UNGFELL – Es grauet (2021)REVIEW

Vers le milieu de la messe, le montagnard remarqua le diable en personne qui, tantôt sur une épaule du célébrant, tantôt sur l’autre, essayait de lui glisser un mot dans l’oreille. Mais au moment de l’élévation de l’hostie, le pauvre Lucifer avait roulé le long du dos du célébrant en faisant des contorsions si effroyables que c’était à en mourir de rire et il était tombé à terre.” Alexandre Daguet Traditions et Légendes de la Suisse Romande

As the accusation leaves your lips it belongs to the devil, forked tongue or not. What we instinctually hope to gain from the “simpler” temporal reversion offered by proverbs, fables, parables and well, detestable religion taken with a necessary kick of emetic is some measure of assurance that even the most uncommon, disturbing and unnaturally chaotic times we are living can be scaled back to the ouroboros naturally intended for human civilization; A sub-conscious societal reinforcement of this innate need to see civil congress as human nature rather than a terrifying experiment of necessity. We’d shape the reflection in the mirror as they who have not lost or soured our “balanced” humanity to the point of unsalvageable death-eating beasts. This mindset is solely reserved for those leaving the deepest footprints upon the backs of others, the mayhem of the powerful is the only sort of fantasy that still excites modern man, as we grow bored of gnawing at the marrow bones of the weak. The diabolic, enchanting and unholy medieval Walpurgis Night spawned black metal of Zurich, Switzerland based duo Ungfell are ready as serious auteur and troupe in their own three act concept album, ‘Es grauet‘, delivered in eight irregular chunks of their signature pestilential charm and coughed from a much higher, most rousing pulpit.

Formed in 2014 by Swiss musician Menetekel as one of the earlier notable acts considered part of the Zurich based Helvetic Underground Committee (Arkhaaik, Ateiggär, Bruthuur, Dakhma, Death. Void. Terror., Harpax, Kvelgeyst, Lykhaeon, Urgeist and Wyrgher) the success of Ungfell is generally inseparable from fans and journalists likening of their sound to the popular works of Peste Noire eh, at least before ‘Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor’ incited some due controversy and pushed away their trend-seeking audience. In this sense the essence and original talent of this project has long been a bit smeared into a strange place by fans hoping for a sort of morally inoffensive stand-in for a controversial artist, though as we will see today Ungfell had already found their way out of this hole before they’d been noticed, it was only a matter of iteration and practical refinement. That said, we can consider ‘Demo(lition)‘ (2015) under the influence and finding their muse with a squeezebox in hand, folkish acoustic guitar vignettes, and a certain brand of rotten and very slightly punkish medieval black metal themed around the black plague. What holds fast today that can be experienced readily back then is Menetekel‘s acoustic guitar work and the clangorous electric guitar performances which stab at melodies as a passionately murderous lover rather than present themselves as any sort of plainly beauteous wandering hand. Their debut full-length, ‘Tôtbringære‘ (2017), is where we see the voice of the project developing away from the tics of influence, stretching wings beyond the weirding cuss that was Ungfell‘s first demo unto the stoically raw black metal noxiousness and abruptly presented tempo map, a second and final guest drum performance from Infermità (Serpens Luminis, Lykhaeon) who’d worked out quite well for the intentionally raw spirit of the project, leaving an appropriately primitive aftertaste. This brutish slapping served no limitation to the distinct guitar work of that first album, I would argue that it’d been such a popular album due to Menetekel‘s guitar/vocal mania on songs like “Trommler Tod” wherein the Peste Noire fans and (early) Windir fans amongst my compatriots oddly began to achieve some rare agreement within the value of this debut album.

It wasn’t until ‘Mythen, Mären, Pestilenz‘ (2018) that I was convinced Ungfell had legs beyond stylized sound design and some sweet guitar work; At this point a certain level of approachable fidelity arrives and the ambitious yarn which Menetekel was spinning began to amplify the complexity of their arrangements. Why simply write songs which present vignettes of auld Swiss folklore when the artist’s own cleverly gnawing spiritus now calls for a focused narrative feature? Or, how about a concept album wherein the songwriter can develop larger and more nuanced narrative that will speak the the patience Ungfell‘s work had already begun to insist upon. This is ultimately what ‘Es Grauet’ achieves beyond some slight updates in fidelity (mix/engineering by Menetekel, mastering by Priory Recording Studios) and overall aesthetic design (album art by Robbie C. Ward), offering a complete fable with a well-rounded, coy, malevolent and emotive presentation which showcases the artist having evolved far beyond the characteristics of their obviate early inspiration, developing tastefully bizarre idiosyncrasy in its place.

Menetekel‘s use of old High Alemannic German naming and Schwiizerdütsch slang has caused a lot of quite funny confusion for reviewers past-and-present since auto-translation from certain dialects into German doesn’t provide context of evolved meaning, so, I won’t add myself to the list of folks mystified by the speculative details of the tale at hand. The work itself does provide some of its own context, though. From retronyms, slang, and portmanteau we can divine a tale of a small pre-industrial village, a mortifying murder, and a bit of an uncalled for witch hunt that sets eyes and fearful minds away from the truth. Where we end up seems to suggest what evil originally fell upon the small town is thought to be dormant but resonant in plain sight. However you distill the meaning of this tale no doubt it will largely be conveyed via atmosphere which is thick with auld European folk horror, a sort of ironic medieval churlishness that comes with some wry wisdom worth a few passes at before it sinks in. Keyword being ‘atmosphere’ as the raw and clangorous bruising that’d defined past releases instead finds a collar-yanking warmth sans any particular sunlight applied on ‘Es grauet’. An obscured tale told via bizarre language while immersed in a warming soup of human treachery (and livestock sounds) is evidently the perfect foil for Ungfell to step fully away from insistent comparisons to other artists, they’ve developed this core idea to such a degree that we can chuck their readied pigeon bodies from the second story window and rest assured of their best landing.

A concept album should almost never be presented in its midst, to do otherwise would indicate that one part of the story is more vital than its opening chapters, presenting “Tea” before “Welcome Home” just doesn’t land the same way. Thankfully Ungfell have only presented the first chapter “Tyfels Antlitz (Wie e Huerä zwei Chind empfanget)” as the sole representative of the experience, leaving the tone of the album tentative beyond its elaborately streaming melodic black metal salvo of riff and chorale, writhing and undulating as foreshadowing of the horror brewing beneath the hills. The two minute introduction provided by “Es grauet überm Dorf (Wie s niemert het chönne ahne)” and its austere gallop into the sound of a bustling town is arguably the true moment of foreshadowing but it’d read as a regal characterization of the town, not as tragedian as the full opening piece. Regardless of how you’d read these first ten minutes of the experience as a storytelling device and accomplished modern black metal composition they will eventually bleed together as appropriately spirited introductory movements. I say this because it will become impossible to dryly point to one song and demonstrate its sole efficacy as the relationship between each piece and the progression of events won’t be as effective as appreciating the album as a whole being. That said, it will take some time to mentally condense these events into summary.

To start, I believe most folks will find the storyline largely conveyed via soundscapes and atmospheric sound effects interspersed within each piece; This may amount to a babbling brook and a jangling cowbell, a bubbling swamp, or a church bell closing its distance. As the album progresses between these general points of outline, we strike upon several acoustic pieces of advancing tone, essentially folk music that begins with the unsettling fingerpicked motion of “D Schwarzamslä (Wie us däne Goofe Pfaffä wärdet)” to the incredible central point of impact on (my personal favorite track) “S Chnochelied (Wie e Beschuldigti gfoltered wird und Visione bechunnt)” and the witching n’ flute-spinning folk of “Stossgebätt (Wie das Wyb als Häx hygrichtet wird)” that directly follows. There is no mistaking these pieces as narrative and also distinctly in the wheelhouse of Ungfell but “Stossgebätt…” specifically recalls one of my personal favorite records of 2019 the acoustic set from Darkenhöld on their ‘Atra Musica’ split with Griffon. What I will posit as the skin, the muscle and the final most turbulent narrative body of ‘Es grauet’ is essentially the black metal pieces that intersperse and largely populate the full listen with its thickest consistency. These are not especially horrifying per the narrative, though they read as triumphant and tragedian in their melodic expression there is yet a sense of progression towards turmoil and ruin as they riff and rasp. The way I’ve framed the experience it might seem the guitar work is not as vital as the greater bells-and-whistles atmosphere here, instead I’d suggest that there is more of everything here and that the black metal aspect of the tale is no less valuable than previous, but the other pieces of Menetekel‘s oeuvre are not accoutrement or coy folk blips and instead serve just as vital a purpose. Hell, there isn’t even a moment of accordion on ‘Es grauet’, for what it is worth.

A recommendation of ‘Es grauet’ will have to come with at least one or two qualifying inquests. If you are an existing fan who wants to see how they’d thrive within a beautifully concieved themed album, conjuring a dark and richly illustrated fable that manages countless memorable moments throughout then I suppose I’d have sold you on that idea by now. If you want to chew on the raw bones of ‘Tôtbringære’ a bit longer, I would say only some of that ugliness is still sparking this third record’s guitar work and they’ve moved into their own without losing any (important) teeth. For my own taste ‘Es grauet’ is a moderate challenge as a casual listen and very good time when I am fully engaged with its narrative, of course any concept album is just like a good book, it must eventually be set on the shelf to appreciate. Finally, for those not yet indoctrinated the recommendation is, as always, context since experiencing Ungfell‘s compositional voice growing with each release helps to emphasize what a high moment ‘Es grauet’ is. My recommendation is high in any case.

High recommendation. (85/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Es grauet
RELEASE DATE:April 30th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp [All Formats]
GENRE(S):Black Metal,
Black/Folk Metal
Pagan Black Metal

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