Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Negura Bunget - Maiastru Sfetnic

Negura Bunget - Maiastru Sfetnic
2001 (on CD, earlier on MC), Bestial Records

Opening with a rumbling earthquake presence, as the sounds of the various instruments slowly build (as if from beneath the ground) and then exploding into the listening space with an ambient, chilling wash of distorted guitars, this album announces the presence of a new aesthetic within Eastern European black metal. Recorded in a very raw fashion (the most impressive item of the production, for me, is the drum recording) in what sounds like a live setting with minimal overdubs, Maiastru Sfetnic - from the very beginning - seizes the listener and transports him/her into a completely different world, one where the elements of nature are mirrored in the sounds of the instruments: the freezing blasts of winter wind, the oppressive gray atmosphere of an eternal snowfall, the majestic aura of ancient forests, etc. The easiest way I can describe this recording is by comparing it to a physical journey: the opener, 'Vremea Locului Sortit', spreads through the listening sphere like a pagan indoctrination into the black arts, filling one's ears with contrasting textures of abrasive distortion and microtones swirling underneath the surface riffing in the shadow of the Transylvanian mountains. This song seems typically 'Romanian' to me, for whatever reason, based on Negura's earlier output. From there the journey in the mind's eye (or ear) begins to move towards the north, or north-eastward, and the songs become even stranger (the second track 'In-Zvicnirea Apusului', for example, incorporates both a whistling tone and the sound of wind as instruments) as their melodicism embraces distinctly 'anti-human' tendencies, i.e. the melodies begin to communicate less and less to the listener and take on the feeling of natural phenomena - that is to say, their inspiration is from nature itself (and mimics the elements in that their message escape the reach of 'immediate' human sensibilities) and doesn't really express a desire to communicate 'common' emotion. As the albums progresses, the songs become more and more abstract and begin to lose their tight structural emphasis. While the second, again, is an exercise in including new instrumental emphases/influences as well as bulding upon a simple framework of repeated motifs, the songs after this (there are six in all on this record) begin to venture away from traditional dynamics. Once again, this is a progression, a journey towards something...but what?

I believe this 'falling away' starts exactly at 8:35 into the second song, where the 'normal' instrumentation drops out, the wind enters in the left channel, and there is an eerie section of dark keyboard tones and swirling electric guitar tremelo picking in a very high register, travelling from the right to the left side of the listening space, while something - just below normal audibility or clarity - is chanted. The third song then opens up in fine fashion as all the instruments combine in a slow expansive melody before suddenly blasting into a highspeed black metal section...but the entire time the crawling, 'swelling' washes of keyboard and rhythm guitar riffs undercut this change in tempo. This music tends to stand still, resolutely, even while it creates an illusion of movement. The melodies, as I said above, begin to grow abstract here...it's as if one has stepped into a dark forest, proceeding north in the night, and the spiritworld opens up to bleed forth its alien, anti-human, messages - emotions and languages that are somehow just beyond the reach of mortal ears. The importance of these melodies, it seems to me, is not exactly in what they say - which is very little - but what they hint at...a different, more complex world just behind ours from which they derive their emotional energy. The fourth song, 'Al Locului', then, is the sound of these spirits in the night mourning, in a fashion that is completely atypical, seeming to arise from beyond walls of mist...starting here, as well, the melodies (at least to me, in keeping with the metaphor of a journey north) begin to grow simpler, colder, and the song structures become less complicated - serving mainly to build impressive atmospheres through abstract instrumentation (that is, all the traditional instruments and melodic motifs of black metal, but used in completely different ways, in an idiosyncratic fashion) instead of creating narratives that reinforce the lyrics through the repetition of key musical phrases. 'Al Locului' begins and travels towards its end in a straight line, without deviating or turning back on itself at any time. It just builds and builds, moving from space to space to illustrate different atmospheres/ideas/emotions. As the album ends, I believe one exits, at last, the forest/cursed land that these songs have taken the listener through, only to gaze upon a windswept, barren expanse of blue ice and desolation...as if the journey, which began in the depths of Romania, travelling northward all the while in the shadows of nature, has at last left one alone and unsheltered before the grim elemental archetypes of death...this last song may begin by assembling itself out of vocal/synth fragments, painting the picture of a human nature to the messages contained within - the distinctly human overtones of this 'tragic' performance - but I believe its entire evocation - taken as a whole, including the morose ending - leaves one utterly alone - unguided, and on the edge of dissolution in a chaotic, hostile, arctic landscape...

The overriding notion that I have, time and time again after I listen to this work, is the way that this album defies direct description, and the manner in which these melodies - taken collectively - seem, to me, to be so abstract, so personal, that they make one struggle to describe both their structure and their emotional impact. I can not say exactly why this album impresses me so much...and perhaps that is why I keep coming back to it, trying to force my impressions into some kind of rational, logical discourse...even though I feel such a project is futile. More than anything else, this record displays the transcendent nature of music...how music can completely escape the ability of language to 'capture' its essence...

If you are in any way an enthusiastic supporter of progression in black metal circles, outside of the depressing rise of commercialism in the genre, and you want to experience what real black metal art sounds like - music created by committed, intelligent, expressive souls sworn to the black - then by all means pick up this album and give it a few listens...I believe this is one of the finest records I have had the honor of listening to in quite some time...