Under Zugzwang’s leaves

ZUGZWANG: Under The Shade Of The Leaves

Release year: 2022
Label: Lichterklang

It’s a rather modern phenomenon that upcoming bands make themselves a name and gather a following on YouTube by posting videos of them doing covers of other popular songs. I can understand the appeal in this for both potential listeners and the artist. It’s nice to hear a new – hopefully good – take on a familiar song, so one might be more inclined to click on the link in a recommendation feed or when organically shared on social media. Low threshold visibility, so to speak. Neofolk, on the other hand, is a deeply antimodernist, inherently esoteric form of music – so the approach described above would seem by and large incompatible to it.

But apparently it’s not, seeing as how Italian duo Zugzwang got their foot between the door just that way. Posting covers of, for example, Marilyn Manson, Rammstein and, on more familiar territory Rome, before making publicly available original material, the duo seemed to succeed in generating a fair share of interest in this, their debut album, well before a single note from it was heard by anyone.

But those covers also seemed to curse the album. There was supposed to be a limited edition two disc version of the album, but from what I’ve heard, due to copyright issues, that is in perpetual limbo. And it severely delayed the release of the entire album. I should know – I pre-ordered it, and saw the release date come and go without a CD to pop into my player. Finally, I got at least the single disc version, which begs the question: was it worth the wait?

In short, it was. Under The Shade Of The Leaves has qualities, which makes this one of the strongest debuts within the genre in quite some time.

Zugzwang’s take on the genre is by and large rather standard. Dominated by acoustic instrumentation, melancholic moods, a yearning for times past, a deep disillusionment with the modern world, and belligerent percussion, fans of the genre will feel at home here. However, at the same time, Zugzwang’s sound is exceptionally accessible, with catchy melodies and memorable choruses. I would even go as far as to say that there’s a contemporary folk pop accessibility to the sound. This might sound like a snide remark or a dismissal of the album – but trust me on this, it isn’t.

Take a song like XIII, a balladesque ode to people and times gone by. I could imagine hearing this one on an adult oriented radio channel. Again, I realize this could be construed as a criticism, but Zugzwang make it work. In no minor way thanks to Vrolok LaVey’s deep, supremely expressive, flexible, charismatic and potent baritone. The man can carry a tune with skill rivaling the very best singers in neofolk. Closing track Erinnerungen is another with definite hit potential; revealing the cinematic elements found aplenty on the album, I could imagine this playing during some dramatic moment of solitude in a slow-paced drama movie. You know, one of those with black and white scenes of rain pouring down and people staring out of windows.

However, on Hagakure – from which the name of the album is derived – the duo display their understanding of and connection to the continuum of neofolk. Being an 18th century text on samurai ideals, it was held in high esteem by none other than Yukio Mishima, one of the most significant authors for neofolk. Al Di Là Bene E Del Male borrows its lyrics from Nietzsche, proclaiming a very esotericist and even elitist doctrine typical for the genre: “Great things remain for the great,/Abysses for the profound,/Nuances and shudders for the refined/And in brief, all that is rare for the rare.” Can’t get much more neofolk than that.

Of course, getting the aesthetics right don’t matter if the music isn’t up to snuff. As alluded above, luckily it is. Think of a slightly more accessible, cinematic and even pompously dramatic take on Rome’s more traditionally neofolk material, and you have a pretty good idea of what Zugzwang sounds like. Where Rome often tends to be somewhat understated, Zugzwang go all in with massive choruses and emotive arrangements. But just listen to already mentioned Hagakure or the band’s titular track Zugzwang – it works.

Granted, from time to time, it does feel like the duo are slightly over-using the same tricks and ploys from track to track. The same kinds of bombastic, dramatic choruses appear a bit too often, making some of the tracks feel a bit formulaic. But then, on the other hand, it doesn’t get too formulaic, not to the point of Zugzwang ripping themselves off, and at under 40 minutes, the album does not overstay it’s welcome. So whilst it’s something I did notice, it’s not something that rubs me the wrong way.

I know it’s popular to say how the ebbs and tides of neofolk are at a low and lament the woeful current state of things. And whilst it may be true that there have been more exciting and invigorating times for the genre, I see no need to despair. Acts like Zugzwang instill in me a hope and belief in the future of the genre. I mean, as long as there are albums as good as this, neofolk certainly isn’t dead.

Visit Zugzwang on their Bandcamp or Facebook

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