BethlehemYeah, that’s one mouthful of a title (the fear of the number ‘666’ apparently) but we’ll get onto that later. More significantly, this release underlines the fact that the godfathers of depressive black metal are back and mean business – and that’s a big deal, whichever way you slice it.

For the uninitiated, Bethlehem’s first few albums from the early-mid nineties (‘Dark Metal’, the colossal ‘Dictus Te Nectare’ and ‘S.U.I.Z.I.D’) pretty much set the template for what would become termed ‘Depressive/Suicidal Black Metal’ or DSBM. Higher-profile acts such as Forgotten Tomb and the inevitable Shining would go on to refine and popularize the genre but it was the obscure, haunting, distinctive sounds of the German innovators that would very much get the ball rolling.

What has always set Bethlehem apart (and not always to their credit it has to be said) is a touch of the bizarre, a defiantly idiosyncratic nature that has led to numerous reinventions and line-up changes, the only constant being the presence of bassist and mainman Bartsch steering the ship. They have flirted with the avant-garde, dipped their toe in more overt gothic stylings and very much followed their own bloody-minded path – with mixed results. Frankly, much of their output from 2000 – 2010 polarized opinion significantly with the nadir being a pointless rerecording of 1998’s ‘S.U.I.Z.I.D.’ in 2009 with Shining’s Niklas Kvarthorth on vocals. Suffice to say, it did not go down well with Bethlehem’s more stalwart listeners.

So, on the back of that almost universally panned recording comes something of a ‘comeback’ release – the ridiculously titled ‘Hexakosiahexokontahexophobia’. A ludicrous word for sure and one that hints at the band members sniggering at their own comic genius. Allied to some absurd song titles (‘Nazi Zombies Mit Tourettes-Syndrom’ anyone?) and deep-seated misgivings of quasi-surrealistic ‘style-over-substance’ silliness abound – is this going to be another misguided experiment?

Relax. Semi-comic surrealism aside (and they really should leave that alone, Belgium’s Lugubrum do it so much better), this is a glittering return to form for a band that have sailed beneath the radar for too long now. ‘Ein Kettenwolf Greint 13:11-18’ initiates proceedings in a flurry of Brave Murder Day-esque riffing and the stridently pure voice of Guido Meyer de Voltaire soaring above proceedings. It’s very clean and catchy – poppy even – but there’s a definite Bethlehem flavour to the underlying melodies and despondent chords.

‘Egon Erwin’s Mongo-Mumu’ however is where the record really takes off. Bartsch’s bass lines rove and prowl whilst the glittering guitars of Olaf Eckhart are outstanding, at times almost sailing into glittering shoegazey territory. His skills are exemplified on ‘Hochst Alberner Wichs’ which is reminiscent of a Fields of the Nephilim instrumental in its strident, atmospheric strut. His work on this album is outstanding and it a shame that he has subsequently left the band.

Old-school fans of Bethlehem need not worry – there are plenty of nods to the suffocating and depressive tendencies of the band of yore here also. ‘Warum Wurdest du Bloss Solch ein Schwein?’ is colossal, all heaving chords, chiming lead motifs and Voltaire growling with the best of them. There’s also a proper nod to the insanely shrieked vocals on 1996’s ‘Dictus te Nectare’ on ‘Spontaner Freitod’- indeed, it is tracks like this that truly underline Bethlehem’s importance in defining the tenets of DSBM and reinforce just how much the Germans set the template subsequently followed by Shining.

This lengthy record finishes with the epic ‘Antiltz eines Teilzeitfreaks’, a sprawling doomy number with sombre clean vocals that brings to mind Funeral’s monolithic ‘From These Wounds’ album on more than one occasion. It slowly fades out into a soft, reflecting clean guitar passage that leaves the record concluding on a reflective, ambiguous note.

It’s an interesting way to finish what is a dense and varied piece of work. It’s too long, granted, with a couple of tracks being superfluous to requirements (the sub Dead Can Dance waft of ‘Ich ass gern’ Federn’ could have been trimmed for starters) nevertheless, Bethlehem have returned with aplomb and ‘Hexakosiahexokontahexophobia’ absurd titles aside) demonstrates a band who still have an enormous amount to offer. A dynamic and compelling record.

(8/10 Frank Allain)