Negură Bunget, Vîrstele Pămîntului (2010)
Well, as you may well know, there have been some shake-ups in the Negură Bunget camp since 2006’s magisterial Om, leaving only Negru, the drummer, of the original members to carry on under this name. I don’t particularly care about whatever disagreements led to the split, and have already suggested elsewhere that thankfully this drama never quite reached the farcical levels of the Gorgoroth drama. The real question, of course, is, How does this stack up next to the visionary Om?
To this humble listener, the results are a bit of a mixed bag. The core sound and intent of the band seems relatively unchanged, inasmuch as these Romanian lads are still banging on after a rather mystical, folk-ish take on black metal, heavily incorporating various non-traditional instrumentation into their potent and heady blend of magic. Drudkh remains a none-too-shabby point of reference, as do American stand-outs Agalloch and Wolves In The Throne Room. This, perhaps obviously, is all for the good.
These songs benefit greatly from the inclusion of not only some excellently non-cheesy keyboards, but also various folk instruments such as flutes (or pipes; it’s a bit hard to tell), horns, and a tasteful selection of extremely taut drums and other percussive sounds. If you recall some of the wood-sticks-being-banged-together percussion from 2002’s ‘n Crugu Bradalui, you’re on the right track. Negură Bunget’s take on folk-ish black metal is a highly melodic sort, with the melody typically quite wandering, and generally carried by tremelo guitar. The core of the sound, however, is highly textured, which is most frequently accomplished by overlaying both acoustic and distorted guitars for maximum classiness.
On another positive note, the production here is generally quite clear, which allows for all the different components to be heard; you won’t really be left guessing as to when you’re hearing keyboards versus when you’re hearing “live” folk instruments, and the bass, especially, is given prominence at some key moments when it demonstrates some wonderfully deep oscillations. The only complaint about the production, really, is that occasionally the drums sound a little off; the cymbals, especially, sound to these ears somewhat clipped, which I suppose is probably better than an overly splashy cymbal sound, but was still somewhat distracting.
One of my primary concerns in the transition to this new line-up was that the vocals of long-time mainman (and, frankly, ridiculously-named) Hupogrammos Disciple’s would be sorely missed. Thankfully, though, the harsh vocals of new vocalist Corb are wonderful. They are hoarse, deep, and impassioned, and recorded clearly enough that I imagine if I spoke Romanian, I’d have no trouble following the words. At times, they remind of Sakis’ latter-day vocals in Rotting Christ. Unfortunately, the few times that the band turns to clean vocals do not fare nearly so well. On “Chei de Rouã,” in particular, the clean vocals are distractingly off-pitch, almost veering onto the Urfaust or Circle Of Ouroborus axis (which works with those bands, by the way, but not so much here).
I’ve mostly been positive so far, and truth be told, this is still a very good record. Nevertheless, there are several details which keep this from reaching anywhere near the transcendent heights of Om. My biggest complaint, really, is that the album never really gets any momentum, and when it does pick up a little bit of steam, it is arranged in such a way as to be almost self-defeating. Too many of the songs are in the mold of a classic slow-tension-building-to-a-cathartic-outburst design. Individually, this works very well, but because this happens again and again, listening to the album feels like the band is trying to begin the whole thing over again with each new track, rather than proceeding more organically from one song to the next.
Essentially, one of the reasons that Om came off so masterfully is that not only were the individual songs excellent, but the songs were written and the album was sequenced such that it still felt more or less like separate movements contributing to a greater whole. On Vîrstele Pămîntului, most all the individual songs are excellent when listened to in isolation; strung together in this fashion, though, they seem far too much like brief flashes of something that could have been stitched together differently to produce a greater cumulative effect. This leads not only to the problem of too many slow-building tracks, but also to the fact that many of the songs fade out too quickly once it seems like they’ve finally hit their stride. This results in some rather awkward transitions.
Still, I don’t mean to give the impression that this is some sort of trainwreck. As I’ve said, the individual songs tend to work quite well on their own terms, and the overall sound and vision of the band is still admirable, and relatively unique in the world of contemporary metal. The two purely instrumental tracks on here, “Umbra” and “Jar,” deserve special notice for each featuring some very rich folk instrumentation and achieving an ambient effect that doesn’t also bore me to tears, death, or Nasum. In fact, in light of these tracks, as well as the two acoustic re-imaginings included on the recent re-recorded version of their 2000 album Măiastru Sfetnic, it struck me that an all acoustic, ambient/neo-folk album by this band could be very interesting.
So, all in all, this doesn’t match up to Om (nor, to be fair, did I ever really expect it to). What it does do, however, is to continue to weave their dark spell of meditative metal for Transylvanian forests, and I’m still quite happy to come along for the spinning of these heathen tales.
Overall rating: 78%. Wasn’t broke, but didn’t fix.