The less-is-more approach to music, art, architecture, and basically any other form of aesthetic expression has, throughout its history, yielded widely varying results that often feel like contrasts. Punk stripped away the excesses of arena rock for something much more primal and visceral, but one couldn’t exactly call it minimalism. During the same period, the ambient electronic works of Brian Eno provided true minimalism, but appreciators of his works would never accuse the man’s experiments of being empty. From the Ramones to Eno to Low and from Halloween to Glengarry Glen Ross to 12 Cloverfield Lane, shaping a simple power chord, synth cycle, single filming location, or small cast into artistic gold has created some of the most memorable artistic experiences since the second half of the 20th Century.
Der Alte (“The Old”), the band’s 8th full length, gleefully continues this most efficient and primal era of the band. At both different times and all at once it might sound like a punk version of Triptykon, a gothic take on Godflesh, and a death metal reimagining of The Cure. Valborg might have a stripped down sound, but Der Alte is positively wild, and it ought to go without saying that despite all the violent music, creepy gothic passages, and unrelenting rhythms, it’s a helluva fun ride that will absolutely rock your socks off.
It’s also the rawest record the band has ever produced. That’s not to say that it sounds like Under a Funeral Moon ‒ far from it, in fact ‒ but compared to something like the gorgeous ambient music of Romantik or polished rockin’ sounds of Barbarian, Der Alte is positively garage in nature. Lantlôs’s Markus Siegenhort (also in Labyrinth of Stars with Valborg’s Christian Kolf) produced the record, and helped give Kolf’s guitars a rougher edge, Jan Buckard’s bass either a welcome fuzz or touch of Simon Gallup echo, and Florian Toyka’s drums a naked sharpness that makes every snare hit sound like a frozen tree cracking. Then there are the vocals of Kolf and Buckard, which include some of the gothy, vampiric crooning but mostly focus on the screams. Those screams ‒ which I assume are mostly Buckard here ‒ are thoroughly unhinged and sort of mockingly militaristic, while often turning to the type of throat shredding that sounds like it could damage your speakers.
Everything feels like it could explode into harsh noise at any point. It doesn’t, of course, because the band is so tight, but the threat of such destruction is always just below the surface. Valborg seems to know this, placing a tune as confrontational as “Asbach” right at the start. It’s barely two minutes long, but it provides enough screams and rhythmic wallops that the brief, unabashedly headbanging passage almost seems shocking. The record thrives on such songs, with several of the 13 tracks coming in under three minutes (and a few under two). All 98 seconds of “Hektor” are impossibly fun, riding a simple drum shuffle and dissonant but catchy riff before exploding with enough heavy metal thunder to make Steve Harris go into his machine gun pose. “Mortum” (“Death”) might be the most snare-forward tune on the record (which is really saying something) and has a riff pattern that seems rudimentary by comparison, which provides a consistent and persistent backdrop for one of the more effective vocal descents into madness. Madness is a constant, but it’s a fun, industrial-dance-party-in-a-rusty-abandoned-warehouse kind of madness. That’s fun, right?
Der Alte isn’t all violence, of course, as it just as often wins by mining old post-punk and industrial and either spicing it up with bursts of brutality or merely leaving the threat implied. “Höhle Hölle” (“Cave Hell”) is a creepy crisscrossing of shimmering, rather gorgeous post-punk guitar parts and bass patterns with industrial death metal, the latter aided as always by Toyka’s snare pummels. The title track, meanwhile, makes similar stylistic shifts but with the tempo dropped to doom territory. It’s the eeriest and scariest tune here because it begins by lulling you a bit before Valborg reverts to their usual habit of pounding things into a pulp, but it also has a sort of majesty about it. Like many things about Valborg, that majesty is kind of hard to explain, yet another of the contrasts between their stripped down approach and all the ways they can remain mysterious.
Mysterious, but ferocious. Like the last couple Valborg albums, there isn’t much on Der Alte that isn’t out to hurt you, and this record isn’t going to bring you flowers or bake you a birthday cake. But there’s such a simple pleasure in the combination of these wicked heavy riffs, disturbing gothic passages, incessant snare patterns, and deranged German madmen screaming bloody murder. Sure, it’s downright demented, but it’s also rock and roll in all the same ways that Rocket to Russia was rock and roll. Nothing but riffs, rhythms, great vocals, and that unmistakable feeling that this is unsuitable for “proper” society. Delightfully unsuitable, barbaric, uncouth, and rude in all the best ways. Der Alte finds Valborg in top form, and less remains oh so much more.