I love it when cover art tells you all you need to know about an album’s themes. Look at that skeleton — he’s clearly in the middle of a battle. So this will be a furious riposte to the notion of the glory of war, right? A blast of anger like Marduk or 1914, perhaps? But peer closer: he’s settled mournfully next to a fallen comrade, arm placed tenderly on his chest, a look of weariness and loss etched on his skeletal visage. Head up, he stares forlornly at the horrors that lie ahead. The theme of Ellende’s Lebensnehmer (“Life-Taker”), then, is less the fury and horror of war, and more the melancholy, pain, and loss that accompanies it. A black metal project from Austria, Ellende is the brainchild of Lukas Gosch. This is his third album, following 2013’s Ellende and 2016’s well-received Todbringer. He has ambitious ideas, but does the music convey the message as effectively as the art?
The answer is: mostly. Ellende plays a mournful, mid-tempo brand of atmospheric black metal, with an emphasis on melody and mood. Think early Wolves in the Throne Room or Lantlos. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and Lebensnehmer follows the path worn by Todbringer without any major deviations. It contains eight tracks, three of which are instrumentals, and none of them (with the exception of the brief introductory track) run under five minutes. This allows the band plenty of room to explore their mournful ideas. They do so by alternating growls and blast-beats with more shoegazey, atmospheric elements. In addition, quiet, slow passages filled with classical guitars, synthesizers, and violins aim to enhance the feeling of sadness. On the best tracks, such as “Du Waerst Eine Schoene Leiche,” it works extremely well. Contrasting passages flow into each other gracefully to create a pastiche of fury and melancholy, each highlighting the other. The result is a compelling atmosphere of tragedy.
Unfortunately, the leisurely pace of the album and some of its tracks are also its biggest problem. Instrumental interludes are common to many black metal albums. With Lebensnehmer, we get “Ein Steuck Verzleiflung” and “Liebkosung des Eiswinds” within two songs of each other. If what had preceded them had been a continuous blast of fury, with no sense of atmosphere, their inclusion would be understandable. But the previous songs already have quiet moments of introspection as part of their structure, so the instrumentals need to add more than just a pretty interlude. Unfortunately, these tracks are just too long (both clock in over five minutes) and lack variety or melody, rendering them boredom-inducing. “Liebkosung des Eiswinds” best illustrates this, employing a strange, out-of-place synthesizer that manages to be both jarring and dull at the same time. Individual songs also face this problem, with long periods of minimalist meanderings that sap the momentum rather than build it. “Augenblick,” for example, follows its promising opening passage with a quiet two-minute middle section which does nothing to propel the track forward.
When Lebensnehmer sticks primarily to black and atmospheric metal, the tracks soar. “Der Blick Wird Leer” and “Die Wege” work because they’re (relatively) concise without extraneous passages. Gosch is clearly a talented instrumentalist, able to convey real emotion through his guitar-work. His vocals are also suitably harsh and tortured. The production is clean for this type of music but there are times when it feels over-compressed, which adds to the feeling of length.
Overall, Lebensnehmer is a frustrating album because the actual metal is rock solid and conveys Ellende’s theme perfectly: you can feel what it’s like inside the grieving skeleton’s head. But mixed up with powerful, thematically compelling music are long periods of superfluous instrumental songs and passages that add needless bloat to proceedings. Worse, they don’t succeed in advancing the mood of the album in any way. It sounds like the grieving skeleton interrupted his thoughts on his fallen pal and his imminent demise to wonder if he had milk to go with his breakfast coffee. These are not enough to substantively detract from a generally enjoyable experience. But they take an album that could have been very good and render it merely okay. Unfortunately, this means it will struggle to stand out on many lists come year’s end.