German black metal outfit Firtan has been on my radar since a chance discovery of their “Innenwelt” EP in 2016. I was initially drawn in by the intense yet melodic sound, rooted in 90s black metal, but well produced with symphonic, and even folk influences. This, combined with ragged, howling vocals (outside my usual vocal tastes at the time but ensconced expertly within the instrumentation) told me I’d found a band who is rooted in genres I love, yet not confined by them.
Their 2018 full-length “Okeanos” has been a staple of my rotation since release, and introduced more of Firtan’s atmospheric and post-black metal influences to their oldschool pagan black metal foundation. Four years later, it stands to reason that their third studio album “Marter” was on my “most anticipated” list.
“Faðir,” opening track and final single, jumps right in. It is here to tell us that, while unmistakably Firtan, this album leans much more heavily into the post-black elements of their style. That said, it is fast paced, catchy, and in places even groovy. The intensity and pace of the track keep it interesting, helped by intricate instrumentation, a hint of things to come.
Lead single “Amor Fati” takes us in another direction. At just over nine minutes (the longest song on the album) I initially thought it a curious choice of single, while the ambient outro makes for an interesting track two. The energy of the opening track is still present, but more wistful, evoking something somewhere between Agalloch and Windir. The sonic landscape of this track is incredibly rich, with several beautifully placed harmonics and details on the edge of hearing, provoking curiosity, like some tantalising hint luring a traveller along.
This track makes much more sense accompanied by the music video, which I would normally count as a criticism, but in this case becomes a well realised piece of audio-visual art. It is comparable to Sólstafir’s “Fjara,” both in how beautifully it is shot, and in how the video and song together are greater than the sum of their parts.
“Amor Fati” is a journey, and a surprisingly good representation of the album, even if that is not immediately apparent.
Following “Amor Fati” with jarring suddenness, is “Labsal.” This second single is the heaviest thus far but again resolves into a complex soundscape. Here we get our first clear glimpses of Oliver König’s bass work, which then continues to surface throughout the album, like sightings of a smooth sea creature in rough waves. “Labsal” and “Parhelia” also both highlight Klara Bachmair’s violin, which is atmospheric on “Labsal,” and nearly eastern sounding on “Parhelia.” In both cases, the tone and playing are gorgeous and I hope we hear more on future releases.
Heavy, ominous, almost reverential “Lethe” references oldschool black metal influences prominent in earlier Firtan offerings, and this reference is echoed in parts of “Menetekel,” as well as the vocals on “Odem.” “Parhelia,” by contrast, is more symphonic, defined by scale, texture, and a magnificent crescendo.
“Menetekel” is where the guitar work, stellar throughout the album, really shines. It is complex and even mildly chaotic in places, but guitarists Phillip Thienger and Chris S. keep it melodic and groovy, with riffs and a solo that would not be out of place in melodeath..
Closing track “Peraht” features thunderous drums, and Thienger‘s intense lead vocals are grounded by deep, chantlike backing voices whose presence has been growing across the album. Conversely, much of the guitar work recalls the more melodic tracks, calling back to them and cleanly tying everything together. After the song “ends” there is a clean outro, an element I normally dislike if an album already feels finished, but this one is saved by the utterly gorgeous strings and makes for a soothing denouement to a sometimes tumultuous album.
And tumultuous it is. I was initially unsure of the pacing in terms of track order and the placement of acoustic interludes, but the musical and emotional whiplash ends up making perfect sense. “Marter” translates to “torture” in English, and the album deals philosophically with concepts that often cause upheaval in the human experience – love, fate, oblivion, and the like. The unpredictable pace of the album is much like life itself, which counterintuitively makes it extremely comforting to listen to. I feel I’ve been taken on an emotional journey, but the choice not to conform to a forced narrative structure makes it more real and personal, qualities I absolutely appreciate in my black metal.
Overall, “Marter” is a compositional masterpiece. Firtan’s sound has always been very layered, and the detailed percussion of David Kempf on these last two albums has only added to that. That, plus subtle and complex instrumentation from all members, leads to a soundscape that in less skilled hands could end up extremely messy. Pulling this off not only shows the high calibre of each individual musician, but a rare finesse in putting it all together.
If I have any concerns with this album, it is that I sincerely hope Firtan holds on to their unique sound and continues to utilise their varied genre inspirations. As I see more of the bands I love leaning harder into post-black metal stylings, I can’t help worrying about homogeneity. Firtan does everything with an expert hand, so I’m sure whichever direction they go will be extremely high quality, but talent on this level stands out from the crowd and deserves to keep doing so.
Release Date: October 14th, 2022
Label: AOP Records
2. Amor Fati