March 11th, 2017. On the stage of the Gothic & Fantasy Fair in Rijswijk -now known as the
we find a duo from the Czech Republic. Their name?
Their music? Atmospheric dark pagan folk. During the concert, Michael Zann and Katarína Pomorská intrigued me with their slow, mystical, slightly eerie folk sound. Especially Michael’s acoustic guitar playing and the voice of Katarina impressed me enough for me to buy their second CD Labyrinth Of Druids, an album I would describe as a long dreamy atmospheric yet eerie pagan folk soundtrack. Very intriguing, with its mix of delicate acoustic guitar, female vocals, and carpets of slow symphonic keyboards underneath. This CD would work perfectly as a score for any slightly darker fantasy movie.
Fast forward two years and I found myself in 2019. After publishing the review for
latest album, Mann, I got an email from Michael asking if I would be willing to review their latest record, Urðarbrunnr. Remembering how intriguing I found Labyrinth of Druids I didn’t hesitate to say yes. And Urðarbrunnr didn’t disappoint. The band still makes slow, atmospheric, dark, pagan folk that really captivates the listener, in its own unique way.
As I said, Nemuer was formed in 2014 when multi-instrumentalist/ singer Michael Zann and collegae multi-instrumentalist/singer Katarína Pomorská started putting a captivating mix of dark fantasy, eerie dreams, and mystical atmosphere to music.
From the beginning they have aimed to bring ancient myths and stories back to life, using authentic dead languages and ancient instruments to do so.
Their first album Irenthot’s Dream (2014) was set in the ancient Mayan Empire. Their second album Labyrinth Of Druids (2015) is described by Nemuer themselves as a Lovecraftian music album.
In 2018 they released their third album Gardens Of Babylon during a concert together with the kindred spirits of
The Moon And The Nightspirit.
As the title suggests, Gardens Of Babylon is set in the ancient city of Babylon and talks about the heaviness and beauty of death. The album itself sounds a lot more open and ‘positive’ than the theme suggests. The focus is less on the symphonic keyboard carpet giving Labyrinth Of Druids its special soundscape feel, but more organic, more acoustic. It is actually the folkiest album Nemuer has made to date. And there is indeed a similarity to the music of The Moon And The Nightspirit that fans of that group may find interesting.
And now there is Urðarbrunnr. The band -In 2019 Nemuer grew to a full band with Alex Pantea on Duval and vocals and Martin Kopl doing the programming and live samples- takes us to another period in ancient history with this album. An entirely different part of the ancient world altogether, I may add. Readers interested in Nordic mythology will recognize the album title as the well of Urd, the well as described in the famous Edda, to be found beneath the world tree Yggdrasil. And indeed, true to form, all the lyrics are composed of extracts of the Edda, the old Norse sagas. I just have to mention track titles like: Ymir’s Death; The Binding Of Fenrir; Yggdrasil trembles and Thor’s Final Battle, and the true fans of Nordic folk and folklore will know enough.
The first track, Ymir’s Death straight away sets the tone for what you can expect from Urðarbrunnr. Deep low keyboard samples setting a grim atmosphere and the acoustic sound of the bass tagelharpa- an ancient Nordic lyre type instrument- giving it an authentic touch. You could call it a mix between the atmospheric semi-acoustic sound of
Trobar de Morte
and the slightly sharp, grim, big sound of the early 80’s gothic rock bands. Especially Michael’s style of whispered throat singing that Michale uses throughout the whole record takes me way back to
the Fields Of The Nephilim.
An underestimated Gothic rock band from that 80’s period that I just love, but way, way slower. Bands like
The Sisters of Mercy,
and Fields of the Nephilim used to have a quite danceable, relatively fast beat under it. But Nemuer plays their music much slower. Their drumbeat is more similar to that of Trobar de Morte or even
Compared to the previous Nemuer albums I find Urðarbrunnr darker, less open in production. Quite fitting for the Nordic themes Michael “whispers’ about. Also, the female vocals from Katarína seem almost non-existant on Urðarbrunnr. Again a choice that I well understand considering the current theme of the songs
The second song Snýsk Jörmungandr is again a very good example of Nemuer’s present sound. The drums are slow and deep. With the repeated bass tagelharpa, the female vocals – yes here Katariína makes a vocal appearance- weaving in and out, Micheal’s combined slightly distorted deep throat singing combined with whispered Nordic vocals, and the carpet of keyboards under it the song becomes almost trance-like. But not boring. Just at the right moments a whispered voice, a sudden female vocal or even a tempo change comes in to keep the song interesting, intriguing, 07:34 minutes long.
Not all tracks are that long, but Nemuer do take their time building up a song, as you might expect from a dark, atmospheric, gothic, pagan folk band.
Hel is one of those shorter yet equally powerful songs. A single shaman drum being hit, each new hit several seconds after the other, eerie whispered vocals drawing you in, a single horn-like sample, some keyboards setting the tone. It is all the song needs. Listening to Hel I suddenly realized how well the music fits with the painting on the CD cover. Grey, grim, but not utterly black. Just many shades of beautiful grey (Pun not intended).
The Binding Of Fenrir is another one of those beautiful repetitive grey songs. Again that slow, deep shaman drum sound captivates me. The start I find almost minimalistic by nature, and slowly, ever so slowly building up to an epic track with strong choir-like vocals, an electric guitar, picking up the melody in such a way, that for a moment I’m sure that I’m listening to the violin on a track from Turn Loose The Swan, that legendary album of
My Dying Bride.
But not long. The horn section coming in takes me right back to Nemuer’s own specific style. Michael’s throat singing vocals are the finishing touch on this wonderful epic, dark song.
I’m quite aware that Urðarbrunnr will not be everybody’s cup of tea. But I personally love songs like: Odin’s Quest For Wisdom; Heimdallr Blows Gjallarhorn; The Allfather Dies -with a nice bit of overtone singing from Michael- or Thor’s Final Battle. They all are beautifully dark, slowly-played, gothic songs, drawing me deep into the Nordic mythology. Michael and Nemuer play very cleverly with the contrast between the mystical electronic samples and the clarity of the acoustic instruments and the sudden shifts in tempo like on Odin’s quest For Wisdom -I love the tribal ending of that song – regularly add interest, preventing the music to become boring. And there are more of those clever arrangements to be found on Urðarbrunnr. In songs like the -almost- cheerful Freyr’s Lovesickness, or my favourite song Yggdrasil trembles, with that lovely low tagalharpa sound that makes me think Faber Horbach (Sowulo) joined in.
If you like your clothing dark, and if you share my love for:Nordic folk; atmospheric folk bands like Trobar de Morte; slow, almost doomy songs that keep drawing you in a trancelike state; and gothic acoustic rock, then check this Czech band out. Nemuer made a very strong -and within the limitations of the genre- even varied album. For the true connoisseur of dark music.
-Editor: Sara Weeda.
cover art: Kuba Vaniš
-Cliff de booy,
Sowulo – Mann (2019) Review
Cliff de Booy
Mann, the third album of
came out and it has been spinning its rounds in my CD player ever since, slowly revealing its inner beauty to me.
Slowly because I have to admit, it took me a while before I finally understood this album. In pop music (and pagan folk is in essence a subgenre of pop music) we are used to albums containing 3 to 5 minute long songs that each tell a story. Sometimes these stories connect together as chapters in a concept. But we still listen to them as individual things. With their first album Alvenrad, Sowulo took a different route. Main composer Faber Horbach made a piece of art, a mix of classical – and Celtic/Nordic music that sounded like a classical folk suite, celebrating the beauty of nature and the neo-pagan festivals. On the second Sowulo album Sol, the music was approached more as individual songs, in the tradition of a pop format. Listening to Mann the first few times I thought the band kept that song-orientated approach. But there is more to Mann than that, wáy more.
Mann is another musical journey, just as Alvenrad was. But this time it is not a journey through the year, a journey through nature, no, it’s an inner journey. As Faber described in an
we had with him earlier this year, these songs represent his inner four seasons. The different sides of his personality, represented by the warrior, the lover, the magician, and the king. It is a musical expression of these personalities, their struggles, and their growth. But not in the style of a singer-songwriter. No, it goes so much deeper, it is way more primordial. Yes, the album consists of 12 songs, with clear beginning and end, but they are so interlocked that you can only fully understand Mann if you see it as one concept, as one piece of musical art. I think I would describe it best if I said that a ‘normal’ pagan folk album is a collection of poems, whereas Mann is a book, a piece of literature, with the songs being chapters of a bigger thing.
As a piece of art Mann is a strong, a very strong statement. It was born as the soundtrack to a possible movie about a Dutch Celtic tribe in the early Middle Ages. The film never materialized, so Faber decided to use the material he already had for a new Sowulo CD and it became his most personal album yet. The golden moment was when Faber found an Anglo-Saxon rune poem that fitted perfectly with one of the tracks. The concept of Mann was born.
Those of you who have already heard the single Brego in Brēoste will have noticed a big difference in Sowulo’s music. Where Sol and especially Alvenrad were instrumental albums, with the violin and flute weaving beautiful melodies together, representing the beauty of nature, Brego in Brēoste is very much more percussion and especially vocal orientated. It is an intense song, very intense actually.
In our interview, Faber told us he had written this song at a time when major things were changing in his life and the world he knew seemed to fall apart. Well, you can clearly hear that in this extremely powerful song. Some of you may know that Faber is also the vocalist of the Viking/folk metal band
a band that mixes melodic metal in the style of
together with screamed vocals and folk influences. It’s clear Faber weaved elements of that particular style into the writing of Brego in Brēoste. He combined the clean double vocals and power of a metal band like Heidevolk with the strong percussion of
and mixed it with the classical harp, nyckelharpa, string ensemble set-up of the Sol album.
The result is intense and pure. Just as
manages to capture melodic heavy metal in a classical orchestral setting, Faber managed to do the same with Nordic folk metal. The vocals, in particular, seem to come from deep within his inner soul. He pours them out in an epic, theatrical way. For those who like Viking metal, this album is a treat. To those that love the melodic gentle classic melodies of Alvenrad and Sol, I should give a heads up. Although still based on classical instruments like the violin, viola, harp, and nyckelharpa, Mann has a different, more dramatic feel to it. You can see Brego in Brēoste as a blueprint for the whole CD. So if your not sure about that song you might want to listen to Mann first before buying. On the other hand, if you love Brego in Brēoste (and I know many do) you’re in for a treat.
This is also the point where I would normally mention I miss a wee bit of variation, especially in the vocals. They are constantly in that same, double vocal, theatrical, slightly screamy style. The constant driving percussion will only enhance that. Some listeners will find this too intense after a while. (In all honesty, this happened to me too the first times I listened to Mann.) But, as I said earlier, this is not a collection of songs. This is an artist expressing himself through music. This is a composer showing his inner self to the world. And in that case, there is no right or wrong.
Having said that, it’s not that there aren’t beautiful songs on Mann. Especially in the second part of the album, there are plenty. Fægru Fara for instance. One of the lovesongs on Mann, although you have to expect a warrior style lovesong. Even in his lovesongs, Faber keeps using those double vocal power chords. It’s the string section -Sophie Zaaijer on violin, Klaartje van Zwoll on viola, Faber on nyckelharpa and Chloe Bakker (right) her harp melodies under it that make Fægru Fara a very nice love song.
There is also Dēoplīcu Ðearf a lovely song with strong vocals, tender moments, but also a lot of the beautiful orchestral parts we know from Sowulo’s previous albums Alvenrad and Sol. One of my favourite songs on Mann. And there are more.
Wulfwiga is another one of them. It starts intriguing with some wood percussion and chant-like singing. But it’s after the intro that the song reveals its true beauty. Strong, almost shamanic percussion, epic vocals and a catchy melody played by the string section, featuring the nyckelharpa. Epic stuff! This is a song you should play loud, just to feel its full impact. I can’t wait to hear this life over a full stage sound system. It’s gonna bee something, I’m sure of that.
My absolute favourite song is Slincan Snīcan. It combines everything that is good about Mann. It starts with a lovely atmospheric intro played by Faber on synthesizer and Chloe on harp. Like morning fog hovering over the music. Faber’s vocals work wonders here. I really like those Anglo-Saxon lyrics and never knew they were so closely related to modern Dutch. Then suddenly Faber opens up his full lung capacity for a vocal climax in the song, even enhanced by the powerful orchestral string section. This is Faber, the composer, at his very best, making full advantage of the talent of his fellow musicians, and the song is wonderfully mixed by
Fieke van den Hurk.
Really something special.
The last song I would like to pick up on is also the most ‘extreme’ one, Berabeorn. In this song Sowulo comes closest to an acoustic version of Myrkvar. This is pure acoustic Nordic folk metal and probably not everybody’s cup of tea. But honestly, I love it for its pure emotion. The start is especially raw, distorted and rather disturbing in a way. Yet it is beautiful, actually because of that. This is the point where music becomes art. It will not be for everybody, but that’s not the intention of this album anyway. Mann is not about recording 12 joyful folk tunes. This is about an artist expressing himself in the purest form.
As I said at the start, this review took me a while. I had to learn to love this album. At first, it was too much for me, too strong, too much raw emotion pouring out for me to handle in one go. It was one looong epic scream with heavy percussion under it. But listening to it again and again, Mann started to grow on me. Starting with the songs that are a bit ‘ lighter’, Wōhs Wildum, Slincan Snīcan, Dēoplīcu Ðearf, Hēahlufu and Wulfwiga. I started listening to what was behind those power vocals. I started recognising the individual songs and started hearing the beauty of the melodies under them. I also started reading the lyrics with the songs, and in that way deepened my understanding of the music Faber composed. In the end it all started to make sense to me.
Mann will always divide people. I’ve seen a lot of responses from people that love it for its power and its intensity, and I can fully understand that now. I can also understand that for some it’s too much. All I can say is give this album time, open yourself up for it and start discovering its beauty even if it is one song at a time.
I for one know that this album will keep me busy for quite a while to come. And I’m actually looking forward to that. Mann intrigues me, it grabs me way more than I thought it would the first time I listened to it. It has gotten deep under my skin. It provokes me every time I listen to it. Just as a good piece of art should do.
Editor: Diane Deroubiax
sleeve art: Jasper van Gheluwe & Samiye van Rossum
photography: Wolfgang Schmitt