The LP release of When‘s The Black Death has taken 23 years to arrive ~ enough for a generation to pass. Many alive today have never heard of it, although it’s become a revered work in black metal circles (especially with Burzum). But it’s a must-buy for fans of Kreng’s Works for Abattoir Fermé 2007 – 2011, The Haxan Cloak’s self-titled debut and Shinjuku Thief’s Witch Trilogy. Kudos to Editions Mego/Ideologic Organ for going outside of their normal comfort zone to honor this 38-minute, single-track sound collage.
Even in the discography of Lars Pederson (When), the album comes across as an oddity: a musical movement inspired by a series of drawings, themselves inspired by a plague. Theodor Kittelsen’s Svartedauen is the series, and the Norwegian plague of 1349 is the event. One will either enjoy it or one won’t; the middle ground is unlikely. It all depends on one’s taste, especially one’s attraction to the macabre. What makes this work different from many is its grounding in real life. The Black Death isn’t an album of folklore and mysterious creatures as much as it is one of tragedy: two-thirds of a nation wiped out in only a few years.
The folk music that runs through the album acts like a protest or declaration of identity in the face of doom, while Pederson’s snatches of modern melody (violin, fiddle, horns and drums) provide the notated score. But the real star of the album is its sound design, from horses and crows and rats to chortles and cries and moans. One can feel this suffering, and while it does at first sound evil, it eventually sounds forlorn. Late in the album, organ tones and choirs sound forth, reminding the listener that many would have prayed during that time for a relief that didn’t come. While some may counter that God did eventually spare the nation, it’s fair to say that the plague was the source of much existential doubt and despair.
The album was not without its peers, chief among them the entire discography of Cold Meat Industry. And yet, it is among the best of its kind. Only a handful of composers are making such music today (Graham Bowers and Nurse With Wound come to mind), because this is not easy music to make. In order to succeed, one must be more musical than impressionistic, more reverent than comedic (“This one says he’s not dead!”). But most importantly, one must keep the attention of the listener throughout the piece. Pederson accomplishes all this and more, opening a door to the past that doesn’t feel like a history lesson. (Richard Allen)
Release date: 25 May