Thursday 11 April 2024

Sweet Ermengarde - Sacrifice (2024)

Country: Germany
Style: Gothic Rock
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 12 Apr 2024
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Any goth worth his or her salt knows that Andrew Eldritch isn't remotely interested in recording a new studio album. That means that, if you want to hear new Sisters of Mercy material, you have to either go see them live—because he's still writing and performing it—or make your own. It's clear that Sweet Ermengarde did the latter and it shouldn't shock you if I point out that they hail from Germany because the Sisters have always been massive there. If you doubt me, check out the best live versions of Ribbons online; most of them were recorded in Germany.

It's impossible not to hear the Sisters as this album begins. Fragments has it and Faith Healer, the standout track for me, screams it from the rafters, even if it may owe almost as much to the Cult. As those influences might suggest, Sweet Ermengarde are at their best when they establish this sort of up tempo groove, which is why my favourite songs here are their up tempo ones like Faith Healer, The 5th Horizon and Viscera. There are points in The 5th Horizon where the guitar takes a break but the groove blissfully carries on regardless, as indeed these grooves do long after these songs are over. Lars Keppeler's bass takes over at one point in Viscera and exactly the same thing happens.

Oddly, given that, Sweet Ermengarde seem to prefer slowing things down a little and taking their songs in a gloomier direction. Most of the thirteen songs here are slower than the three that I've called out as highlights and the album slows down generally until the final two songs follow suit in very different ways indeed. I should emphasise that those grooves don't disappear, instead simply unfolding in slower fashion. The bass's moment in the spotlight in the slower Genesee is not light years away from its moment in the spotlight in the faster Viscera only one song earlier.

Of course, the effect is different. In the faster songs, we plug into the grooves and move along to them, even if we're sitting in an office chair listening at work. Even the most restrained listeners will find themselves tapping their feet to the beat, which, I should add, is delivered by a drummer here, Mischa Kliege, not a drum machine with a fancy name. In the slower ones, we don't do that. Instead we open ourselves up to their moods and let them fall onto us like warm rain, soaking into our essence and shaping our mood. They're slow and gloomy but not depressing, so their effect is affirming and enriching rather than bleak and suicidal.

That holds for everything up to Silent We Mourn eleven tracks in. Every track up to that one fits in one of those two moods and it would end naturally at that point as a decent fifty minute album, a third for Sweet Ermengarde, even if their line-up has changed considerably across each. Only two of five members made it from 2013's Raynham Hall to 2016's Ex Oblivione and only one remains in place for this album eight years on, that being Lars Kappeler on bass. Drew Freeman may be the vocalist now, for instance, but it's his debut with the band, because Kuba Achtelik was the singer in 2013 and Daniel Schweigler in 2016.

However, the album isn't over. There are two tracks left, the longest two on offer, and they skew the impressions of the album that we take away with us, on account of them being last. Embers Fall is slower again than anything else that came before and notably so. It's so slow that it becomes an acutely personal song as if Freeman is singing only to me. And, even though it takes a progression of gradual slowing down and runs with it, it also launches into something very different a couple of minutes in. Until now, the entire album has been gothic rock, but for twenty seconds, it's extreme metal, with frantic drumming from Kliege and harsh backing vocals from guest Nino Sable. Then it launches back into slow gothic rock, returning twice more for twenty second blitzkriegs.

And, if that sounds like a real anomaly, then there's Of Her Heart's Ocean, an eleven minute dirge to wrap things up. This is less a song and more of an ambient installation piece. It's achingly slow, it's full of atmosphere and it's peppered with occasional industrial ambience. It's not without its merits and my avant-garde tastes rather like it, but it's highly anomalous here. It feels like we've just been to a pretty decent goth gig, expended all our energy and now we're walking out of the venue. Except that, even though the door is right there, we never actually reach it because time has stretched and the building is ever so slowly twisting and contorting around us, as if it's ready to collapse and kill us all but, even with the light right there, we're not ready to leave yet.

That's a really weird way to wrap up an album that started out like the Sisters of Mercy, so I'd love to know exactly what the band had in mind. In the meantime, I hope they don't take another eight years to knock out another studio album. If they've found a stable line-up at last, maybe we'll see another one in the next few years. Oh, and kudos for the band name, which is a real H. P. Lovecraft deep cut.

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