Tension. It’s a difficult thing to create. Take one of the most tension-filled scenes in movie history: the chest-burster sequence in Alien. Know why it works so well? Sure, the effects, acting and directing are all superb, but it’s the pacing. Specifically, the dining hall scene that precedes it. To create real tension, you need two things: periods of calm to allow the audience to breathe, and a sense of hope; that maybe, just maybe, things will be all right. Once the crew of the Nostromo pull the face-hugger from John Hurt’s face, you sense he’s done-for. But the fact that he looks healthy and is pictured having a meal with his pals allows you to breathe and lower your guard. You begin to experience a glimmer of hope that maybe he’ll be fine. So when the alien bursts through his chest a short while later, it is absolutely horrifying. But the dining scene is what makes it. Valborg is a German death-doom band that also deals in tension. Zentrum is their seventh album, following 2017’s Endstrand and 2015’s Romantik. The latter was rather unfavorably reviewed by Doc Grier on this site, who found its doomy meanderings dull. Endstrand was a lot more energetic, but lost some of Romantik‘s mood and was criticized for being too repetitive. Zentrum purports to be the unholy lovechild of those two albums. Have they finally got it right?
It is immediately apparent that Zentrum hews closer to the propulsive, raw power of Endstrum than the somewhat glacial doom of Romantik. The tempo is consistent with a clean, occasionally industrial feel. The emphasis of the album is on creating a tense, claustrophobic mood and sustaining it, rather than winning you over with catchy riffs. Straight off the bat, Valborg creates a dense and menacing atmosphere with ‘Rote Augen.’ A hypnotic and continuous drum thunders away while dissonant guitars crash in and out. It is apparent that the band is intent on using dissonance and repetition to build dread and tension. And in the early tracks, such as “Anomalie” and “Nahtod,” it works extremely well. Gut-punches are regular and impactful.
The problem is that there’s no down time. No opportunity to exhale. Every track follows, to a greater or lesser extent, the template laid down at the beginning of the album. Even the tempo stays remarkably consistent throughout. The lack of any reprieve from the despair, or change in the mood, means that the tension established early on dissipates by the end. This may have been an intentional artistic choice – Valborg are painting a picture devoid of hope, after all. But unvarying despair with no possible glimmer of hope actually deflates the mood rather than intensifying it. There is no tension to be had when all hope is lost. True horror emerges when hope is shown, then snatched away. Without this, any sense of dread is soon replaced by anodyne weariness. The songs on the back-end suffer from this lack of variety: they are not weaker than the early ones, but they feel that way because of the monotony that has preceded them.
The crushing atmosphere is augmented by a dense production that suits the mood Zentrum is aiming for. Vocals howled in German always sound suitably authentic and compelling, and the alternating duo of Christian Kolf and Jan Buckard don’t disappoint. The thundering, propulsive drum beat that machine-guns its way through the songs is initially arresting. It ultimately becomes wearying rather than frightening, however, because it’s so omnipresent. However, the album, at a brisk 45 minutes, does not overstay its welcome.
Valborg need to re-watch Alien and take notes. They would learn that sometimes, when trying to create something tension-filled and frightening, you need to dial things down. Let the nerves simmer. Offer some light at the end of the tunnel, even if you’re ultimately going to snuff it out. Without this dynamism and contrast, it’s impossible to make anything truly tense. Zentrum has some great songs, and some great moments. But it ultimately fails to leave the impression it should because it forgets that real tension comes as much from anticipation of fear as from the fearful parts themselves. Here’s hoping that LP number eight has a dining scene or two.