As a person writing about heavy metal on the internet, I am almost legally obligated to hurl myself in front of a bus if I ever get the urge to suggest that I am engaged in art criticism. Nevertheless, here is an opinion that sounds derogatory but really ought to be seen as liberating: not everything is important.
On a purely definitional level, this should be obvious: not every thing can be important. On the level of judgment, however, it apparently requires emphasizing that not everything has to be important. I don’t intend to be obtuse: I have often observed people in the business of writing about art (whether music, literature, visual art, or anything else) engaging in a peculiar sort of mental gymnastics in order to explain why their thing is important. The implicit suggestion in a lot of this kind of writing is that one ought to only write about important, serious things. Some things are important! Many things are serious! But these same things are not also necessarily good. Think of ‘good’ and ‘important,’ as they relate to artistic criticism, as items on opposite sides of a gigantic supermarket. It is wonderful that I can buy horseradish and toilet paper in one place, but some folks are writing like the only way to enjoy either is to make a sandwich of the two. (Conjecture: the toilet paper could be a ruse to try and staunch the hemorrhaging of bullshit from their mouths.)
This has gone slightly off-track. It irritates me to find people suggesting (and doubly so if they don’t have the clarity of pen to argue outright) that in order for art to be good (or worthwhile, or laudable, or…) it must be important. In the first place: shut up. But in the second: torquing one’s interpretation of art to shoehorn it into some predetermined framework of utility or importance does a not unreal amount of violence to the thing itself. On top of that, imagine the miserly, joy-lacking shriveling in one’s guts if you can’t just let art… be. Plenty of bad art is “important” in one way or another. Importance is a wholly subjective enterprise. Lenny Kravitz might consider his song “Fly” important because of the sickening gobs of money it must have netted him, but that does nothing to change the fact that it is The Worst Song Of All Recorded Time. Conversely, imagine all the fantastic art you have experienced that is otherwise culturally vapid. If that turns your stomach to consider, please recall that the ONLY purpose of all your most cherished childhood cartoons was to sell toys to sleep-deprived parents who just wanted five goddamned minutes of peace, and then also please note that your discomfort is a symptom of a sorely abused system of categorization. Last Rites: Teenage Mutant Ninja Buzzkills.
This has gone slightly off-track.
As by now you may have surmised, the point here is this: Grabunhold is not important. The debut EP from this German black metal band likely will not (and should not!) find people pretzeling themselves in a tortured fit of logic to explain why the 17 minutes of Unter dem Banner der Toten taps a latent strain of cultural malaise or spotlights the human cost of climate change or secretly shoots spitballs at the back of Elon Musk’s head. Grabunhold is a newish band with very familiar trappings making music that sounds rather like other music you may have heard, and this is an excellent, laudable thing.
One of the most notable elements of Unter dem Banner is the slightly medieval tones that waft from the guitars. The drums throughout this concise EP mostly flirt with a simple but effective blast or two-step, but their main function is to keep the air clear for the guitar leads. For proof of just how to use a lead to nail a mood, check the guitar-only outro of album opener “Gespenster,” which morphs its melancholy chorus with increasing use of bends and wobbles as it winds down. “Gespenster” hits the same balance between raw aggression and tragedy that makes Gorgoroth’s Antichrist so compelling. “Hexentanz,” meanwhile, emulates the slightly more burnished and complex mood of very early Abigor, with its initial shambling shanty pace that opens out to a seriously lovely tremolo melody.
There are no real tricky moves here. Grabunhold succeeds because of (not in spite of) the relative simplicity of its sound, because the focus remains on how reverently the band captures that same magical second-wave feeling. Album closer “Grabunholde” (no idea where they found that extra ‘e’; maybe they spent a bit too much time with IX Equilibrium‘s “Source of Icon E”?) surges with the most overt aggression of the EP, but even so, it pulls back into a pensive midsection that slows almost to sloth before lunging back into gear. The high-fret intertwined lead that explodes the picture just before the 4-minute mark is a bit like a Technicolor eruption, and brings the tiniest sliver of Windir-like grandeur to this delightful little EP in its closing moments.
As with nearly all the best EPs, Unter dem Banner der Toten does its thing, doesn’t fiddle around too much, and gets out before overstaying its welcome. Each of the four pieces here nods to a slightly different corner of a dusty collection of trophies, but the approach is recognizably that of a band that has found a consistent mode of expression. Does this whet the appetite for a future full-length? Absolutely. If the band were to disappear tomorrow without a trace, would this brief document be any less enjoyable? Absolutely not.
Is it important? Shut up. Is it good? Shut up. Also: yes.