Honestly, I believe (and hope) that there is no need to introduce Bethlehem, a band that— whether you like it or not — has written some of the pages of that mad and destructive grimoire from which depressive black metal developed. Although this definition seems to have acquired an almost parodical tone lately, such albums as Dark Metal and Dictius Te Necare were and still are nothing to laugh at, as the aura of cynical and merciless alienation that surrounds them has (re)defined the coordinates of pain, going as far as to originate a whole new subgenre. However, this act founded in 1991 — after so many lineup changes — went on to release Lebe Dich Leer this year, the ninth album with Jürgen Bartsch, the only remaining member of the original band and the main creator of the project’s concept.
Throughout their career, Bethlehem have reshaped their style quite a few times (some of which were not wholly appreciated by me, especially at the beginning of the millennium); nevertheless, no matter how hard I try, it is complicated to evaluate this record without referring to the past. Songs like “Verdaut In Klaffenden Mäulern”, “Niemals Mehr Leben”, “Wo Alte Spinnen Brüten” and “Ode An Die Obszöne Scheußlichkeit” follow indeed on the steps of that same looming black-doom metal, full of furious anguish, enriched by acoustic arpeggios, gothic halos, synths, suspended ambient-flavored sections, and other digressions. Onielar’s voice (the long-haired lady from Darkened Nocturn Slaughtercult) fits into the overall architecture much better than in the self-titled album released three years ago, somewhat reminding me of the peculiar style employed by Rainer Landfermann in Dictius Te Necare. Even if it is clear that some parts of the band’s music appear to be influenced by less extreme sounds, bringing a relatively softer feeling, it is also true that Lebe Dich Leer proves to be perfectly able to recreate that cynical vortex of raging and sick suffering which — although filtered through a career spanning more than a quarter of a century — still carves the flesh and infects the soul, seeping discomfort and psychosis.
The tracklist doesn’t lack more peculiar or different episodes:”Ich Weiß Ich Bin Keins”, with its almost ethereal melodies counterbalancing a morbid sulphurous and insalubrious atmospheric background; “An Gestrandeten Sinnen”, pretty much exploiting a darkened pop-rock structure, chiseled by the delirious hatred of the band, or even the unpredictable pace of “Bartzitter Flumgerenne”. At the same time, we can also find cataclysmic and violent attacks (“Dämonisch Im Ersten Blitz”, “Aberwitzige Infraschall-Ritualistik”) in which the band includes an almost punkish approach to their venomous and thick black-doom, suffocating and oppressing relentlessly anything that stands on their way.
Despite its clear connection to the band’s past, Lebe Dich Leer is an album that cannot be completely compared to it, as it is the ripe fruit of a different creative impulse. If you take it as a separate record, it surely is peculiar and interesting, although not necessarily essential. This being said, perhaps the best way to approach this kind of album is to be well aware that you are dealing with 2019 Bethlehem, which obviously are not ’90s Bethlehem. Even after more than twenty years from such monuments to alienations as Dark Metal, Dictius Te Necare and S.U.I.Z.I.D., Bartsch and the others are still perfectly capable of making us feel the cold touch of madness on our skin, exciting the demons that dwell in the dark abysses that each one of us carries inside them, placing us in front of the existential void mentioned in the album title.