Bethlehem are a German band that was formed with the intention of adding sorrow, melancholy and madness into extreme metal. Their first opus “Dark Metal” used a mixture of black metal, slower primitive death metal and the melancholic rock inspired British sound that bands like My Dying Bride were developing. Their second release and Magnum Opus, Dictius Te Necare, sees the band discarding most death metal influences in favor of narrative black metal with a greater emphasis on long, flowing minimalist sequences without distortion, and the vocal histrionics of one-time singer Rainer Landfermann, whose otherworldly and insane vocals lifted this album into cult status. However, unfortunately for Bethlehem, the vocals seem to be the only point of discussion for most people, obscuring what is some very convincing black metal composition.
Rainer Landfermann is definitely an impressive vocalist, his talent is made patent through the particular tone of his shriek and the desperation he so effortlessly conveys. Many confuse his vocal approach with the weak and the DSBM scream that wallowsin self-pity while, in reality, this is a high-pitched shriek very similar in technique to what bands like Burzum and At the Gates were doing, yet altered for the purpose of this album. Landfermann conveys madness by changing pitch but maintains the same tone throughout. Consistent technique shines through as his higher shrieks are performed with the head voice, really showing madness whereas the deeper growls are projected with the chest cavities. The vocalist also sticks to his mother tongue so that he may express himself much more convincingly and forgoing the broken English that a lot of bands seem content to rely on. Here we have an impressive and unique vocalist who achieved his unique sound not through gimmicks but through understanding his references and then converting the approach each composition.
Differing from this former approach, DSBM vocals consist of random screams that are performed with weakness and that resemble the cries of children with no grit in the voice. Therefore, one must be careful with not confusing the vocals presented here with the weak DSBM vocals as there is a genuine language of predetermined pitches and rehearsed patterns and where bands like Silencer have hilarious vocals, Rainer Landfermann proves that he can convey all these emotions that DSBM dream of portraying.
For such an underground release the production is very clear with each instrument being completely audible at each point time in time. The bass rumbles on the deep end while maintaining decent note clarity and not merging with the guitar tone as it gives the sonic landscape a strong backbone, especially during the acoustic sections. The drums thud with impact yet sound as if they were recorded further away; each element of the kit is distinct, especially the bass drum, which has none of its higher frequencies transformed into clicks and maintains the raw, unfiltered low end. The single guitar sits right in the center and uses a lot of treble but sacrificing other frequencies, making it perfectly understandable yet twisted through a very high distortion that suits the music. The more ethereal passages consist of a real piano in the background and not a keyboard while the clean guitar floats around and the bass holds the whole thing together. A very clear and minimalist approach to the recording shows restraint and maturity and more importantly permits the correct expression of this album.
Dictius Te necare flows fluidly from the first track till the last and, though there are vestiges of doom metal influence, the band has decided in keeping the length to a concise forty five minutes that is easier to digest in one listening, whereas a longer sitting may have forced this album to drift into background noise due to the fairly intense style. Another particularity of this work is the combination of slower calmer passages that break a lot of the songs. These parts only lengthen throughout the album suggesting that this album is supposed to flow in a certain direction. The official translations of the lyrics confirm that the lyrics also follow a vague pattern. A narrator in immense suffering that falls into darkness but who goes through transformation, embraces the darkness that embodies them, and finally accepts death as being the inevitable outcome to all life. The calmer parts of the album become longer as one progresses through the album and the frantic black metal sections become more and more sparse. This possibly represents the spells of lucidity or the complete descent into soothing madness depending on the perspective taken.
Every composition on the album seeks to flow seamlessly from the distorted guitar segments to the softer sections and back. The major blemish of this album is that this is done with mixed results. At times the momentum of the initial distorted section is carried to its fullest and breaks away smoothly so that the acoustic parts can rebuild the tension necessary to carry the song forward. Other moments this feels rather abrupt as the two passages are loosely connected and that they are stuck together with studio trickery as the initial distorted parts just stop without any decay in the sound or feedback. Both segments are made out of long minor scale melodies with many tempo changes and the addition of a few chromatic notes to create tension for the resolution of each riff.
The clean guitar parts differ in that they will often be built around the same notes as the distorted parts but with the chords related from the patterns and especially the minor third arpeggios that they will add various notes from the minor scale that will then be countered by notes foreign to the scale. This is a very primitive tool to build tension by juxtaposing consonance and dissonance alternately until release is achieved through the return of a crushing black metal riff or in the case of “Aphel die Schwarze Schlange” a melancholic guitar solo against the vocals. There is a rock influence on some tracks that is at times very grating and completely removes one from the mindset of the song like the rhythmic chugs in “Verheissung, Du Krone des Todeskultes”.
Barring the hiccups the aforementioned is very good at taking a riff reminiscent of the early RAC inspired black metal bands and making it progress for the majority of the song until its natural conclusion. The vocals during the slower sections never descend into singing and are even more harrowing as the distortion can’t hide them and each inflection is heard clearly. The band seeks to end each of their songs with suitable climaxes ranging from the harmonized guitars styling of My Dying Bride, or drifting on to even more ethereal sequences with the piano taking a much more leading role. The arrangements of each song vary very much but are all tied their intent to guide the listener through a specific journey with each song being broken down roughly into introductory theme, development and climax. The motifs remain largely the same from section to section but are developed further in accordance to each song. Due to the nature of the album one must seek out to listen to this in one uninterrupted sitting as though it is not a concept album each track leads unto the other.
Dictius Te Necare carries quite a few faults and lacks some of the vision necessary in being on the top of the Pantheon but through truly inventive songwriting and the strong desire to really show melancholy and having to invent the musical language of Dark metal to get to this point. Very few bands including the band themselves would dare to attempt at recreating another piece like this and the ideas present here remain dormant and could lead to new possibilities for younger bands to develop even further. Where most melancholic music seems to find happiness in their own pity, Dictius Te Necare refuses to lay down and travels as far as possible emerging either victorious or fading into madness as no compromise is made. Powerful, unrepentant and irreverent, this is metal expressed through madness.