The Lazarus Pit: In Extremo’s Sünder Ohne Zügel

Welcome to The Lazarus Pit, a biweekly look at should-be classic metal records that don’t get nearly enough love, stuff that’s essential listening for students of extreme metal that you’ve probably never heard of.  Stuff that we’re too lazy to track down the band members to do a Hall Of Fame for.  This week, we explore one of the most unusual genre hybrids I’ve ever come across, something that could only have coalesced in Germany: In Extremo’s Sünder Ohne Zügel (Island).
In Extremo had pretty unusual origins: they started out as a German Renaissance Faire house band, plying their traditional medieval music to anachronistic nerds.  At some point, the same lineup decided to try their hand at rock, totally separately from their day jobs.  In late 1997, somebody spilled the folk music into the rock music, and they realized that sounded pretty good together.  They became a fairly typical European folk metal band, the sort you find these days on Nuclear Blast or Napalm wearing medieval outfits and playing strange, umlauted wooden instruments.  These particular Krauts boasted four different bagpipes, a hurdy-gurdy, a harp and whatever the hell a shawm is.  So they put out two records with that sound.  And then Rammstein hit.

Yep, that means what you think it means.  For 2001’s Sünder Ohne Zügel, they set their guitars to maximum crunch, had their drummer take lessons from Doktor Avalanche (Sisters of Mercy’s drum machine for those who are too lazy to Google), bought a synthesizer, and spawned industrial folk metal.  By any sane measure, this should have been an absolute disaster.  And some of these songs don’t entirely avoid the train wreck.  But for the most part, it works.  The extreme differences between the two styles actually balance out a lot of the weaknesses of each, the organic feel of the traditional instruments lending humanity to the cold machinery and the straitjacketed structure of the industrial style keeping the songwriting from becoming too fanciful.

“Wind” announces their intentions right off the bat, with an introductory section that could have come straight from Sehnsucht – and then the chorus sweeps in on a rush of bagpipes.  “Krummavísur” augments the creepy industrial with harp plucking.  “Merseburger Zaubersprüche II” creates an air of simplistic beauty before utilizing a Fear Factory-style build to make it really shine.  The album’s single, “Vollmond,” actually stands out as one of the less successful hybridizations, but it also points out why the others work: it segregates the two styles too much, and goes too extreme with each.  In fact, the following track, “Die Gier,” makes effective use of the hurdy-gurdy over atmospheric electronics.  “Der Rattenfänger” even gets the crunching guitar and the acoustic one to offset each other gloriously.

Does Sünder Ohne Zügel succeed completely?  No, it doesn’t.  But it succeeds enough to be a worthwhile experiment, unlike, say, a certain “I” record from a legendary death metal band that came out this year.  Considering how oversaturated the music scene is right now with Korpiklaani clones, though, it’s pretty impressive that In Extremo took such a risk with the style fairly soon after the genre’s conception.  Hurdy-gurdys and synthesizers: made for each other.

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