Who'd've thought bagpipes could sound so majestic and powerful alongside a wall of chugging metallic guitars? Or that while nearly all 20th-century gimmicks and images have been exhausted as potential retro flashcards, medieval garb and ancient traditional German folk songs could sound this catchy, relevant, and refreshing?
Berlin septet In Extremo certainly lives up to its name: While hammering out a medieval folk-meets-metal musical monstrosity, band members wear kilts and leather armor and the singer breathes fire onstage. The band's American debut (a follow-up to its self-released demo CD, which sold over 20,000 copies in Europe) pits three bagpipe players (who also occasionally alternate on flutes and harps) against the traditional hard rock setup of drums, bass, and guitars, which plod along as if each riff were building a monument to itself.
Sure, the group smells like high concept. But In Extremo is only the latest in a long line of rock bands overseas that've adapted the form to fit their own cultures. As Einstürzende Neubauten demonstrated, rock's traditional instrumentation can be replaced or supplemented by any number of objects and machines. The stomping uber-industrial march of Hungarian totalitarian-rock pranksters Laibach proved the sounds of ancient culture can be updated and blended with contemporary styles. And the flame-drenched spectacle of German industrial-metal barbarians Rammstein drove home the point that the consonant-crunching and growl-rich sound of Germanic languages perfectly matches the barre-chord crunching and snarling rhythms of speed metal.
The album opens with the deceptively subdued acoustic guitars, mandolin, anthemic strings, and chanting German vocals of "Merseburger Zauberspruche." Ten bars into the song, the overture erupts with pounding drums and crunching guitars accentuating the head-bobbing pulse and impassioned chorus call. Elsewhere, the jaw-dropping harmonica solo in the group's anthem, "In Extremo," and the deft layering of bagpipe arpeggios over a descending guitar riff in "Ich Kenne Alles," demonstrate the band's unique musical prowess. Verehrt und Angespien also includes a solid yet straightforward version of the Sisters of Mercy goth-anthem "This Corrosion," which seems much more like an unnecessary gimmick than the entirety of the band's Dark Ages image. In Extremo may seem like a silly novelty to steadfast folk and/or metal fans, but its impressive sound and striking style will likely endure all ridicule.