Back in my university days, I had a part-time bar job and on one occasion we played host to a Romanian wedding party, complete with traditional dress, dancing, and folk music. It was a magnificent, albeit slightly surreal evening that opened my eyes to the folk genre and broadened my musical horizons immeasurably, so when offered the chance to review Zi — the latest offering from storied Romanian blackened folk metallers Negură Bunget — I jumped at the opportunity.
For those unfamiliar with the band’s history, Negură Bunget formed as a fairly straightforward black metal act in the city of Timișoara in the mid-nineties. Operating as a three-piece for most of their career, they gradually established a more traditional Romanian folk-inspired sound along the way, however, an internal dispute in 2010 led to the departure of principal songwriters Hupogrammos and Sol Faur, who withdrew to form their own band, Dordeduh. This left drummer Negru to recruit an entirely new lineup of musicians to fill the ranks, and many feared this to be the spiritual end of Negură Bunget altogether, with their two studio albums post-split — Vîrstele Pămîntului and Tău — meeting with mixed reviews. The arrival of Zi, therefore, is something of a make-or-break moment for the band’s new incarnation. Fortunately, they have managed to create something very special indeed.
Through their music, Negură Bunget seek to provide a window into the esoteric world of their homeland and its traditional way of life. Utilizing an array of native folk instruments, they craft a strange, otherworldly atmosphere, sucking the listener in and transporting them to another time and place altogether. Invoking images of rolling grassy vistas, dense woodland and glistening rivers meandering their way down from the towering Carpathian mountains. Zi paints a vivid picture of the majestic Romanian landscape in the mind’s eye, pristine and uncorrupted — an environment still resolutely the domain of nature as opposed to man.
Zi is a slow burner — a record to be listened to in one sitting, in chronological order and with no interruptions. When these conditions are met, however, the album takes on the form of a living entity in its own right. Starting with the creeping, breathy quiet of opener “Tul-ni-că-rînd,” it gradually builds up to a resplendent peak, before gracefully winding down to the gentle conclusion of “Marea Cea Mare,” inviting the listener to sit back and contemplate the journey upon which they’ve just embarked. Each track is like the chapter of a book, purposefully complementing the last and leading into the next, and this is why it’s so important to experience Zi in a single sitting; everything has a context in which it must be appreciated in order to provide perspective and clarity.
The production of Zi is a vast improvement upon that of its predecessor, Tău — which came under fire for its somewhat synthetic overtones — sounding deep and organic, as true folk music should, the instruments balanced perfectly so as to render each component audible without being overbearing. Indeed, it is difficult to find much wrong here at all, however, if I am to be especially picky, it would have lent the album a more cohesive air if each track flowed seamlessly into the next, as opposed to having defined periods of silence dividing the record into blocks. This is hardly a terminal issue however and certainly does not detract from the overarching quality of the record.
When Hupogrammos and Sol Faur parted ways with Negru, many people had Negură Bunget written off altogether, however, the stubborn drummer and his band of acolytes have proven that such fears were premature. Zi requires patience and calm to digest and an open mind to experience fully, but it rewards the listener with a beautiful, captivating, ethereal experience that truly transcends national, cultural and linguistic boundaries. A few years ago, I was at a Sólstafir show and recall Addi describing the manner in which music can do just that; “Most of you will have never been to our country, and even fewer of you will speak our language,” he said, “but through the power of music, you understand exactly what we’re about.” In that moment he could have almost been talking from the perspective of Negură Bunget in 2016, as Zi is an immersive listening experience and represents a triumphant return to form for Negru and his new compatriots.
DR: 9 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Lupus Lounge – Prophecy Productions
Website: negura-bunget.bandcamp.com | negurabunget.com |facebook.com/negurabunget
Releases Worldwide: September 30th, 2016