Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz by UngfellRelease date: March 23, 2018
Ungfell made one of my favorite black metal releases last year with the ferocious Tôtbringære, a record that was as excellent as it was a pain to type correctly. It was a refreshing release in many ways. Black metal is often criticized (sadly, correctly) for its misguided devotion to purity, in a way that stifles innovation. Naturally, that’s a sweeping generalization for a scene that continues to grow by leaps and bounds, and there are many excellent exceptions, one of which was Tôtbringære. It paired the rickety, lo-fi sound of black metal demos (that I am documented as loving and comparing to La Monte Young’s work) with something that one might ultimately call “boogie”.
Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz is ultimately a much cleaner album in terms of its production, but everything else that I loved on Tôtbringære has been cranked up to eleven. The knack for melody that heavily characterized the latter has been really honed, resulting in certain guitar driven passages that almost wouldn’t sound out of place on a thrash metal epic. (At one point during ‘Bluetmatt’, I wrote down in my notes “Vektor influence?!”) The scope of the songwriting has similarly advanced, resulting in some absolutely beautiful tracks that evolve and grow in a way that is both natural and completely unexpected, embodying the best sort of musicianship. This is really a uniquely progressive record that doesn’t sound like it’s ever really trying too hard; there’s little bombast here, just a really, truly excellent sound.
The progressive elements go beyond the sonic architectural aspects of the songs; Ungfell shares the proclivity for folk instruments that is so common amongst prog rock bands. Only Ungfell does it in a way that isn’t folk metal in any sort of way, weaving them into the whole of the album, making them seem organic with the aural aesthetics that are cultivated. Synths and soundscapes are utilized similarly, resulting in an enveloping work of musical art.
But these elements are the stock in trade of black metal. Nothing ultimately unique about these individual aspects. That’s where the boogie comes in. Because damn, this is a punchy album. Ska and hardcore seem like the obvious touchstones, which makes sense given the syncopated rhythms that drive some of these tracks forward. To me, however, it sounds a whole lot more like the really early experimental surf recordings of Dick Dale, with its hyper-picked reworkings of folk tropes. The album straight up acknowledges this, of course, with the surf sting that opens ‘Die Hexenbrut zu Nirgendheim’. Because of this, you get that sort of raunchy (boogie) vibe that points to the weird power of all sorts of rock music: the diabolical.
The diabolical is a weird sort of notion. We tend to associate it mostly with straight-ahead evil, but it derives etymologically from “the double”. Any art can be diabolical when it performs a double move: an engagement with the ontologically troubling that simultaneously locks this upsetting experience within a frame of sorts. It’s the latter part of this double move that often leads to these pieces of art being ignored, used as wallpaper (sonic or otherwise), but the strength of the former can reach out beyond the frame and shake the audience to the core. In this sense, the riotous, righteous boogie of Ungfell is eminently successful.
In this sense, they follow a long lineage of Swiss intellectual culture; in this album, with its festive folk meanderings, its lauding of tradition, while simultaneously breaking with it in a sometimes violent way, Ungfell travels the same path as (the perennially ignored) Jeremias Gotthelf and Robert Walser. May this path be followed more!
PS: Everyone should read Gotthelf’s The Black Spider, and I really wish I had the time to extend this rumination on the diabolical into a full essay centering on this piece and Gotthelf.