“Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale,” declared Budweiser’s “Brewed the Hard Way” Super Bowl television commercial, in a surprising multi-million dollar broadside against the craft beer revolution that has swept across America. It was a moment of backlash long brewing (pun intended!), with the giants of American lager borrowing the guises of simplicity and populism to take a swipe at the elitist Young Turks who have been fixing a thing apparently not broken. Indeed the Bavarian Purity Law – a significant influence on the light American Lager style that dominates the market today – essentially states that beer shall be made only with water, barley, hops and yeast. All this is a roundabout way of asking – what about a Norwegian Purity Law, decreeing that black metal only be made with tremolo picking, blastbeats, shrieking and lo-fi recording? Black metal and beer are not the same thing obviously, but the conflict between stylistic purity and innovation is especially germane for black metal, which has experienced a recent explosion of global offshoots and re-interpretations of its own. The question as it relates to venerable Swedish band Marduk’s Frontschwein, is whether an album so dedicated to a traditional style should be evaluated based on its adherence to predictable consistency, or whether it should be held up against the evolving competitive field that it seems so determined to ignore.
For the record, Budweiser does not abide by the Bavarian Purity Law, subbing in rice for some of its malted barley bill in order to make massive production possible. Neither would Marduk abide by a Norwegian Purity Law, as they incorporate significant amounts of death metal into their grim recipe. Also, they are Swedish. Marduk has achieved massive production, releasing over a dozen full-length albums since their beginnings in the infamous Helvete days of the very early 1990s. Marduk have done so by staying the course, performing in corpse paint to this very day. Perhaps the most novel thing about Marduk is several of their albums, including Frontschwein, are based (in a philosophically neutral fashion) on the exploits of the German military during World War II. Bavarian Purity indeed.
What becomes very apparent on listening to Frontschwein is how few flourishes Marduk attempt, and how little weirdness they allow themselves. Even licenses taken by early black metal groups are absent here. For example, the grandiosity of Emperor, the perhaps tongue-in-cheek melodrama of Immortal, the impressionist no-fi of early Darkthrone, the snowy-woods folksiness of Ulver or the dark, ambient rapture of Burzum. The present incarnation of Marduk are ascetics by comparison. Sure, title track “Frontschwein” has a neat Egyptian-sounding riff, the interestingly-titled “The Blond Beast” inexplicably rides a disco-esque drumbeat, and album closer “Thousand-Fold Death” is remarkably fast and furious – coming complete with a torrential stream of vocals – but for the most part Frontschwein is simply a procession of heavy songs. Some are fast and some are slow, but the tone remains about the same. The Third Reich marches on.
What may have sounded like focus in another decade sounds like denial here. You can’t unhear the innovators once you’ve heard them, and from Dead as Dreams on (and even before), there has been an undeniably potent wellspring of black metal ingenuity. Bands like Krallice, Lantlôs, Oranssi Pazuzu, Deathspell Omega, Altar of Plagues, Kekal, Blutmond, Deafheaven, Wolves in the Throne Room, Blut Aus Nord, Klabautamann, Nachtmystium, Skagos and many others have pushed the standard forward, and bestowed upon open-minded listeners a rich trove of completely new, previously inconceivable sounds. By contrast, Marduk are dry and unremarkable, almost fuddy-duddy, about as likely to hit creative pay dirt in 2015 as Van Halen or Metallica.
Adherence to tradition should not be mistaken for quality. This is where Marduk’s Frontschwein suffers. For purists, it has little to recommend it above the black metal classics. It is just too tightly-played, well-recorded and spiritually unadventurous (even in the blasphemous sense) to hang with these early works. For those on the sonic frontiers, it would be a crime to spend time on Frontschwein when there are so many earnest, clever, experimental and unique spins on the Norwegian sound emerging from every corner of the globe. Potential listeners of Frontschwein would be wise to ask themselves a question: Do I really, really want the Budweiser, even though the Pumpkin Peach Ale and the Pure Bavarian Beer are sitting right there on the same shelf?