Finally! After 8 years the logical successor of Klabautmann’s „Merkur“ is going to be released. An event that I have been awaiting with a lot of suspense and patience. Especially since some information of the band conveyed that the new album really would be in the vein of said release.
With “Merkur” Klabautamann gained some attention by mixing progressive black metal elements and jazzy flair, which made up a quite unique style they were playing. Although uniqueness was always part of their records, they then seemed to have found a sort of peak of their songwriting output, as this album showed more of the abrupt rhythmical changes while keeping them even closer together. When their approach seemed to be too eclectic on previous records, they managed to fuse their styles way better on “Merkur”, though the differences between the parts were even greater. Thereby, this album demanded a lot from the listeners, but one was rewarded with a multitude of tiny details that made every listen unique on its own – like it is the case with a very compelling movie, which has another effect on you every time you watch it.
After this fascinating release, many listeners (including me) expected the next album with a certain ardour, which they supposed to be in vein of “Merkur”. But these hopes were disappointed to some extent, as “The Old Chamber” sounded way more rough and like a somewhat traditional black metal release. When I first listened to this record, I couldn’t get along this particular style, although it was an interesting album and still sounded like Klabautamann. But after a year or so, I gave it another chance in a different mood, and since then I frequently listen to it and it has been constantly growing on me. And there certainly are some great riffs and rhythms on it!
Nevertheless, I was still hoping for a successor of “Merkur”, and this hope and my patience should be rewarded now with “Smaragd”. According to the band’s website, the new album follows said release, and the list of guest musicians supports this idea. Besides using acoustic guitars again, the band decided to use the support of Clemens Toyka, who is contributing trombone, which he has already done for Florian Toyka’s other project Island. In addition, there are Fredy Schnyder, the mastermind of Nucleus Torn, who is adding Hammond organy, and Anna Murphy (ex-Eluveitie, Cellar Darling, Nucleus Torn), who plays the hurdy gurdy in one song (“Murderers”) and sings in another one (“Frozen in Time”). The more frequent use of clean vocals is another innovation, for which the two Dutchmen Chester Gerritse and Ingo Kerstjens show responsible.
Trombone, Hammond organ, clean vocals, and even hurdy gurdy? One might ask this, fearing some folksy music on this record. But don’t worry about this, Florian Toyka and Tim Steffens certainly know what they are doing! The trombone blends smoothly into the sound, very similar to the effect it already had on Island’s self-titled album and the “Enigma of the Stars” EP. The same also applies to the Hammond organ. While both appear in several songs, they don’t stand out much as they rather act in the background, basically doing what other bands try to achieve with unobstrusive keys or strings. Like a well-dosed condiment, they don’t push into the foreground while they still are highly important for the overall sound and the atmosphere. And although Anna Murphy plays a solo part on her hurdy gurdy in the mentioned song, this is far-off the rather happy folk parts à la Eluveitie. This is also true for her fragile but expressive vocals in the final song, which actually reminds me more of her performance on the last record of Nucleus Torn, “Neon Light Eternal“. The clean vocal parts of both guest members, which have their most prominent appearances during the opening track “Into Depression” as well as the calm songs “In my Shadow” and “As the Snow Melted”, don’t sound too much like pop music, although they are very cleanly done and well-balanced. This is mostly due to their introverted-sounding intonation. If you want to draw another comparison, these songs are what “Noatun” was on “Merkur”, but reflecting the present album’s somewhat cleaner approach. Additionally, you have a lot of songs and parts on this album that one could already admire on “Merkur”, enriched by several nuances of which the guest contributions are only a certain portion.
With respect to the music itself, this album has a very interesting and enthralling structure. Tim and Florian show their entire repertoire when it comes to the guitar and bass parts, and even in the calmer passages there is a whole lot of intriguing rhythms, chords and melody progressions that force the listener’s attention. And anyway, the black metal parts offer this unique approach that already got me fixed when listening to “Merkur”. One thing that has to be mentioned are the rhythmic variations and, in the same breath, the drumming, which is complex and fits the different atmospheres very well. It’s particularly impressive how smooth Patrick Schroeder plays all of these odd time signatures that have already been a trademark on “Merkur” and “The Old Chamber”. If you’ve got a soft spot for odd time signatures, then there’s a lot of 6/8, 7/8, 10/8 and 11/8 going on that you can feel and try to follow.
Vocal-wise, Tim delivers a great performance with a diverse and accentuated vocal style, where the variations in growling and screaming go perfectly with the different moods and emotions of the passages. To me, that’s another positive development in comparison to previous outputs.
With respect to the dynamics of the songs, the songwriting in itself, Klabautamann mostly stay true to presenting alternating parts of black metal fury with mid-tempo progressive black and calm, jazzy parts, while some of this gets mixed up occasionally. Thereby, they develop interesting arcs of suspense that have to be digested a little by the listener, i.e. it might take a little effort to really get to appreciate what is going on here. As was expected, this album presents a lot of different, contrasting elements, but it most certainly does not feel off balance. Quite the contrary, to me it appears to be even more balanced, less abrupt than “Merkur”.
The first half of the album seems to be a little calmer that the second one, an impression that is mostly caused by the solemn parts of the opening song and the two non-metal pieces. The second half is more rapid, furious, before the album superbly ends with the touching calm song “Frozen in Time”, which hopefully does not mark the ending point of Klabautamann’s output. The greatest portion of (progressive) black metal can be found in „My Terrifying Mirror“, „Under Feral Skies“, Enemies‘ Blood“, and the eponymous track “Smaragd”, which is why I’d like to suggest these songs to those listeners who appreciate this rougher side of the band the most and who might have to take some effort and understanding to get along with the clean vocals.
To conclude this review, I have to say that this record came up to all of my expectations and partly even surpassed them. I’ve listened to “Smaragd” for about 50 times now, but this record still doesn’t get boring, there still are new things to be discovered or to be looked at/heard in a different light, so that the album evokes a slightly different emotional setting each time that enthralls me anew. Here and there, I simply want to shout along and to shake my head, then again I find myself singing along with these fragile clean vocal lines or even inclined to do some awkward kind of dancing. For this reason (and others), this album is going to be a steady companion for quite some time!
You can order the album here and listen to 3 already published songs.