After a few albums that mixed their signature doom/death/dark-plus-Celtic Frost-on-an-80s-goth-binge metal with some wondrous throws out of left field, Germany’s Valborg delivered an album that was, well, rather straightforward in 2012’s Nekrodepression. Of course, it was still brimming with great tunes, but without an “I Am Space” or “Samantha Alive” kind of song, the weirdness and eventfulness felt a bit tempered.
Perhaps the band felt the same way, taking nearly three years off before dropping album five, Romantik. The time off resulted in quite the shift, flipping to the other side of the Valborg coin without taking away that underlying mysteriousness and darkness that makes the band so immersive and wickedly fun. Where once they worked upon a battlefield of riffs, now they are exploring some immense, undefined space.
As this would imply, Romantik is easily the most insanely atmospheric thing Valborg has released, but it still has strong roots in doom and branches reaching to dark rock and cinematic synth music. The whole thing sounds like the results of Vangelis collaborating with (Triptykon-era) Tom G. Warrior and (Jesu-era) Justin Broadrick on the soundtrack for a story of tragic love directed by John Carpenter. It is as emotionally and tonally complex as it is simple and barren, a seemingly huge change for a band that has always valued their rockin’ side, but not necessarily a surprise for long time Valborg and Zeitgeister followers. There was always a distant, adrift side of the band. Now that side is in full control.
The vocals are a crucial aspect of this emotional complexity, ranging from cries of desperation and dark melodious singing to soft spoken word and menacing “extreme whispering.” The vocals are also the only aspect of the album to ever go fully into extreme metal, as heard with the dry, harsh screams in “Comtesse.” Over such soft, minimal music, this approach should fail, and it has for many a band, but here it works wonders, as do all of the juxtapositions of dark and light, damnation and salvation, dominance and surrender, disturbance and serenity.
The instruments shift and churn with equal whimsy. Guitars bring lumbering doom, airy melody, and the occasional lead that sounds like Gregor Mackintosh if he slowed it down by 40 percent. Synths likewise shift between throbbing drones and a more classic keyboard sound, playing as much (if not more) of a role in the overall vibe as the guitars. By layering all elements and constantly changing up things, the band achieves a subtle sense of dynamics. Never meant to reach the clouds or completely bottom out, the songs instead do just enough, as if to make sure you’re paying attention. But if you want to barely pay attention, that works too. Romantik is pure mood music.
The variations and dynamics reveal the album’s biggest secret: Romantik is only minimal on the surface, as it is loaded with nuance and detail. The thing even gets downright hooky from time to time, if that sustained, lonely guitar lead in opener “Vampyr” is what you could call a hook for this type of music. Mostly, Valborg’s success with their new(ish) set of tools only further solidifies their status as great explorers of the darker realms. They could have easily kept making more of the same, and it surely would have been a blast, but they’re a better band for not only daring themselves to change, but succeeding. Valborg always finds a way to scratch an itch you didn’t know you had.