Hohenstein – Weißer Hirsch Review

It was said of the author, Michael Crichton, that he was unusually cursed. By some Faustian bargain, he was able to come up with exceptionally good ideas for his novels, but then cruelly denied the ability to see any of them through to satisfying conclusions. It’s why most movies of his works (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Disclosure, etc.) take his premise but then completely jettison his endings. The debut album of German black metal duo, Hohenstein, Weißer Hirsch (White Deer), reminded me a bit of a Michael Crichton book: an interesting set-up with a struggle to pay off the concept. Despite his flaws as a writer, Crichton still sold millions of copies of his books, proving that you don’t need brilliant (or even logical) conclusions to satisfy your audience. Has Hohenstein managed the same trick?

Hohenstein, formed in 2019, plays a brand of metal that is deeply rooted in the atmoblack aesthetic, shrouded by a thickly depressive mist. Instead of the despairing yelps often associated with classic DSBM, vocalist/guitarist Cernunnos shrieks more in the vein of Der Weg einer Freiheit or Halphas. But whereas those German bands aim to batter you with speed and rage, Hohenstein play a far more sedate brand of black metal, akin to the slow bits of Lantlos, or even shoegaze bands like Ride. When it works, the songs can be transportive and compelling, like the lovely “Ewige Flamme,” or the driving “Ahnengrab,” both of which initially marry  interesting, catchy melodies to compelling atmospheric touches and appropriately harsh vocals.  These highlight Hohenstein’s strengths, and the results are intriguing.

The trouble with many atmospheric black metal bands is that the speed and ferocity at which they play is often a cover for a lack of ideas, particularly riffs. The mid-paced tempo that Hohenstein is comfortable occupying means the musicians cannot hide behind a cacophony of drums and furious screeches. Fortunately, the band has the riffs to ensure the songs stand on their own two feet. Whether the undulating minor chords of “Sundalschlacht,” or the lilting melody of “Algiz in Brand,” the tracks almost uniformly possess a sturdy platform for their ideas. Unfortunately, Hohenstein just doesn’t know where to take these. Tempos change, acoustic stretches are included, but nothing can hide the fact that many of the songs (like “Runenkrieger”) feature riffs that are simply repeated over and over. This makes tracks that aren’t even particularly long feel tiresome. Eventually, like a particularly disappointing stick of gum, they lose their flavor and become boring.

While Hohenstein is more focused on atmosphere and aesthetic than fury, the other major issue with these songs is that they’re simply too uniform, with little catharsis. We all know that moment, the one when a track that has been building simply explodes; when a moshpit goes completely berserk and limbs fly. Weißer Hirsch has too few of these. A sedate pace is fine, but this is metal: we also need power. Too often, Hohenstein maintains its meandering stroll when it should be breaking into a sprint. This lack of catharsis makes the album a frustrating listen.

Black metal is a versatile genre, and it’s refreshing to hear a take on it that embraces the gentler, atmospheric side, but with actual riffs. When it works, the album succeeds as an enjoyable atmoblack/shoegaze hybrid. The big disappointment with Hohenstein, however, is that like the author of The Lost World, the band simply doesn’t know what to do with its ideas, with a resulting album that becomes stale fairly quickly. Crichton was maddening because there was greatness in his concepts, but not his execution. This almost made reading him worse than someone who was just rubbish, because you could see the potential slip through your hands like ash. Hohenstein shares many of his flaws, which is what makes Weißer Hirsch such a frustrating experience. Let’s hope that next time, the great ideas are given the songs they deserve.


Rating: 2.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Purity Through Fire
Website: Too kvlt for the internet
Releases Worldwide: April 4th, 2020

 

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