Where to start, and where to end? What to mention and what to leave out? How much context and explanation to provide? Figuring that one out has never been quite so difficult. There are so many interesting details to convey regarding this project!
Starting at the beginning might be a bit anal, but best to get the technicalities out of the way: The Nibelungensaga is an epic revolving around the story of Siegfried or Sigurd the dragon slayer, wide-spread in Germanic and Scandinavian countries. The origins of its many versions have been traced back to the Middle Ages, to somewhere around the 5th century AD. The first written version, the Nibelungenlied, appeared around the 12th century AD. If you are not familiar with the epic, you can imagine it as the proto story of fantasy literature, containing heroes and heroines, dwarfs and dragons, swords and treasures, armies and battles. And, of course, sex and infidelity, deception and death. What kind of proto story would that be that doesn’t feature sex, war and death? The Nibelungensaga’s cultural impact is so big, that the three main manuscripts of the Nibelungenlied are inscribed in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
Most famously, the saga, or rather a story based on the saga, was put to music by German composer and prime megalomaniac Richard Wagner in his operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (written in the course of 26 (!) years, from 1848 to 1874). ‘Opera?’ I hear you asking. ‘Seriously?’ Opera and metal are linked more than fans of both genres would like to admit. Especially epic metal an opera. And Wagner’s Tristan chord (a piece of music from the opera Tristan und Isolde) is often considered the beginning of modern music, because it moves away from traditional tonal harmony and towards atonality. You can watch Stephen Fry explain it all here. You might be surprised that it’s got a lot to do with – sex.
The first person to put the Nibelungensaga to film was Austrian director Fritz Lang. His attempt at telling the story is nothing less legendary than Wagner’s operatic cycle. Die Nibelungen are a five-hour long silent movie, released in 1924, split in two parts: Die Nibelungen: Siegfried and Die Nibelungen: Kriemhild’s Revenge. Although made almost one hundred years ago, it is still hailed as a masterpiece of film making, its aesthetics timeless and distinctly occult, often very ‘black metal’, in fact. If you want to take a look for yourself, you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. Arabrot’s new live album Die Nibelungen is a soundtrack, or rather a film score, to Fritz Lang’s movie, but an abbreviated one. The album features only two tracks, Die Nibelungen – Part I, lasting roughly 22 minutes, and Die Nibelungen – Part II, lasting around 23 minutes, each one referring to the corresponding movie part. The album cover is a frame from the movie, taken from a scene where Kriemhild has a vision about Siegfried’s death.
Originally, Arabrot, led by its mastermind Kjetil Nernes, composed and then performed a film score for the entire five hours running time of the movie. They had been asked to do so, and had accepted the challenge, although they had only a few months to prepare the whole thing. On September 3rd 2016 they performed their film score live at the screening of Die Nibelungen at the Verdensteatret in Tromsø during the Tromsø International Film Festival. The performance was apparently a memorable one. In its finale, the might of the band’s sound blew the stucco plastering off the theater’s walls. On stage that day stood Kjetil Nernes, Karin Park (keyboard), Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen (percussion) and the British musicians Andrew Liles (Nurse With Wound/Current 93) and A.P Macarte (Arkh/Gnod). The show was recorded and excerpts from it form the album at hand.
Arabrot’s Die Nibelungen is a musical interpretation of the movie’s plot and atmosphere, and it is mostly experimental in character. It does not contain songs per se. Instead, there are all kinds of sounds mixed together: shifting spherical tunes, sounds of electrical charges, dreamlike and mysterious melodies, heavy breathing, scratching, screeching, Opera-like singing, chant-like vocals, all kinds of unidentifiable noises, and, of course, percussion and guitar. Although the album is not a 1:1 coverage of the movie’s plot, I’d say that the main story parts have been preserved in its music: You can hear, for example, Siegfried killing the dragon, and you can also hear him being killed by his blood brother Gunther. The great shock and sadness that follow his death are audible as well.
Knowing the movie plot or the saga sure helps to make sense of the music, but it is not a prerequisite. Some of the content might get lost, but even without knowing all of the above, you can guess some of the action just by listening to the album’s sound. This is especially true for Die Nibelungen – Part II. Of the two album parts I like the second one better, because there is more going on. There are more people involved in the story, there is more action, and the soundscapes are therefore more complex. Kriemhild’s revenge plans are driven by insanity, as is the sound, and that makes things very interesting. The story progresses and the listener can hear that.
My favourite bit of the whole album is its finale: Originally, this was the musical accompaniment for a battle scene lasting 20 minutes. On the album, it has been shortened to roughly five minutes, beginning somewhere around the 17-minute mark. It starts with sounds that remind me of a singing saw. To this, a recurring guitar riff is added, slowly getting louder, until it dominates the soundscape. It is danger laden, heavy with the approaching evil. In addition to the guitar riff, you can hear all kinds of noises, for example machine gun fire, glass breaking, distorted radio transmissions, sirens and screams. What’s going on? The end of the world, that’s what. Kriemhild gets her revenge, but it comes with the end of all things.
Although I lack comparison having not exactly listened to a lot of film scores, I’d say that Arabrot’s Die Nibelungen is very good at what it is, impressive even. If you just know a little bit about the saga, the story, and its adaptations, the album becomes fantastic. You could spend your time far worse than doing a bit of research on the Nibelungensaga, watching Fritz Lang’s movie, and listening to Arabrot’s new album. I know I would have loved to watch that screening in Tromsø with the band performing live and making the stucco plastering fall off the walls. Go listen to the last third of the album on Bandcamp and imagine the faces of the people when the noise attack hit them.
I can’t promise that you will like this, but I absolutely think that you need to hear it.