With Christmas just around the corner, it gives me wry amusement that Bethlehem are about to unleash their latest slab of blackened thrash on the unsuspecting masses. Tis the season and Bethlehem are in a very giving kind of mood! Back when suicidal depressive metal took up the largest percentage of my playlist, tracking down Niklas Kvarforth’s various projects occupied the forefront of my mind. It was around this time that I came across Bethlehem‘s A Sacrificial Offering to the Kingdom of Heaven in a Cracked Dog’s Ear. Raw, unpolished, nasty and darkly comical, the release prompted me to delve further into the bands weighty discography. It proved to be a lesson in tough love, each release bearing not only the stigma of a different frontman, but also a marked shift in styles ranging from the black metal with doom low-lights of their early years, to the more experimental post-rock of later releases. It’s anybodies guess what this Necromentia adorned album has in store for you on this, Bethlehem‘s eighth release, signalling the band’s 25th anniversary. Hell awaits the foolish.
Following on from Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, “FickeselBomber Panzerplauze” opens with a belch that I’m sure would easily invoke a snigger from Roger Rasmussen (Nattefrost). What follows brings to mind the blackened thrash of Celtic Frost’s Morbid Tales mixed with Bathory‘s self-titled debut. The song progresses with an air of predictability, guns blazing, catchy and repetitive, built around a series of simple guitar melodies that contribute to the authenticity of the track. The modernized production style (like that used by Forgotten Tomb), sharpens the listening experience, the vibrancy contrasting wildly with the dense, very audible bass lines delivered by Jürgen Bartsch. It’s probably a good time to mention that Bethlehem no longer have Guido Meyer de Voltaire on vocal duties, instead Bethlehem sees the introduction of Polish singer, Onielar (Yvonne Wilczynska) also front-lady to Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult. By way of comparison, Onielar’s contributions though consistent with Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult, easily reach the level of mania I associate with Lifelover‘s Kim Carlsson, while at the same time transporting a rejuvenated Bethlehem to their mid-to-late-90’s glory days.
“Kalt’ Ritt in leicht faltiger Leere,” “Kynokephale Freuden im Sumpfleben,” “Arg tot frohlockt kein Kind” and “Wahn schmiedet Sarg” quickly became my favorite tracks on Bethlehem. After opening with a sloppy screaming guitar intro that Satan’s Wrath could lay claim to, “Kalt’ Ritt” moves along full tilt, broken up by the morbidity of a funeral doom march. Onielar’s vocals go from tortured shrieks to ravaged devastation, dogged at intervals by an excruciatingly slow piano piece, delivered very deliberately. “Kynokephale Freuden im Sumpfleben” opens with a slightly more hopeful guitar melody, reminiscent of those used on Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia. The song develops a more Forgotten Tomb influence as it moves onward, shifting from moments of intensity to those of near nothingness. Though Onielar’s vocals clearly deserve center stage in this project, enough balance is also created giving newly recruited Russian guitarist Ilya Karzov and long-time drummer Steve Wolz their moment in the spotlight. Kicking off with what sounds like the intro to an REM track, “Arg tot frohlockt kein Kind” is a disconcerting number that becomes denser as it progresses. Contrasted by the ravings of an unbalanced mind, the melody around the 3:25 minute mark seems an odd but memorable choice, probably more at home on a progressive metal album written by Voyager. And lastly you have “Wahn schmiedet Sarg” a return to the Bethlehem of old.
Packed with bleak emotion in high concentration, fatigue sets in around this point, though it’s not through production issues, but sheer album length alone. At a little over 51 minutes of run-time, Bethlehem simply has too much material. Cutting lesser tracks like “Verderbnisheilung in sterbend’ Mahr” and “Verdammnis straft gezügeltes Aas” would have allowed the futility and down-tuned nature of “Kein Mampf mit Kutzenzangen” to shine.
This line from Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes sums up my experience with Bethlehem: “Too late, I found you can’t wait to become perfect, you got to go out and fall down and get up with everybody else.” Given more time to percolate during the editing process, this release might have been closer to perfect. Though not a complete return to their roots, Bethlehem is a mostly successful amalgamation of the bands love of black metal, doom, experimental rock and industrial metal.