By Gareth Watkins
CALGARY — Transylvania, the ‘Land Beyond the Forest,’ has been so thoroughly mythologised in the 118 years since the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that the reality of the picturesque region of Romania has been buried under fake cobwebs. Unless you’re looking (or researching an influential black metal band from the area) then you’ll never know about the brightly coloured Merry Cemetery of Săpânţa, the Art Nouveau streets of Oradea, the cafe-lined promenades of Sibiu. You’ll never know that modern Transylvania is prosperous and deeply cosmopolitan: those fearful, pitchfork-wielding peasants of popular imagination don’t seem the type to enjoy the city of Cluj-Napoca’s gay film festival.
Negură Bunget isn’t from Transylvania (the band formed in the city of Timișoara, outside the region), but the influence of the Carpathian landscape is central to their sound, not just a throwaway signifier of grim gothic darkness. From their 1996 debut Zîrnindu-să’s straightforward black metal all the way through to today’s ornate, multi-instrumental, almost symphonic sound, the band’s sonic proclivities have always been close to their native soil, to the point of actually including some of that native soil in limited editions of their album Vîrstele Pămîntului (2010). Though it began as a two-piece, Negură Bunget has filled its roster with pan flute players and visual designers, becoming a collective anchored around sole original member Gabriel Mafa a.k.a. Negru.
“We expanded the local influence into the music, not just the lyrics,” says Negru. “We gradually evolved and began to experiment with traditional instruments.”
Although the region is today filled with Internet companies and jazz festivals, it’s the wilderness that inspires him.
“Fortunately there are still some large areas which are untouched by the modern world, where people still live by the old traditional ways and don’t have electricity. They carry on a lot of traditions from ancient times, and we’re fortunate enough to live close by there.”
Their most recent album, February 2015’s Tău, is the first part of a trilogy devoted entirely to the Transylvanian landscape. Listening to it casually you might think that this is another of many black metal albums that supplements its sound with passages of acoustic guitar or flute, like Bathory or Ulver before them. Listen closer, and it becomes apparent that the acoustic instruments are no mere ornamentation. They aren’t being strummed to create a passage of calm before a tremolo-picked storm. It’s real traditional music, played in the unsettling tuning that is the result of Romania lying at the nexus of European and Middle Eastern cultures. The black metal is still there, accented with keyboard and string textures that bypass the overblown ‘symphonic’ style of latter-day Dimmu Borgir. Negru’s ambition doesn’t end with the music. A special edition of Tău comes with an art book containing translated lyrics and photography of the places that inspired the music. Their stage shows, venues permitting, are also accompanied with visuals.
“This part of the trilogy is about the natural elements. The second part will be about the human element, the traditions and beliefs, and the third will be about spiritual elements. So for this first part I travelled throughout the country taking pictures. I think it came out quite cool.”
On the record, the sound is less cool and more cold, freezing, damp, dark. Accordingly, the band’s name comes from an ancient substrate of the Romanian language and roughly translates to “dark foggy forest.” This should tell you a lot about the world that Negru’s ancestors lived in and why the influence of their land is so deeply embedded within their ambitious music.
Negură Bunget plays Edmonton on Tuesday, October 6th at the Mercury Room, at Dickens in Calgary on Wednesday, October 7th, and on Thursday, October 8th at Handsome Daughter in Winnipeg.AB, Alberta, Dickens, Handsome Daughter, Mercury Room, Negură Bunget