Ceasuri Rele: The “Dark Times” of Negură Bunget

Negură Bunget

How many times has Transylvania been referenced in metal? Hundreds, from Iron Maiden’s classic instrumental of the same name, to Darkthrone’s seminal Transilvanian Hunger, to countless other bands, mainstream and underground, all bent on paying homage to, or more often tritely referencing the ever-popular vampyric legend that stems from Central Romania. However, with metal being such a global phenomenon, it’s astounding that the region of Transylvania, a region with a population of more than seven million, hasn’t yielded very many metal artists of its own. With one noteworthy exception, that is, as for the last 15 years Negură Bunget has steadily made a name for themselves with a series of albums that have not only gradually broken new ground in progressive black metal, but have set out to show the world that there’s a lot more to their homeland than boring, recycled vampire shtick.

“Yeah, I always felt this paradox,” admits drummer Gregory “Negru” Mafa, when asked about the irony of Transylvania’s thematic popularity in metal not exactly translating to there being more actual Transylvanian bands. “On the other hand, I hope the local bands have the respect needed for such an approach, and rather than taking the easy way, think a bit more about the meanings of such an involvement. I kinda got used to [Transylvanian stereotypes in metal]. People enjoy stereotypes and feel safer with [them]. Dealing with a complex spirituality which is not easy to comprehend, as it is in Transilvania, is not an easy thing. We always felt we owed this both to ourselves and to the amazing spirituality of these places to do our best in presenting its true values and content. It’s just a natural thing coming from within.”

Little by little the metal world has started to take notice of this Eastern European band, the positive momentum building gradually until the ingenious, sprawling 2006 magnum opus Om had the British and European metal press agog, the album eventually being named one of Terrorizer‘s best albums of 2006, in turn prompting many on this continent to ask, “Negura what-now?

However, with the band’s worldwide popularity at an all-time high and the stage set for them to make a serious splash among North American metal listeners, Negură Bunget has been hopelessly mired in controversy over the past year. The band decided to completely re-record their debut album Măiastru Sfetnic, never a popular idea among fans. Two of its three founding members, vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Edmond “Hupogrammos Disciple” Karban and guitarist Sol’Faur Spurcatu, suddenly left the band in 2009, and when Negru decided to keep the Negură Bunget name with no fewer than five new members, it kicked off a war of words between the two parties that continues to this day. In addition, the long-awaited follow-up to Om was written and recorded with the new line-up, the band’s first three full-lengths are set to be released Stateside for the very first time this summer, a live DVD has been prepared, and Negură Bunget Mk. II is hoping to launch their inaugural tour the US later this year. Needless to say, things have been just a little hectic for Negru and his crew.

“I think some people felt a bit disorientated about all the drama,” he concedes, “but I can’t really speak about the reactions others experienced. At the gigs we played since then I can’t say the atmosphere was different, quite the contrary actually, people seemed to enjoy a lot the new songs and new line-up. We never asked to be judged [lightly]. We can always just do our best, and everybody should judge the results. That’s all we can ask.”

At the same time, though, Negru can’t blame fans for being just a touch skeptical. And they have every right to be; after all, who wouldn’t lose confidence in their favorite band if two thirds of the act suddenly left? “Sure, I can understand this,” he says, “especially after all the ‘kind’ words [Hupogrammos and Sol’Faur] said about us. But I have no fear people will get to the truth eventually, on their own. I wish things could have happened differently, but I can’t be responsible for the actions of other people. I’ll do my best along the present members of the band to take further the Negură Bunget.”

Although Hupogrammos and Sol’Faur have since started a new project called Dordeduh, they have been very critical of Negru’s retaining of the Negură Bunget name, declaring at every chance they get that he betrayed “the basis of the black metal principles” (Interview with Hupogrammos, by Fenrir Bucuresti, June 2009), and that the re-recorded Măiastru Sfetnic, renamed Maiestrit, is in fact “the last Negură Bunget album ever.” (The Current State of Black Metal, by Stefan Raduta, Brooklyn Vegan, February 2010) “They said a lot of craps and lies, trying to put themselves on a good spot and gain some public sympathy,” Negru responds. “I have no need to do that. Our only answer is the music we do. It’s easy to talk, harder to put your words into actions. But everybody is in the end responsible for their doings, and on this matter I have nothing to feel ashamed for. The way they acted about the new members of the band was particularly unfair, as some of them played along us for years, and were always devoted to the band. To trash them just because they did not share their opinions later is something they will have to deal on their own sooner or later.

“I understood them wanting to end their involvement in Negură Bunget, but forcing me to do the same was never an option I would have taken likely,” he adds. “We had no agreement on this matter, no matter on how they tried to present things afterwards. I was always responsible for all our contracts and obligations, but that was because they wanted to stand apart and not assume any responsibilities. And again I don’t see how it’s fair to say [that] all I did was OK for 15 years, and suddenly nothing’s right once they are no more in the band. My actions and attitudes stand clear for my Black Metal involvement and nothing my former mates say will change that.”

All sniping aside, though, 2010 is going to be an interesting year for Negură Bunget. From the day it came out in 2000 the band was never happy with Măiastru Sfetnic, and Maiestrit is a fascinating attempt to flesh that album’s sound a lot more than was done on the 2000 original. It’s clear that the leaner, no-frills feel of the original recording was strictly out of necessity, and like Dimmu Borgir, who similarly re-recorded their Stormblåst album in 2005, was made by a band that had always wanted massive, rich production, “true” black metal credibility be damned. In fact, Maiestrit is sonically on par with Om, drawing from a much richer sonic palette, something we can hear immediately on a track like the brilliant “În-Zvîcnirea Apusului”, its haunting theremin underscored by a fantastically dense arrangement.

“I think there’s just a lot of small details, new touched, re-interpretations, new arrangements, which all [completely] put together the original version,” explains Negru. “Actually we had this in mind since we finished the original version, it was not a new decision. We were completely unsatisfied with how that turned out, and always wanted to make it right. We started the recordings before [Hupogrammos and Sol’Faur] left, and then finished after. Pretty much all the basics were done before the split, so we only arranged [that] they will finish this while I will finish the live DVD we were also working on. So [there wasn’t] that much interaction for the last part.”

“În-Zvîcnirea Apusului”, from Măiastru Sfetnic

Through with Looking Back

Through with Looking Back

“…[the past year has] only made us stronger and helped us bound faster. Hard times break weak people, and harden strong ones.”

Bands re-recording their old material in an effort to either improve upon the original recordings, or in some deluded cases, to “thank” the fans, is not only a growing trend in metal, but a very contentious issue among fans. The fact is, no matter how positive a spin you put on it, a re-recorded early album will almost certainly be greeted with great derision. Negru, however, makes no apologies, stating bluntly, “Actually we did this mostly for ourselves. It was just something we felt we had to do.”

For all the flak Maiestrit is bound to take, it’s nevertheless a fascinating reinterpretation and re-imagining of a very, very good record, the best moments coming at the end of the album, as we’re treated to bonus acoustic versions of the brooding epics “A-Vînt în Abis” and “Plecaciunea Mortii”, the former showing there’s not a lot of distance between Negura Bunget’s compositions and that of Radiohead, while the latter slowly, gradually develops a similarity to Can until the comparison is utterly unavoidable. “I think the two acoustic tracks just bring a completely new feeling of the original ones,” Negru says of the pair of tracks, clearly proud of the end result. “They are more like present time versions of the original songs…I think Maiestrit is just like the names says (“Maiestrit” would be something like mastered, crafted), a finalized version of the original release.”

Right now, though, Negru is through with looking back, and he and his revamped band have their sights set forward, with their sixth album Vîrstele pămîntului ready to go, set for a late March release in Europe. When asked to explain the title, Negru responds, “Vîrstele pămîntului would be something like ‘ages of the land/earth’. It’s an album about places of the earth and places of the spirit, about bounds transcending worlds. The earth is where we came from and where go back into, the one from above and beyond us. Understanding and respecting it means to understand yourself, your purpose and destiny. Vîrstele pămîntului is an album about embracing your destiny, about choosing and consciously assuming a way of life.”

Still, you can embrace your destiny all you want, but the fact of the matter is, you’re stuck with writing a follow-up to one of the most acclaimed, intelligent metal albums of the last decade. Just how tough was it to get it done with so many new collaborators and still make it sound like a Negură Bunget record? “It’s always difficult to compose a new album,” he says. “But the pressure is first from within. If we are satisfied with a new work, it counts less in the end how other will judge it. All I can say is I am completely satisfied with the new album, and so far people seem to share our vision. This time we also did something we had in mind for a long time, we took seclusion through the wilderness of the mountains, dedicating entirely on finishing the album. It was both a musical and spiritual endeavor which hopefully reflects on the outcome of the music.”

Again, it all comes back to the classic Negru/Hupogrammos/Sol’Faur line-up; as long as Negură Bunget continues with that name, everything Negru does from here on in will be compared to that era. And it certainly doesn’t help that his former bandmates insist they were the primary songwriters in the band. “On all our albums it is written ‘all music and lyrics by Negură Bunget’ with a good reason,” Negru states. “But I guess they changed their minds again once they were no more part of the band. Negură Bunget was always something above the persons involved in the band, a concept that kept us tight together. That never changed, and that’s what makes it special. The musical vision is only a reflection of the spirituality behind it.”

“A-vînt în abis”, from Maiestrit

As for his new line-up of vocalist/guitarist Corb, guitarist Spin, bassist Gadinet, keyboardist Inia Dinia, and multi-instrumentalist a’Ger, Negru says, ” I knew them already for a while, and they were also all familiar with our music. Corb even played along us for the live DVD recordings. It was a natural step to ask them, and all answered with no hesitation. Negură Bunget is not something easy to be into, you have to be one-hundred percent dedicated and involved, and so far I more than happy on how the integrated in the band….[Writing Vîrstele pămîntului] was a collaborative effort again, same as it was in the past. All the present members of the band have been fully involved in this process.”

No matter how different the band’s lineup is, Negru insists the 2010 version of Negură Bunget will remain faithful to that distinct style that’s always been present in the band’s music, evoking the “black fog” that’s referenced in the band’s Romanian moniker. “I think there would be no point in keeping the same name if the music does not represent it anymore,” he explains. “So this will never change. The musical ideas can change and evolve a lot, but there is always a frame to keep everything inside.

“Actually [the past year has] only made us stronger and helped us bound faster. Hard times break weak people, and harden strong ones. We are now even more determined to prove Negură Bunget has a long journey ahead.”

“Chei de Rouă”, Rosenheim, Germany, 16 January 2010