Metal is big. By that I don’t mean that tons of people listen to it, of course. We all know the musical glans of most of the population is severely underdeveloped, like a houseplant that never received enough water. What I do mean is that the family tree of metal is humongous, its root system stretching far and wide, and a plethora of bands have influenced in which direction the roots have grown in profound manners, even though many of us will not have heard of the band in question, either through mysterious blind spots in our development or simply lack of research. Such a surprise befell me when researching Bethlehem. I had picked Lebe Dich Leer for my review queue simply because it sounded interesting, only to find out that they were a fundamental band in the development of suicidal black metal and their history was surrounded by controversy over false accusations of Satanism by concerned parents/idiots. An intimidating prospect for sure. So as you proceed, keep in mind that the following is from the perspective of someone venturing out of their comfort zone and new to the story of Bethlehem in general, so you can safely ignore my opinion if it suits you.
Nevertheless, even for such a greenhorn as myself, the quality of Bethlehem is undeniable. Though Lebe Dich Leer1 is in its foundation black metal, it incorporates styles from all across the spectrum. Some of the riffs would not be amiss on a traditional metal record. Pockets of post-metal and atmoblack dot the landscape, some brief and singular, breaking up the pounding tremolo assault on “Verdaut in klaffenden Mäulern.”2 “Ich weiß ich bin keins”3 and “Niemals mehr leben”4 are loaded with industrial soundscapes and, in the former case, ominous whispered lyrics. “Wo alte Spinnen brüten”5 even pulls the doom metal card, moving from almost funereal pacing to semi-tremolo galloping Sabbath riffage and atmospheric drone. All these variations make for a surprisingly diverse record that rewards multiple spins, yet is largely surprisingly accessible, especially considering the nihilistic subject matter.
I do stress largely, because one factor is considerably more difficult to love right off the bat. Since 2016, the vocalist of the band has been a woman known as Onielar (also in Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult). It is her performance that will likely drive away most listeners because of its inherent, deliberate hideousness. Onielar has a hoarse shriek that scratches on the inside of the skull, effectively concentrating all the horror and desperation in the music on her singularly, calculated repulsiveness. Much of how much you like Lebe Dich Leer depends on your tolerance for these vocals. Though I myself initially struggled with them, I have come to appreciate the disparity between the relatively low amounts of distortion in the music (by black metal’s standards) and the abrasive laryngeal distortion Onielar puts on display.
Tying the diverse music together with the vocal performance yields an album that does no introduce any brand new elements, but has a rather unique sound all the same. The way the riffs incorporate traditional gallops among the furious tremolo picking, the low amounts of blast beats and the diaspora of post-black atmospherics can drag you along in an instant, banging heads over addictive riffs and floating on the dreamy and unsettling ambiance, but the abhorrent throat-tearing shrieks hold your face to the pavement all the way. The production follows suit as well; instead of the usual lo-fi fare, the master is fairly dynamic and remarkably clean, giving a lot of breathing room to the instrumentation and leaving the bass a few places to shine as well. The only downside is that the disparity causes the vocals to feel too separate from the music sometimes, which makes the music feel more surreal than perhaps intended and can prevent the more emotional beats from landing.
Bethlehem have undergone many changes in their sound and line-up throughout the years, but their current incarnation does their legacy more than justice. Lebe Dich Leer is a very diverse album, pitching many genres in its black bubbling cauldron and spicing it up with a truly caustic vocal performance. The riffs are solid, the songwriting makes great use of the spaces it affords itself. Though the suicidal nihilism does not always come across, partially because of the language barrier, and not all layers fit together neatly at every turn, this is a band with a unique sound and excellent craftsmanship that even a DSBM noob such as myself can appreciate.