Monday, April 14, 2008

Album Review: Menhir - "Hildebrandslied"

Menhir - Hildebrandslied

Artist: Menhir (Germany)
Album Title: Hildebrandslied
Label: Trollzorn (Germany)
Released: 2007

Das Hildebrandslied, or the Lay of Hildebrand, is a poem in Old High German about a father and son who meet and fight each other on a battlefield. The ending of the poem is lost to time, so the outcome of the battle is not known. This ancient tale forms the centerpiece of Menhir's fourth album, Hildebrandslied, one of the best metal albums of 2007.

Menhir is one of the forefathers of German pagan metal, having been around since 1995. They are a prominent part of the incredible Thuringian pagan metal scene, which features such great bands as Fjoergyn, Die Saat, XIV Dark Centuries, Helritt, Surturs Lohe, and Odroerir. In my opinion, Menhir is probably the best of the group. They took a lot of time between their third album, Ziuwari, and their newest, Hildebrandslied, but, judging from the finished product, it was time well spent.

The music of Menhir is epic and heroic, led by the soaring baritone vocals of singer/guitarist Heiko. I've always enjoyed his singing voice, imperfect though it has been throughout the years, but on this album his vocals have become a force to be reckoned with. It's mighty, booming, and proud... definitely a perfect fit for this kind of music. Heiko doesn't always sing, though. Like on past Menhir albums, he sometimes employs a harsh vocal style, though on Hildebrandslied it is not used nearly as often as his singing voice. The rest of the players are great as well. Guitarist Fix (also known for his excellent second band, Odroerir) returns, but the remaining three members appear for the first time on this album. I suppose it's difficult to keep a band together during a six year period between albums. The band sounds tighter than ever, though certainly Heiko's vocals are the focal point of the album. There is also a violin on a few tracks, which reminded me of the band's classic folk EP Buchonia.

The packaging for the CD is pretty elaborate, being one of those oversized digipacks that doesn't fit in my CD bookcase. The digipack is one of the nicest I've seen, as far as artwork is concerned. There are a lot of great photos of the band and members of Ulfhednar, a pagan re-enactment group. The cover of the insert is a reproduction of the first page of Das Hildebrandslied. It's all very well-thought-out, which is a perfect match for the quality of the music itself.

The album doesn't take long to get moving, as the vocals start 20 seconds into the first song. I'm used to pagan metal albums containing long instrumental intros, so it's refreshing to hear a band get right to business. The album starts strongly with the first two excellent songs, "Das alte Lied des Windes" and "Des Kriegers Gesicht (Ulfhednar)," but it manages to get even better when the album's centerpiece, the two-part "Das Hildebrandslied," begins. This section of the album begins with a brief but beautiful intro (featuring violin, acoustic guitar, and gentle synths) and then moves into what is perhaps the high mark of Menhir's already-strong career, "Das Hildebrandslied - Teil I." This nine-minute song is my musical highlight for the year 2007, hands-down. It manages to contain some of the most beautiful softer moments of the album and the most epic moments, and Heiko puts on an incredible vocal performance. Both this and the second part are sung in Old High German, and it is basically a word-for-word musical rendition of the Lay of Hildebrand, although they took some liberties with the text for the sake of flow. "Das Hildebrandslied - Teil II" finishes the tale, and it is a great all-acoustic track.

The next song, "Dein Ahn," is the weakest, in my opinion, but that's only because the rest of the album is so good. Things pick up again with the last track, "Weit in der Ferne," and the album ends as well as it begins.

Hildebrandslied would have been a shoe-in for my favorite album of 2007 if it hadn't been for the unstoppable force known as Moonsorrow's V: Hävitetty. There is just so much great music packed into the 41 and a half minutes that make up this album that no pagan metal fan should ignore it. I would even go as far as to recommend it to metal fans of more mainstream tastes, because I feel that the album could have really wide appeal among metal fans.

Due to its complete lack of availability in North America, I had to order the CD from Germany. However, their label has plans to issue the album in a regular jewel case version, which will be easier for them to distribute over here. For American listeners who are interested in Hildebrandslied, and cannot wait for the possibility of a jewel case version, it will probably cost you quite a bit to ship the digipack version over here, but for Menhir fans (and fans of epic and powerful pagan metal in general) it will likely be worth the cost.

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