Rauhnacht is a Bavarian tradition that dates back to the 1700s, a festival that happens at the end of December but seems more like Halloween: The villagers would attempt to drive out evil spirits by smoking out their houses with incense and parading around in ghoulish costumes. A Google search for Rauhnacht masks reveals a wide array of hideous, hairy outfits that help make this one of the most metal holidays ever.
So it’s a pretty great thing to call a black metal project, though it’s also possible that Stefan Traunmüller, the mastermind behind Rauhnåcht, simply ran out names by 2010 when he released the Vorweltschweigen debut. The talented and prolific Austrian has been part of nearly a dozen projects, most notably Golden Dawn. They cover the whole spectrum of darkness: Wallachia is symphonic black metal, The Negative Bias is more atmospheric, Bluteszorn was relatively raw and brutal, while Sturmpercht is experimental neofolk.
On Unterm Gipfelthron, released by France’s long-running, Debemur Morti Productions, he channels all of his varied interests into a pagan metal masterpiece. His abilities as a musician go without saying, as he is credited with playing guitar, vocals, bass, shruti box (it creates the droning sound in Indian classical music), keyboards and effects. Beyond knowing his way around an Austrian Sam Ash, Traunmüller shows off a rare ability to craft quality songs.
“Zwischen den Jahren” is an irresistible earworm, a four-and-a-half-minute pop song in a world where the Vikings conquered the globe and became a world power. The song title translates to “Between the Years” making it nostalgia for a time that never was. Flutes and clarinets weave a fluid druid harmony, echoing gang choruses evoke fierce battles with a religious fervor; the pace is fast and gets faster on the chorus. It’s as galloping and accessible as anything Amon Amarth has done with none of the disquieting campiness.
The second-shortest song on the disc, “Gebirgsbachreise,” encapsulates what Traunmüller calls “Alpine black metal.” It has the feel of an extended introduction and is the central European take on Panopticon’s folk excursions.
The remainder of the album is made up of three tracks that combine for over half an hour. “Ein Raunen aus vergess’ner Zeit” (which translates to the very Maidenesque “A murmur from time of forgotten”) has synths which create a spacey, trance feeling as if Mesarthim were transported back into time and forced to gaze wistfully at the stars rather than actually visit them.
The title track has solemn, orchestral, chanted backing vocals and a brooding atmosphere. Like a Homeric epic, the track alternates between light and darkness as sonorous clean classical guitars and clarinet will give way to doomy riffs and back again.
Album closer “Winter zieht übers Land” is the most audacious piece on an album abundant in adventure. That it almost literally translates as that Game of Thrones catchphrase “winter’s coming” is likely a coincidence, but the eleven minute opus is a picturesque soundtrack to the coldest of seasons where the snow can serenely fall or be whipped up into a howling blizzard, and that’s not even very high on the list of things to be scared of in the forest. It’s a safe bet that Traunmüller listened to Tchaikovsky and maybe even Norway’s Terje Isungset, whose avant-garde ice music could be Rauhnåcht unplugged.
There are plenty of bands that added atmosphere to Pagan black metal, but on Unterm Gipfelthron, Traunmüller infuses a wandering, intrepid spirit as well as a keen ear to make it all memorable. What’s old may not be new again, but it sure sounds like it.