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Down There... - 85%

BeholdtheNicktopus, June 3rd, 2018
Written based on this version: 2018, Digital, Eisenwald (Bandcamp)

Ungfell play a form of black metal that is both filthy and melodic, with a prominent medieval folk atmosphere. It sounds on the surface like something of a cross between Sühnopfer and Peste Noire – the speedy, highly melodic storming-the-keep sound of the former with the toothy feudal rawness of the latter.

Did I say “toothy”? Well, perhaps in an effort to remain true to the rustic, diseased darkness of KPN, Ungfell opts to throw in some laughs, howls, and cackles that evoke toothless witchery rather than the snarling of hellish beasts. As the band seems to want to make clear (insofar as any black metal band affiliated with one of those odd ‘circles’ can make or desire to make anything clear), this is Walpurgisnacht-themed black metal, resplendent in its dirty, perhaps fecally-contaminated finery. This theme is wonderfully executed throughout the entirety of the album. The "low" nature of the subject matter, however, does not keep the music from reaching glorious heights, probably all the more glorious for the ugliness of their material elements. The melodies, while not wholly ‘epic’ or ‘triumphant’, definitely have a battling-a-horde-of-skeleton-knights-on-a-dilapidated-castle-wall kind of vibe to them. Of course Ungfell, as one of their logos (not to mention the photo shoot) makes clear, wields a wicked halberd and deftly fells a veritable army of the undead throughout most of the album’s running time, that is, for the black metal part of it.

I don't mean to imply that our black metal crusaders have sworn a pact in the name of anything but darkness and witchcraft. But do they emerge victorious from the bloodbath of furious drums and tortured screams with anything like their wits intact? With a total runtime of 48:16, any combatant would have to take a breather from time to time, no matter how emboldened by dark magic. And so they have, in the form of several wonderfully-executed folk pieces interspersed between the more violent exploits of the longer black metal tracks. These interludes are meaty, not just wind sounds, chimes, and so on (though there is a terrifying moment of silence punctuated with the creaking of ancient floorboards, sagging under the weight of God knows what). We have acoustic guitars (and perhaps other stringed instruments), clean female vocals, woodwinds, and folksy percussion. At least one song even has a mouth harp on it. These interludes serve to break up the black metal very well, offering a respite from brutality but not from atmosphere. In fact, they serve to deepen the atmosphere, to draw the listener into a world populated by particularly unscrupulous knights (or are they highwaymen?), plump old women who may or may not have giant warts planted squarely on their crooked schnozzes, and hangmen who may in fact be drunk on duty. If one were to desire a literary reference for the kind of aesthetic employed on this album, the horror stories of Heinrich von Kleist would serve particularly well (e.g. “Das Bettelweib von Locarno”).

Just due to sheer consistency, there are no really radical standout tracks on the album, though I do have some favorite moments. There are some tricks here and there that keep things fresh, in addition to the masterful use of interludes (which, really, I don’t like calling “interludes” since that implies a kind of diminishment or rest, while these pieces are fully realized, substantial pieces without which the album would not work nearly as well). For example, at the end of “Der Heidenburg” we got some incredible interweaving of folk and metal elements, acoustic guitars trading lines with black metal riffs (something that is probably a direct descendant, in this case, of Peste Noire’s debut, particularly “Deuil angoisseus”). There are also some particularly Peste Noire-sounding moments in the way melodies are downtuned wildly (probably via tremolo bar abuse) at certain points in “Bluetmatt” and “Die Hexenbrut zu Nirgendheim”, the latter being perhaps my favorite track on the album. The almost straight-up epic melodies of “Der Ritter von Lasarraz” also deserve a mention.

An absolute highlight is the vocal performance of Menetekel, sole permanent member (the drumming is fantastic, but apparently it's a session musician). The screams are rather high-pitched, about halfway between the over-the-top falsetto shrieks of early Burzum and the gargling-raw-sewage-from-a-medieval-city’s-ghetto style of La Sale de Famine.

While the previous year’s Totbringaere was one of my favorite albums of 2017, Ungfell have stepped up their game for 2018, particularly in the use of folk interludes. Surely, this album delivers a more complete and atmospheric package than its predecessor. Another reference might be the Dark Souls games – it’s that sort of dark fantasy universe. But unlike other attempts at the medieval black metal sound, this remains fully engaging throughout. There may be bats in the belfry, but thankfully there’s no turgid dungeon-mongering.