Herbst9 – Usumgal Kalamma

Loki Foundation (LOKI 56), 2011

Prepare yourself for a heavy slab of Mesopotamian mysticism, courtesy of Frank Merten and Henry Emich, the duo known as Herbst9 (they also record as Land:Fire, a militaristic dark ambient project).  Since 1999, the duo has released six albums of dark ambient with an ancient Middle Eastern mythological bent, and Usumgal Kalamma (translated as “Dragon of the Land”) is a two-disc odyssey running almost two hours.  That’s longer than most movies these days, and I’d bet this experience is more involving and creative than what you can typically find at your local multiplex.

Herbst9 has had plenty of time to refine their formula, and Usumgal Kalamma sees it reach a new pinnacle.  A step beyond 2008’s excellent The Gods Are Small Birds, But I Am The Falcon, this sprawling masterpiece takes the duo’s trademark sound and steeps it in additional layers of traditional instrumentation and experimentation.  What makes Usumgal Kalamma truly come alive is the increased presence of elements such as bells, chimes, harps, drums, wooden clatters and clanks, and strings; these have always been part of the Herbst9 experience, but now, a perfect balance has been achieved between them and the bold, dramatic electronics and extensive sampled chants that have defined Herbst9 since its inception.

I hear a lot of similarities between Herbst9 and This Morn’ Omina.  Both projects are inspired by ritualistic mysticism, but where TMO wraps their sound in EBM structures, Herbst9 walks the path of dark ambient.  This Morn’ Omina is physically charged and viscerally cathartic – sometimes wildly so – while Herbst9 is contemplative, brooding, and majestic.  Herbst9 is one of the more cinematic dark ambient artists, foregoing the expansive feel of its contemporaries for a more focused identity, and maintains a futuristic feel despite its ancient theme.

Emich and Merten often utilize a deeply blaring drone at the root of their compositions, and shift between simple chord changes as the track progresses.  When this element is present, as on tracks such as “Napissunu Mutumma,” “Eriskegal, Rise From your Throne,” and “Ludlul bel Nemeqi,” it’s business as usual for the duo.  The filtered voices swirl about the drone like ghosts, accompanied by throbbing percussion and synthetic loops and layers.  What’s different now is the increased use of strings, harps, and piano, which impart new beauty, depth, and drama to what was already a highly effective foundation.  Witness the incredibly evocative opening of “Napissunu Mutumma”: a flowing melody of plucked strings that can’t help but wind back the clock and drop you into a dusty stone temple with high ceilings, bubbling fountains, and veiled figures.  As the fifteen-minute track progresses, Herbst9 drowns the strings in drone, only to bring it back again once it’s been forgotten.

The first disc is high-level stuff on its own right, but it’s disc 2 that lifts the album to brilliant heights.  Here, Merten and Emich shed their comfortable skins, moving into new territory with remarkable confidence.  “Kima Suskalli Ukattimanni Sittu” begins with a haunting piano and spaced drums, over which hovers looped drones – there’s just a shadow of the trademark blare – and the voice of a muttering ghost.  Chimes and bells wander here and there, and the piano is always near.  “The Sage Lord Asimbabbar” is completely unexpected, with the dark ambiance dropping away almost completely in favor of meandering sitar-like strings and tinkling chimes; this is awe-inspiring heraldry announcing the presence of one both glorious and learned.  Floating synths and snippets of distorted samples drift at the edges, but the track maintains its incredibly powerful atmosphere from the first chime until the last.  “Ningirsu Usumgal” and “Mutum Kima Imbari Izannun Elisun” shift back into the shadows, but with practiced regality.  By the time “The Great Child of Suen” closes this magnificent epic with a looped string sequence that eventually blooms into the welcome Herbst9 chord-shifting drone and slow-paced percussion, it’s with regret that I depart the conjured time and space…..but it’s there to welcome me back.

I liked Herbst9 plenty before Usumgal Kalamma, but this album has moved the project higher on my list by more than a couple notches.  It’s not typical dark ambient, but that’s what gives it power: it uses the dark ambient platform and adds details and elements in surrealistic and creative fashion.  It’s dark, but not evilly so; its darkness is born from mystery, and the sound design and attention to detail radiate care and craft.  It doesn’t rely on drowning the listener in waves of bleakness and distortion, or layers of technical complexity, but uses its technology and tradition to create an aura of unique aesthetics that engage the heart, mind, and ears on equal levels.  Usumgal Kalamma is Herbst9’s finest hour.  Emich and Merten have moved beyond their dark ambient roots into a place and time all their own.

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