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The pros and cons of synthesizers - 70%

Bertilak, April 11th, 2008

The briefest of glances at Vinterriket’s discography is all that is required to appreciate the prolific level that Christoph Ziegler has been working at since the project’s first release in 2000. His particular style of black metal and dark ambient – usually weighted towards the latter element – has not altered much across that time but it is the sheer amount of these releases that can lead to suspicion in some quarters about the quality of the output. When this bewildering quantity is mixed in with the many substandard and amateurish ‘bedroom’ black metal/dark ambient one-man bands that proliferate across the internet these days, there is a danger that Vinterriket can become tainted by association. Ziegler’s own distancing of himself from black metal, made in various interviews before he withdrew from media contact in 2006, has also caused distrust in some elements of his potential audience (albeit he did so for fairly sound reasons). Consequently, it is worth going back to one of the earlier singles to appreciate that there are qualities that set Vinterriket apart and make the band one of the more interesting on the dark ambient side of metal.

‘Vom Echo Der Melancholie’ (‘Echo of Melancholy’) is an example of Vinterriket’s purely dark ambient style but throughout it is a considered and thoughtful example of the genre, not just a meandering, derivative mood piece made by somebody with a brand new keyboard and two functioning fingers.

It opens suddenly with a single crashing drum beat, harsh and echoed, followed by a sustained note that maintains a gentle pulse as a simple melodic refrain repeats over the top in the distinctive high-toned synthesizer that marks out Vinterriket’s work. This jarring drumbeat is repeated at irregular intervals throughout the track, on each occasion presaging an alteration in the music. Hence, the second drumbeat introduces an acoustic guitar, tuned quite highly to sound almost harp-like, picking out its own variation on the central melody, while at the subsequent third drumbeat a mournful piano also joins, again varying the principal melody just slightly.

Thus far, each of the drumbeats heralded an additional level to the track’s instrumentation but at the fourth beat all these instruments fall away to leave just a deeper synthesizer, playing a now slower melody. Gradually it too fades away, revealing mournful, drawn-out, echoing tones which slowly repeat until the fifth and final drumbeat, louder in the mix then the previous ones, after which there is the bleak sound of the wind blowing through trees, as the tones, now higher but over a more sombre background note, very slowly fade the track out.

Clearly, this simple and melodic style of dark ambient will not be to every metalhead’s taste, although the closest comparison would probably be to Burzum’s masterful ‘Tomhet’. However, it is the attention that Vinterriket pays to providing the track with an intelligent, tight structure that makes it superior to much of the sub-Burzum ambient acts diluting the genre. Vinterriket confidently establishes a powerful contrast between the sharp, jolting, unpredictable drumbeats and the sombre, mournful, synthesizer-based passages, effectively recreating in his music the tension between despair and sudden anger that characterise the emotion of melancholy itself.

The success of any split release such as this is equally dependent on the flip side, of course. Here, Sweden’s Fjelltrone provide ‘Nattens Barn’ (‘Children of the Night’), which is a bombastic piece of quasi-militaristic dark ambient in the vein of Arditi. Or at least it strives to be, involving as it does the repeated crash of a gong underlying a strident brass-led march, driving a stern synthesizer melody. However, as every instrument involved seems to be sampled, the effect is markedly less inspiring than it should be. The ‘brass’ element just parps along fitfully while the crucial synthesizer melody never manages to shake off its artificiality into something truly stirring. Where the image conjured up should be of the gods themselves sharpening their weapons for Ragnarök, the actual picture is more of acned ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ nerds hitting one another on the head with rubber axes. The introduction of chimes over the top is quite effective but the use of a sampled voice, declaiming in German, is a little too predictable, although the track does pick up towards the end with a proper drum march.

‘Nattens Barn’ is not a wholly bad example of its style of neo-classical martial but it is fundamentally compromised by its anaemic, keyboard-based instrumentation. It suggests that with more care in its creation and slightly more muscle in its sound Fjelltrone has the potential to rival more skilled practitioners of the genre such as Puissance (although the project is unfortunately currently on hold). What the track does inadvertently serve to highlight, however, is the accomplishment of Vinterriket in comparison. While overall the split is successful in creating a pleasing contrast between the two bands and their approaches to dark ambient, it also underlines the distance between them creatively.

Presentation and artwork are always important to Vinterriket; indeed, his website now even offers art prints of his photographs and he has recently published a hardback photography book (limited edition, naturally). This release, a collaboration between his own Neodawn label and Fjelltrone’s Dark End label, is no exception. The cover art is in pleasingly grey-toned black and white, printed on heavy, textured card, and features a gloomy backlit forest beside a surging river. On the back, a ghostly, transparent figure looms over the water. The effect is at once peaceful and unsettlingly eerie, perfectly matching the mood of Vinterriket’s music within.

While the large quantity of these limited 7” releases does lead to a preponderance of irritatingly overlapping compilation albums in Vinterriket’s discography (any owner of the ‘Kalte’ EP, for example, is likely to have ‘Der Schrei Der Leere/Züngelnde Winterflammen’ up to three times by now and ‘Vom Echo Der Melancholie’ itself has been swept up on ‘7-Zoll-Kollektion 2000-2002’ and the ‘Sturme Der Letzten Stille’ re-release), it should not disguise the simple fact that, at his best like here, the crafted, melodic brand of dark ambient created by Vinterriket is resolutely one step ahead of the bulk of lesser black metal/dark ambient projects that have scurried out of the world’s bedrooms in his wake.