Music criticism doesn’t exactly have its own version of cinéma vérité, but here’s a poor substitute: earlier in the morning on the day I wrote the bulk of this review, I took my daughter to gymnastics lessons on my bike. It was the first time we had used the ride-along attachment that connects to my seat post and provides her with a set of handlebars and a rear wheel to pedal. Apart from dealing with the extra drag and wobble that she provided, the ride was interesting because of its two very divergent affects: the usual thrill and kinetic joy of being out in the world on a perfectly mild sunny day, and the heightened sense of danger from every passing car and stray noise now that I was no longer responsible for only my own safety.
Life is like that sometimes: a familiar pleasure suddenly colored by extra layers that add depth in unpredictable directions. And although it surely only came to mind because I already had the album kicking around in my mental space, nevertheless Klabautamann’s compelling new album Smaragd is a little bit like that, too. It’s familiar enough that you think you can predict where it’s going, but it wanders down strange paths which cast its presumed linearity in a slightly sinister light.
Here’s another typically obnoxious way to describe Klabautamann on Smaragd: painterly. The core of the sound is a warm, organic type of progressive black metal where the instruments sound not just like real instruments, but like real instruments whose tones have been deliberately and repeatedly fussed over. So, although the presentation is straightforward, it is nevertheless rich and meticulous, painted with careful color and heavily stylized brushstrokes.
Smaragd has a tendency to meander in a very satisfying, confident way, strolling from style to style as easily as you would visit interconnected rooms in a living museum. “As the Snow Melted” opens pensively, with gently tapped rhythms and careful organ touches, but although it remains quiet throughout, there’s a current of riveting tension that never quite lets up. “My Terrifying Mirror” sounds like it could have walked straight out of Enslaved’s Below the Lights, apart from a twitchy, woozy break early on that finds the two guitar and bass lines (courtesy of Klabautamen Tim Steffens and Florian Toyka) spiraling around each other like tango dancers in search of a partner, while “In My Shadow” almost sounds like a piece from Opeth’s Damnation.
The delicate clean vocal duet section in “Into Depression” sounds like something out of Alcest at their most wistful, but Klabautamann consistently subverts listener expectations, as that section, instead of gradually building into a post-rock crescendo, instead explodes almost without warning into an extended passage of caustic blasting and lustily spat vocals from Steffens. The “Woo Ha!” chants in “Saturn” are a little bit odd, but they make me think about Busta Rhymes, which is rarely a bad thing.
“The Murderers” opens with some stirring words:
“When we were young, we were full of dreams,
But one day, we awoke from the lie.
Now sorrow is our only heritage
After everything has been taken by the fire.”
It is also one of the album’s best songs, start to finish, in part because it is one of the spots that most clearly toys with overfamiliarity, only to go in several completely unexpected directions. Anna Murphy’s hurdy gurdy adds a crucial layer, and the drums occasionally dip into an almost post-punk rhythm, so that the song’s midsection sounds a little bit like something Fugazi might have recorded for The Argument after listening to a bunch of Opeth and folk music and getting really sad.
If there’s a stumbling block to Smaragd, even for those who have enjoyed Klabautamann’s previous work, it’s that it still feels a little slippery. There’s no sense of a unifying thesis or particular narrative arc. It is an album that wants you to sit close by the fire and strum along on a broken-in guitar, but that also occasionally wants to chuck you out the window sideways and yell at you in a language you’re not sure you understand. But it’s just close enough to what you know, to what you’ve always somehow known in your marrow, that you can’t turn away. There’s a tantalizing danger here, but doesn’t that sometimes sharpen the mind?
Album release date: 06/06/17