out from within the crashing of symbols and dirgelike vocals. This is no lean two-piece—Menetekel is credited not just with guitar, bass, and vocals, but with accordion on the band’s Metal Archives page, and within each song—or, perhaps more accurately, tale—this varied sonic palette gives Ungfell the qualities of troubadours. It is as if Ungfell’s audience are not the bedroom-bound heshers of 2021 but a tavern full of traveling merchants. Judging from “Chnochenlied” (“Bone song”), it seems a few of the merchants might even sing along, and by “Stossgebätt” (“Quick prayer”) we have the whole tavern joining in.
The final battle comes in “D Unheilspfaffä von Heinzäbärg.” Driving drums and a dual vocal delivery at the beginning ratchet up the tension. Halfway through “D Unheilspfaffä,” you could be forgiven for thinking you’re listening to a chamber orchestra as an “Ave Maria” bursts through before the swirl of chaos subsumes everything once more. Here as elsewhere, warm production makes this penultimate track at once as grand and intimate as a hamlet among towering peaks.
The last track on Es grauet is the first time I’ve heard honest-to-Satan yodeling on a vicious black metal record. Like the other moments of Swiss-ness, it doesn’t just provide variety and a little lightheartedness; it firmly anchors this record in its homeland. A member of the Helvetic Underground Committee, Ungfell is unflinchingly Swiss. The singular Switzerland sound is one of the things that first drew me to Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz and that is even more unmistakable here. The sole aspect of this evident pride that gives me pause is that Ungfell are Eisenwald Tonschmiede labelmates with Drudkh, whose nationalism has more sinister sides—here’s hoping their brand of commitment to the homeland remains more benign.
Until I find out otherwise, however, Ungfell are just a fun fucking listen. Whether it’s the black metal bona fides or the one-of-a-kind admixture of atmospherics and instruments so folksy you can almost smell the raclette, Es grauet is an unforgettable voyage through the more sinister corners of the Alps. Better bring a broadsword; it could be the devil himself blowing that alpenhorn the next peak over.
Photo via Bandcamp