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After some much needed time out from reviewing and, in fact, listening to metal, I’ve rediscovered my passion for the genre with the help of a few classics and, in this case, an album spawned towards the tail end of 2010, courtesy of reliable record label, Ván. Urfaust, a fiercely loved but criminally underrated band are back with their third full-length album, entitled ‘Der freiwillige Bettler’, after a period of silence for five long years. The agonising wait for a new album has ended and it’s fair to say that Urfaust have delivered, once again, with one of the better performances of an already strong 2010 year in metal music. Since I tend to shy away from following musicians closely through social networking sites, I had little to no expectations of this album, although I had heard through a friend of a friend that it would be more focused on metal, as opposed to dark ambient, a sub-genre Urfaust have worked well with for a number of years.
This is most certainly the case when in comes to ‘Der freiwillige Bettler’. This album tends to move away from the largely ambient approach of the previous two albums. I had always liked the dark ambient side to Urfaust but my main passion lies within metal and I can often find myself getting frustrated with long passages of barely noticeable ambiance. I’ve often stated that black metal bands who embrace the ambient side to music tend to fall flat on their faces when they make the grave mistake of focusing too much on one side and not enough on the other. Urfaust, to be honest, are culprits themselves at times. Take the debut, for example. It looked to mesh black metal and dark ambient into the one album but the two were very distant from one another. Whilst one song would be almost entirely ambient, the next would reek of black metal. Ambient bands within the genre often make this mistake. They fail to distinguish a connection or a relationship between the two genres.
The debut showcases how Urfaust could be brilliant at writing music that fell into two vastly different genres but how they also lacked at bringing the two together to form something truly extraordinary. This album, thankfully, seems to have learned some lessons based on past experiences. Unlike the debut, ‘Der freiwillige Bettler’ consists mostly of mesmerising black metal anthems, although certain tracks, a la the title track, can feel like fillers, despite the use of chanted vocals. However this approach doesn’t exactly feel unnecessary to me, although I would have preferred the album to keep along the same lines as the opening song, a beautiful blasting of bouncy black metal full of bass, a bombastic production and exceptional Gregorian-esque vocals. This album doesn’t tend to dell too long on the ambient soundscapes, which I greatly appreciate. Urfaust are at their very best when they forge a relationship between the bouncy bass lines, superbly mesmerising riffs and the wonderfully chanted vocals - with IX being at his best, as per usual. The vocals are truly remarkable. IX is definitely one of my favourites in the black metal genre. He has such a unique voice and one that never fails to impress me, or send shivers down my spine.
On this particular album however, he chooses to take a different approach on occasions, albeit infrequently, with depressive black metal styled shrieks although, as I said, these are infrequent in comparison to his chanted vocals, brilliantly illustrated on songs like ‘Der Mensch, die kleine Narrenwelt’. I tend to agree with the general consensus that this is Urfaust at their pinnacle. Not only has the song writing improved but I feel the fresh approach that the production has taken has significantly altered the way I view this bands orchestral influenced music. Songs like the opening track and ‘Das Kind mit dem Spiegel’ tend to be exemplary when it comes to highlighting how Urfaust have altered their shape ever-so-slightly to have a much fuller sound. The production, as touched upon, has changed. The production on the debut, with hindsight, sounds rather flat in comparison to this album. The bass, in particular, is giving a much more prominent role to play than it has ever been given before and that is partially down to the alterations in production. As I said, it’s far more bombastic, meaning that the bass has this bouncy quality to it that works well with the tremolo riffs.
Although much of the basis of this album is repetitive, it works, especially when the synths work in contrast to the more quintessential elements like the bass, drums and guitars. The synths, as shown on songs like ‘Der Mensch, die kleine Narrenwelt’, are strong and very well focused. The song writing has improved in such a way that the backbone to Urfaust can remain interesting despite being rather repetitive. Although I can imagine why some might become frustrated by the lack of foreground experimentation. I do feel however that, buried beneath those crushing cymbals, snares and distortion that Urfaust do vary their approach when it comes to the underbelly of their music - specifically the bass, which is incredible on songs like the aforementioned and the wonderfully catchy and upbeat ‘Ein leeres Zauberspiel’. For long periods though the bass does follow orders from the general - the guitars. So, all in all, this is definitely Urfaust’s best effort and, although it isn’t as haunting as their previous efforts, it still has a lot to give in other departments, particularly when it comes to the fresh production and improved, fuller song writing.