Angizia: An Appreciation

The European metal scene has always benefited from creative openness that you don't always find in the United States, where metal is expected to be, well, metal, which means heavy distortion, a lot of churning riffs and pounding drums, yelled, snarled, or growled vocals that tell the audience they are in fact listening to metal, and bucket loads of sweat. Don't get me wrong. This is exactly what I like about American metal: the fixation on raw, unremitting, hyper-masculine power.

The European scene is a little more tolerant of bold theatrics and intrusions of non-metal music. Black metal is awash in romantic melodies and folk whimsy, death metal is allowed to have a thumping dance beat, no one is shocked if a singer stops screeching and starts beatboxing over a reggae bassline, girlish naifs are permitted to drone on over muted thrash riffs and cheesy fiddle solos right out of Riverdance. But somewhere in this confusion of noise, the really interesting bands still disappear, often invisible in plain sight in an era where everything can be found with a quick Google search.

The Austrian scene has produced a lot of well known bands- Summoning, Abigor, and Disharmonic Orchestra among them- but one of the best has become one of the most obscure. The first time I heard of Angizia I was reading some metal magazine slagging their debut album, "Die Kemenaten Scharlachroter Lichter," stupidly calling it 'happy metal' or some bullshit term the "extreme" metal press liked to use at the time to dismiss anything they didn't like that was black metal related- Angizia were then signed to Napalm Records. Of course when Terrorizer or Pit dismisses something, there's a good chance it'll be decent.

On a road trip in and around southern California in 1997, I stopped by a small record store in Huntington Beach, and found the debut album. I bought it, stuck it in my car's CD player, and was immediately struck by what I heard: a pianist who not only could play a piano, but knew how to play one very well. The music had a few singers, at least one tenor and a soprano, but they didn't do the beauty and the beast shtick- they actually knew how to sing, and did so with the kind of enthusiasm you find in musical theater.

The metallic aspect was an under produced electric guitar and a black metal shriek. Despite all the German, it was clear from the start that the growler was a central character in a fully worked out production, complete with a supporting cast and some central dramatic motifs. It was also brutally clear why the metal media (also responsible for killing Dimebag Darrel) didn't approve. It was actually music free of the expectations of scene and genre- Angizia were using the framework of metal to explore more difficult, more experimental terrain, and they didn't seem to give a shit about what scenesters wanted.

Composer and bandleader Michael Haas, then working under the name Engelke, was trying to do something more ambitious, and yet the music retains a strong sense of melody and cohesion, with long complex songs comprised of cascading classically phrased piano riffs, relaxed, almost jazzy metal beats, and vocal arrangements straight out of musical theater. It's a very pretty affair with a uniquely central European kind of melancholy, both sweet and bitter. Between "Die Kemenaten" and Stille Volk's debut album, which I also bought, my road trip was a strangely dramatic, entertaining, and memorable sojourn through the strip malls and outlying mountains of Socal.

I ordered the second Angizia album, "Das Tagebuch Der Hanna Anikin" (1997), as soon as it appeared, hoping they stayed the course and hadn't ventured into a quagmire of cheese ball goth-metal clichés. I was not disappointed. The album tells the story of the trials and tribulations of a nineteenth century Russian pauper, Hanna Anakin. With shorter songs and a melodramatic bent, more Rodgers & Hammerstein than German Romanticism, "Das Tagebuch" is a little silly and a lot entertaining.

Cedric Müller's piano work is heavier and more plodding, the guitars are more pronounced, the music is brassier, and the band is joined by Korvakill's Christof Niederwieser on vocals. His enthusiastic singsong voice and caustic shrieks sends the album over the top into the truly bizarre and improbable. And yet, the album is touching and tinged with an almost fragile "sad clown" weltschmerz.

In 1999, Angizia released their third album, "Das Schachbrett des Trommelbuben Zacharias." After the bombastic, somewhat excessive approach of "Das Tagebuch," the band dialed things down with a softer production and a wider spectrum of sounds. Following the exploits of an early twentieth century chess player, the album introduced violin and cello as new mainstays in the Angizia sound. Roland Bentz's violin solos are weeping, virtuosic affairs that echo Ithak Perlman's work, particularly when playing in traditional Jewish styles.

Irene Denner's voice, always beautiful and authoritative, takes on a more dark, ambivalent tone, balanced against the deep bass of Rudy Gratzl and the crazed tenor braying or Niederwieser. The album also marks the first time Angizia uses the accordion, usually in a weirdly seductive Parisian café sort of way. With its subtle approach and array of new instruments, the album is both a refinement of the sound on their earlier albums and a tentative step toward the two albums that would follow.

"39 Jahre Fur Den Leierkastenmann" (2001) was the first album Angizia released independently after parting ways with the then goth obsessed Napalm Records. The lack of distribution meant years of listening to the album on dodgy mp3s, but the music was worth the low sound quality and missing songs. The album tells the story of a traveling klezmer (secular Ashkenazi Jewish music with Yiddish lyrics- if you haven't heard it, I can recommend checking out the Klezmatics as a good starter band) consort traveling through Russia to entertain the masses in the dark years between World War I and Stalinism.

The sound is both a continuation of "Das Schachbrett" and a radical departure, introducing a strong klezmer influence, with music that is more festive and dance friendly, more appropriate for weddings and festivals than a conventional theater. The album also introduces the clarinet, one of my favorite instruments, bringing a sly playfulness to bear on the music. No longer metal in any recognizable way, Angizia still pack a certain amount of heaviness, especially on the faster songs, where rapid fire tempos and ripping solos play like metal minus the toughness.

Michael Haas's voice, mellow in the past, is much closer to the strange free ranging Sprechgesang style of Mr. Doctor, clownish and sinister, aggressively theatrical. The music's festive atmosphere and Haas's voice makes the album the most outright vaudevillian up to this point, though the band would push even further in that direction on the next album.

"Ein Toter Fahrt Gern Ringelspiel" (2004) is the most experimental Angizia album, the least reliant on earlier musical traditions and the most willing to toy with non-European forms like jazz. It's also wildly eclectic. The songs don't move forward so much as wildly careen from tempo to tempo, sound to sound, genre to genre with a "postmodern" appreciation for wild mood swings. The album is like an early twentieth century Mr. Bungle, with vaudeville, swing, klezmer, European musical theater, experimental noise, and rock music converging into a single, otherworldly sound. The approach works in the context of the album's story, a yarn about artists and performers rising from the grave in a post-WWII cemetery.

"Ein Toter Fahrt Gern Ringelspiel" abandons much of the melancholic drama of the earlier albums and what was left of the metal- though there is some vaguely metallic guitar lines ala Devil Doll. The brash experimental quality is a traumatic break from the kind of melodramatic music that had become a cliché with Angizia, but points the way towards a less compromising and somewhat bolder future, free at last from the trappings of genre and label expectation. The musicianship has gotten better with each album and the concepts more sophisticated. One really wonders what Angizia will do next. I'd like to see a short Angizia film, a small ensemble comedy set in an eccentric Austrian village between the wars, or perhaps a Milan Kundera adaptation set in Czech. One can dream.

Angizia have carved a unique niche in a small, woefully ignored corner of the metal underground. But I suppose that's just fine for Angizia, a band that has thwarted clichés from the beginning. Romantic without the pastoral nonsense, whimsical without being facetious, and eccentric without trying too hard, the band pretty much defines the uncompromising creativity of art music. Angizia can at times seem effortlessly brilliant.

James Slone