PopMatters delves into the psyche of one of underground music's most fascinating new bands—ROPE SECT.
"How terrible this darkness was, how bewildering, and yet mysteriously beautiful." – Stefan Zweig
This year marked the emergence of a clandestine German act known as ROPE SECT. PopMatters has been bewitched by their music all year long—a catchy, lively, yet atmospherically portentous sound that will appeal to fans of metal, rock, post-punk, goth, and darkwave alike. So much so that we had to contact the band, whose members wish to remain anonymous, to find out more about what's going on behind their mortuary drape.
"We're not holding back information for the sake of creating a pseudo-mystery or becoming another cryptic act," a nameless ROPE SECT member emails when asked about the importance of maintaining a level of secrecy in a digital age when most information is just a click away. "ROPE SECT is a conceptual project that's supposed to be defined by its music, lyrics and art. Private details, names or related bands are simply irrelevant. When people come across new bands, one of the first steps is looking up their members, origin and other projects, so they're kind of biased or at least create a certain connection, which is fine and understandable. However, we want to focus on the core that can be discovered by paying attention to the actual records."
Such reluctance to reveal identities is not unusual in underground metal, as ROPE SECT allude to above, since many bands hide behind black hoods and cloaks and only provide members' initials in order to maintain separation. Hell, one of metal's most successful artists in recent times, Ghost, a band ROPE SECT share some musical commonalities with, made their name off the back of being elusive. Unlike Ghost, however, whose odes to Lucifer come with a forked tongue firmly planted in cheek, there seems to be a genuine occult energy around ROPE SECT's music. However, the band claim that the term "occult" has become overused and that they wish to distance themselves from acts included in the occult rock revival of recent years.
"We don't see ourselves as a part of any revival and don't refer to any specific form of occultism," the band confirms matter-of-factly. "As you wrote yourself, every detail is just a click away nowadays and people tend to constantly make use of clicking, presenting and unveiling rather than pondering, allowing thoughts to rest or simply being content without results. Imaginations and ideas of what's behind particular phenomena or events get destroyed once they've been revealed. Revelation means an increase of certainty and decrease of unease to most human beings. It's not always about explaining everything entirely; keeping a feeling of suspense and insecurity is far more intriguing sometimes."
Given the style of music ROPE SECT play on their intoxicating Personae Ingratae EP and 7-inch titled Proselytes, another unexpected disclosure comes when the German band's anonymous conduit states that none of the members are from post-punk, death-rock or goth backgrounds, nor were they inspired by the Neue Deutsche Welle scene of their homeland.
"For us, it's surprising that we're compared with those bands to a great extent because I don't see so many similarities with the likes of the Sisters of Mercy, to be honest," the writer tells us. "I also wouldn't label our music as gothic or death-rock, but that's up to the respective listener. Personally, my interest in those genres has increasingly developed in the last couple of years. As for Rope Sect, musically, the first Pink Turns Blue record was quite important to me as well as Beastmilk and early Pink Floyd. Visually, the films of Ingmar Bergman and Béla Tarr certainly left artistic marks as well."
It's interesting ROPE SECT mention being inspired by Beastmilk's anthemic music since the Finland-based metallic post-punk band, now known as Grave Pleasures, are probably the closest peer they have—musically, thematically and aesthetically-speaking. In fact, the admiration is mutual, as Grave Pleasures' crooner Mat 'Kvohst' McNerney also feels a strong kinship with ROPE SECT.
"After we continued our apocalyptic post-punk style from Beastmilk into Grave Pleasures, I think there were a lot of people expecting a scene to start happening in reaction to that," Mat reflects. "When [Beastmilk's 2013 album] Climax hit, it felt like the start of something new. We were the first of a new wave and it was exciting when ROPE SECT came out with their own approach in mixing those sound-clashes of black metal and post-punk. They were obviously inspired by the way we opened this thing up but they weren't doing another version of our music. I mean, for me, it's reactionary music—that's what both bands are doing. It's really brave to strike out into a no man's land where you don't have the confines of a friendly scene where you fit in amongst all the other bands with the same logos and same make-up, etc. Something other than Bathory or Sabbath worship or rehashing the [music of the] 1970s.
"Unlike some of the bands that the labels are trying to build up as 'the next Grave Pleasures', Rope Sect have their own style and their own way of writing," Mat continues. "Their songs are really strong and catchy but their sound is very unique. I think that's why the underground has embraced them so fervently this year. I think they hear the same sense of sound rebellion from them as they do with us—the same genre-clashes. I truly believe that they'll go on to be a really successful band. I'm happy that we allied with them so early on, as I wanted to send a message to people of what we're about: We're not part of any scene but our own."
The Grave Pleasures frontman's belief in ROPE SECT's music was so strong that he personally reached out to the band to secure them as support for the German leg of his band's most recent European tour.
"It was a great surprise when Mat got in touch and asked us to support [Grave Pleasures] live," ROPE SECT's emailer recalls. "We absolutely wanted to make this happen and luckily managed to do so. I can tell that all of us enjoy their output and you can definitely find similarities in our music. They are brilliant songwriters, and I immediately had an affinity for Mat's darkly appealing and Cold War-esque lyrics on the first Beastmilk EP."
The first song from ROPE SECT's EP, "Fallen Nation", starts with a soundbite which roughly translate from German to English as "smash the mouths of the rabble with a hammer". According to the band, this violent quote, synonymous with the German actor Klaus Kinski, ties into the all-encompassing thematic concept of their music, which we're told revolves around an isolated rope sect living in the woods in order to "solemnly face the world's downfall". Outside this sect, society's members tag people who refuse to fit in or have escaped modern civilization—like the members of the rope sect—as outcasts and a threat to their way of life. "Thus, we have the labelling of personae ingratae on both sides, and the sample—which is not the version spoken by Kinski, by the way—serves as a figurative and drastic expression of these recriminations."
ROPE SECT's lyrical themes are an essential part of the music and some rather dark, vivid images are painted on standout hook-heavy tracks such as "King of the Night" and "Tarantist"—a delectable dichotomy.
"In ROPE SECT there is an intentional contrast between catchy music and sombre lyrics reflecting the dance near the abyss," the band explains. "The world is about to end while the rope sect is celebrating with a sardonic grin. The 'King of the Night' seals the sect's self-chosen fate and declares deliverance from society's constraints. Yet despite the celebrating character, every member has to follow the rules and take part in the hierarchy. If not, the gallows awaits. Meanwhile, 'Tarantist' is about the downfall scenario in relation to reactions: the sect feels the urge to dance in the face of doomsday, whereas panic spreads among the people outside the cult who try to save themselves and seek shelter. In vain. Eventually, death prevails and leaves a grand silence; the most grievous denouement for society, the ultimate salvation for the sect."
Throughout their thought-provoking apocalyptic concept there is an underlying obsession with Eleutheromania (a frantic zeal for freedom). What is it that ROPE SECT want to be free from?
The band's chosen spokesperson illuminates us: "I was sent an essay from 1925 by [Austrian author] Stefan Zweig recently containing a sentence that really hits home: 'The greatest achievement of the intellectual individual is always freedom; freedom from human beings, from opinions, from things and freedom for oneself'. These ideals partly arise from a desire to retreat from all kinds of preposterous developments going on and to look upon some absurd events from an outside perspective while being aware that we all have to bear the consequences for the actions of others. It is necessary to keep your own freedom and independence in this frantic world, to a certain degree at least. However, in the rope sect, the members freed themselves from their old life while entering a new one that, despite its celebrating and seemingly unfettered character, includes new rules and obedience, which in turn creates inconsistency. Most members aren't free at all; they just relocated their dependence. Hence, the only fulfilment of freedom is death."
The artwork for both of their releases this year display very stark and striking designs and complimentary colour palettes. Along with the concept, this is another aspect of the band's aesthetic used to entice the listener. ROPE SECT confirm they will continue with the same kind of minimalistic artwork going forward since the project is to function as a whole and each release is bound together (no pun intended): "Alterations cannot be ruled out, but the common thread and the rope as the basic motif, being the symbol for the sect's essence and its greatest fear at the same time, will not change. The guy on the Proselytes EP cover allegedly survived a hanging that he was doomed to but carried the stigma on his neck for the rest of his life. This relates to the EP's lyrical theme about ensnaring novices, watching over their step and punishing them by hanging in the case of violation or disobedience."
Originally, the Personae Ingratae EP was a tape-only release through Caligari Records, an underground metal label specialising in mysterious sounds. The reason for this choice of medium was down to the fact that the band are strong supporters of cassette releases and prefer them over CDs, but also because of the limited financial risk for the label/band if the tape failed to cause a stir.
"I'm not keen on pressing loads of LPs at an early stage of an unknown band before knowing if there is demand," the band's unnamed economist explains, "instead I prefer to offer a tape for a reasonable price and if people like it, one can take it from there. By now, we have three different versions of our first EP and a re-press in the making, which seems a bit ironic, but according to the reactions and the labels' sales, the demand is there, so why not?"
The interest is indeed there, as shortly after the tape release, the reputable extreme metal label Iron Bonehead Productions swooped in to put out the band's music on vinyl—a sensible relationship for ROPE SECT given the German label's notoriety amongst metal fans and also since their signing will make the enigmatic act stand out from this label's more extreme entities.
"We got in touch during the tape release and as [Iron Bonehead Productions owner] Patrick [Kremer] liked the material, we exchanged a few emails and agreed on putting out the LP version with two bonus tracks," explains the band of how the relationship with IBP came about. "It's a very reliable label and although they're focused on more 'extreme entities' as you put it, you have out of the ordinary artists like Light of the Morning Star or Lisa Cuthbert putting out their works, too. I agree that we're slightly different or far less extreme than most IBP bands; still, a lot of people seem to enjoy and buy the stuff, which I think is due to a certain aura of gloom and rawness that appeals to listeners of extreme metal, even if the songs are catchy and almost danceable."
"Their music caught me upon first listen and I like the actual fact the band has a lyrical concept that goes hand in hand with the music," says IBP boss Patrick when asked what drew him to ROPE SECT. "I haven't listened to that kind of music for quite a while, so it was a welcome surprise those guys come up with an old sound which still sounds fresh. I didn't think about what dynamic the band would bring to the label, if it would sell or not, or if the ordinary war metal guy would call out IBP [for working with ROPE SECT]. I just released it because I enjoy it and believe in the band's future."
Surely the future of ROPE SECT is a bright one should they continue to build their cult following as naturally as they have to date. However, their Proselytes 7-inch comes with a rather worrying cryptic message: "Old lives are fading, a new one is dawning. A second skin. The beginning of the end." Does ROPE SECT believe this release is the beginning of a new bloom or a step towards their demise?
"Both", is the reply. "The EP deals with proselytes that are being ensnared and whose former lives will be replaced by new ones as members of the rope sect. We all know how this is gonna end, so it's a new bloom that is just about to fade and die forever."
Let's hope this new bloom lasts for a few more years, because ROPE SECT have great potential to crossover to more mainstream rock/metal audiences à la Ghost. Judging by the response when we ask whether such success would be welcomed by the band, it appears as though those kind of thoughts are far from their mind—either that or they're just keen to keep their ambitions close to their chest for now.
"Well, honestly, we don't really care about that and don't think about addressing ourselves to any audience when writing the music at all," the band's rep writes. "Also, who am I to judge who is supposed to listen to our music? We all have quite a diverse taste in music, so why should this not apply to the listener as well? The songs might be 'mainstream'-compatible despite the garage production, and we've also heard the Ghost comparison a couple of times now, but who cares? It is appreciated when people really take their time to delve into our records, whether they mainly listen to underground black metal or synth-y pop."
Both of ROPE SECT's fascinating 2017 releases have been joined to form a compilation CD, which is out now. The band confirm that this compilation is not meant to be regarded as ROPE SECT's first album, however, and that they are currently working on their full-length debut, set for released in the first half of 2018 through IBP.
"I'm not a fan of fuelling expectations and praising new material as the most sublime to date," the unidentified ROPE SECT member stresses in closing, "so at this point, I'm only saying what you cannot expect and that is, a major musical and lyrical change as well as a polished production. Rock 'n' Rope needs to be a bit ragged!"