Music puts me at a loss for words. Maybe I just prefer to let the visceral experience of bathing in sound remain a private one. Today, I’m going to make an exception to this muteness because I simply cannot contain my delight at listening to Kaiserschnitt, the most recent release from self-described “dark decadent metal” duo Porta Nigra. A work of malefic gorgeousness and sophisticated extremity, something REAL special would have to come out to unseat this album as my favorite of 2015.
Let’s talk about the use of the word “decadent.” A term defanged over the course of decades by ad men who use it to describe chocolatey desserts and lipstick textures, Porta Nigra employs the term in its most literary sense: Decadence as a nihilistic celebration of decay, madness, and vice. While many of the topics covered by the band will be familiar to heavy metal fans (war, sex, insanity), their work is inspired by works of art and literature that are a far cry from the pop/pulp influences more typically found in this kind of music. Borrowing the Satanism of J.K. Huysmans’ “La Bas,”* the diseased eroticism of Felicien Rops, and the martial symbolism of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Porta Nigra create a soundscape that, while extreme, has a sense of musical control and aesthetic refinement. Each sound–whether expressed through guitar, drum, vocals, samples, or keyboards–is carefully selected for maximum theatrical impact. The rapid-fire drums of opening track “Die Mensur” call to mind the quick slashing strikes of German academic fencing, while “Hepatits Libido” features a drunk reel alternating with punctuated stabs to conjure dizzying eros-thanatos.
*It’s noteworthy that a member of the band goes by the moniker Gilles de Rais, the child-murdering black magician once associated with Joan of Arc and a central figure in “La Bas.”
Porta Nigra hails from Germany, and Kaiserschnitt does a breathtaking job of conjuring an “ecstatic truth” vision of that country in the 1910s and 1920s. The album’s title translates to “Caesarian section” (literally: “Kaiser/Emperor Cut”), a grisly, interventionist method of birth that evokes the chaos of Germany’s military exploits and downfall in the early 20th Century (to say nothing of the bloodshed that would follow with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s). In addition to the influence of the Decadents, there is a strong sense of Germany’s artistic heritage during this time period in Kaiserschnitt. Known for their unflinching portrayals of taboo topics like battlefield casualties, criminals, prostitutes, and other inhabitants of the demimonde, the German Expressionist painter’s toolkit consisted of energetic strokes, lurid colors, and dynamic compositions–the same experience delivered by Porta Nigra’s musical arrangements. While the album’s subject matter isn’t explicitly supernatural or fantastical, there’s also an aesthetic whiff of Decadent- and Expressionist-adjacent German occult novelists like Gustav Meyrink and Hanns Heinz Ewers** on this record.
**Ewers’ 1916 novel “Alraune” was the best book I read in the year I discovered it, and is far ghastlier, sexier, and funnier than you probably expect it to be. Please thank me for that recommendation later.
I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention Porta Nigra’s marvelous visual presentation. Their promotional photo for Kaiserschnitt depicts the pair decked out in full mensur fencing gear. I’ll permit myself an indulgent aside here to tell you how much I adore mensur (I’m working on A Whole Thing that involves mensur). An academic form of fencing, mensur is practiced in fraternities in Germany and Austria, and unlike what we think of as “fencing,” it’s not a duel with a winner but rather a sort of maniac’s version of a character building exercise. Each bout finds two participants in neck guards, vests, and goggles (and probably bellies full of delicious German beer for added courage) facing off with rapiers held above the head, rapidly swinging them about without flinching. The resulting facial scars–schmiss–were worn with pride.
And then there’s Kaiserschnitt’s arresting cover artwork, with its bloody-mouthed, world-devouring beast in Prussian headgear. The art was created by Valnoir, a French designer whose Metastazis studio website opens with a warning to potential clients that includes the following: “to the plebeian who says ‘you should know how to accept criticism,’ we respond ‘not when it’s ludicrous.'” This is probably my new favorite design site.
At this point, I hope I’ve titillated you to the point that you’re aching to listen to Kaiserschnitt for yourself. Thanks to the magic of the information superhighway, you can have just this kind of instant gratification! Stream Porta Nigra’s latest album below, and visit their Bandcamp page to purchase a digital copy. Porta Nigra is active on Facebook as well, for those who are of the social-media-using sort.