German (and Central European) metal has always contained a notable strain of off-kilter innovators. Sure, the careers of Destruction, Kreator, and Sodom have been staked on aggressive but mostly straightforward thrash, but one also must account for the not-quite-right-ness of Coroner (who are Swiss, but perhaps honorary Germans for the sake of this argument) or Mekong Delta. Even in some of the more recent development of German black metal, you’ve had the odd, stately turns of bands like Secrets of the Moon or Dark Fortress. In case the argument isn’t clear: Valborg falls directly in line with this tradition of strange, compelling German music, and Nekrodepression may just be the band’s most focused album to date.
Now, in any discussion of Valborg’s dark sort-of-doom, sort-of-goth, sort-of-death metal, the shadow that looms largest is Celtic Frost. Also not German, of course, but pretty close, both geographically and temperamentally, particularly when considering Tom Warrior & Co.’s recent third act. There are two key elements to Valborg’s music: the band’s general minimalist approach, and a gloominess that still feels tongue-in-cheek. (On that latter count, fans of Woods Of Ypres might feel a certain kinship.) But more crucially, Valborg’s is a patient, measured aggression. That’s not to say that Nekrodepression is a frolic through the tulips: The one-two punch of “Under the Cross” and “Massaker in St. Urstein” hits harder than just about anything else in the band’s catalog, defying the listener not to crack a devilish grin.
To these ears, Valborg feels like the nucleus from which the rest of the music of the Zeitgeister collective radiates. (See also: Woburn House, Klabautamann, Island, Owl, etc.) If that’s true, then it might suggest that the men of Valborg would feel some obligation to prevent this project from wandering too far outside some pre-constructed stylistic boundaries, but the subtle flourishes and oddities introduced throughout Nekrodepression easily belie that notion. From the mournful whine of guitar bends in “Ich Fresse die alte Sommernacht” to the undeniable Type O Negative vamping of “Springtime Woman,” Nekrodepression pulls plenty of surprises; it’s just that the listener has to first settle in to Valborg’s craggy, iron-tempered landscape. A perfect example of this is when the multilayered vocals enter in the verses to “Tempelberg,” playing like a half-remembered chorus of a fate-resigned hymn careening through the centuries from some distant, damnable battlefield, with the echo and dissipating pall of medieval cannonade.
With music this focused and stoutly-paced, the tendency might be to overplay – to fill the echoing emptinesses – but drummer Florian Toyka plays both the notes and the rests. Hell, on “Zyklop” he’s even ghosting some of his notes. It’s a crucial ingredient to Valborg’s appeal: Their dark, unwavering gloom requires such a unified attack that individual flash would be counterproductive. As proof: “In Ekklesia” rides the same sinister bass line the whole way through, and even after it’s supplemented with hazy keyboards and insistently simple guitar leads, the entire inertia of sound remains anchored to that pulse. “In Ekklesia” bleeds straight into the moody, atmospheric “Opfer,” which essentially acts as its coda. Ours too, maybe. This is spooky music for spooky times, but the players have the sense to smile every now and then as they pave the way to perdition. Walk with them, or get out of the way.