The German pop scene has got to be the one to watch. I’ve run across albums from Nubian drummers and medieval electro-pop duos who are big in the Berlin club scene, and now I’m listening to Corvus Corax, a group of street minstrels originally from East Germany who do a heady mix of medieval and contemporary world-beat/rock music. I had never heard of them before I received this disc for review: from zero to fan in 13 tracks. (As it happens, I’m not as far out of it as I had thought — this is their first U.S. release.)
Imagine bagpipes and percussion performed by a group of eight men who look, if the cover photo is any indication, like the outest of outlaws — in this version, an outrageous blend of leather drag, half masks, monks’ robes and period instruments. (I gather that this is more or less normal — some sources refer to the musicians performing “half-naked, dressed in unusual clothes, wearing different ancient decorations, and often tattooed.” Sounds like my kind of people.) The music is totally captivating. Largely instrumental, the sources are medieval but branch out into world-beat and contemporary rock, and probably a few other places I haven’t figured out yet.
The band is known for its authentic source material and carefully researched and constructed period instruments. The sound is unique. The band is presently composed of five bagpipe players and three percussionists who together produce something that immediately brings to mind a medieval fair. More contemporary rhythms are subtly introduced and quite effective.
Showstopper: “Cheiron,” not quite halfway through the disc. Based on a text by Longinus, ca. 100 C.E., the piece starts with a bass-baritone choral treatment that trades places with pure instrumental interludes that would do any Scottish marching band proud. It’s impossible to sit still while this one’s playing. It’s followed by the almost equally spectacular “Filii Neidhardi,” a piece with a more complex rhythmic structure that becomes part of the melody. That, by the way, is characteristic of this collection: rhythm and melody don’t seem to inhabit separate spaces here, so that the bagpipes can provide the motive force as easily as the percussion, and vice-versa. “Palästinalied” starts like a traditional Scottish ballad, veers into something dangerously close to plainsong, and then bounces back and forth between modes and treatments and still makes perfect sense. “Mille anni passe sunt” begins with a low drone that could have come out of Coyote Oldman, and actually keeps up a bit of American Native feel in the steady and relatively simple rhythm; until the very European vocal treatments slide quietly into the mix.
Maybe it’s not so strange that I love this CD. I’m also very fond of earlier music, Hildegarde of Bingen, Martin Codax, Anonymous, that whole crew. Corvus Corax, however, is extraordinarily vivid and energetic. “Best of” also contains a bonus video track of “Chou Chou Sheng” from “Gaudia Vite” in a live performance which, regrettably, I was not able to view. I can hardly wait for the opportunity.
Corvus Corax is Ardor vom Venushügel, Castus Rabensang, Patrick der Kalauer, Harmann der Drescher, Hatz, Meister Selbfried, Teufel, and Wim (Venustus). The band’s Web site is at Corvus Corax, and offers a good chance to brush up your German.
(Noir Records (orig. Pica Records), n.d.)