Seventies rock, albeit with a proggy edge, and black metal might sound like a vomit inducing combination of supermarket own-brand tinned tuna mixed with Himalayan vodka and coke but, it turns out, there’s a man in Germany that can make it work. Maybe it’s just some mystical ‘witches brew’ effect – like celebrity chef Heston “Blue Mental” Blumenthal’s snail porridge (the trick is that it isn’t really porridge at all). But I must admit to being instantly taken by Total Negation – the band’s name being a misnomer for an emotional style which at times borders fleetingly on something that is almost warming in its effect.
Ok, the trick in this case is that the rock, prog rock – or krautrock perhaps more specifically – is of a subtle blend that’s enough to turn that sparse black metal sound into something entirely different. The vocals – classic depressive black metal croaks that constantly sound on the verge of turning into a sob – are high in the mix and at times dominating to the point of distraction – provide a near constant reminder of the solid, extreme metal earth we’re on here. And while the prog elements might be thin on the ground sometimes – I wouldn’t want to oversell this, there’s no epic guitar wibbling or jazzy nonsense at all, thank god – but the influence is unmistakable.
Wiedergaenger (the former drummer of bleak and frostbitten black metal band Mosaic) lets himself go with an open-minded approach to the use of various instruments and their employment and listening to it all is as enjoyable and rewarding experience as any I’ve had listening to what would probably be broadly described as depressive or experimental black metal. The first track starts with Total Negation’s typically Spartan black metal sound. But that segues gradually into an easy, spaced-out path with both of the two elements relying as much on arrangements, pitch and rhythm for the impact as much as the riffs – perhaps as a testament to Wiedergaenger’s percussive talents. If you took away the vocals, Zeitzeuge, at times, could almost feel laid back.
But, ok, cards on the table at this point: this is dark, and at times even strange and unsettling. The subject matter, all told in German, is the story of a witness in court who begins to cave under the strain of knowing he holds the power of life and death in his hands over the accused. The choices of instrument are off-beat, such as the melodica and the vibraphone which fit into the heart of the music like the soundtrack to an off-the-wall 1970s murder mystery that you know isn’t going to end well. It’s a clever use of sound that corpse painted Norwegians knew a long time ago would add a nicely weird edge to cold and frosty music.
But here, the device is arguably used at a more advanced level than those early 1990s keyboard-driven orchestral sweeps, acoustic guitar or Bontempi organ breaks. The play-off between sparsely arranged extreme metal and other sounds which are unexpectedly embedded into the musical canvas works very nicely indeed – and all the time dominated by the splash of bleak colour provided by Wiedergaenger’s vocals (yes, you may have guessed, this is a one man band).
As the album progresses, the balance creeps more towards the blacker side of the music and even allows for a bit of textured guitar riffing and melody to creep in towards the end. I’m not sure that I’m not sure Zeitzeuge is designed to blow your mind. More likely dislodge it, perhaps. It’s an album well worth checking out for anyone keen to explore extreme metal’s grainy but fascinating hinterlands.
(8/10 Reverend Darkstanley)