One of the hardest lines to draw, critically, is that between something being fine, and something being actively good: there are a multitude of albums that are pleasant, ones that will draw in fans of the genre and leave them feeling not-unsatisfied, but there’s an ephemeral, yet certain, difference between these records and those that actively exist as good albums. It’s an omnipresent, contextual, mostly-subjective line that every critic draws differently, and there’s little in the way of a standard that helps either audience or critic find the tipping point between fine and good.
However, even though there’s no real standard or objective measure to approach the difference between these two qualities, it’s important to register the distinction when discussing an album in a light that presents any sort of critique. Case in point: the new record from Romanian black metal group Negura Bunget sits squarely on the side of fine, with little to bring it away from what their past records have done better. Zi seems to rest entirely on preordained concepts of what a Negura Bunget record should sound like, never moving beyond the band’s past work to conjure up any new emotive reactions. It never endeavors to go down any path that the band hasn’t explored before, existing without the benefit of originality in pagan black metal that had before been the hallmark of these veterans of the scene. Put simply, Zi feels like a record from a band that has little left to say.
For the uninitiated: the band plays a style of atmospheric black metal that relies heavily on the integration of sounds and melodies from their native country of Romania, and it wouldn’t be far off to call them pagan or folk black metal, although their sound is much less Western European, in terms of the influence of Scandinavian or British/Scottish folk has on their music. To call them Eastern European folk black metal would, perhaps, be the most apt description, but its specificity is far from necessary. Suffice to say, their sound is still relatively unique within the black metal world because of their strong Slavic sound. Everything fundamental has remained here; the guitars are sharp and to the point, the thumping background of Romanian folk illustrates the scenic environments the band conjures up, and the songs are, for the most part, structured with intent. None of the tracks wander egregiously, the album doesn’t overstay its welcome when compared to the past lengths of their releases, and The problem with Zi is that it never goes beyond this point of just being what it is; there’s nothing outside of what made past albums like OM such the triumphs they were, just rehashed in a manner that shows a band that has grown too comfortable in their own skin to be bothered to branch out.
And sure, what’s presented here won’t disappoint fans of the band, nor will it really drive away old ones. Zi is fine, for all intents and purposes, and those unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of Negura Bunget’s avant-garde-ish pagan-leaning atmospheric black metal, but are looking for something within this vein to seek out will not find Zi to be the album that cements their distaste for the group. But nothing about Zi seems to require further listening or an attentive ear in the same way that the rest of their discography does, and longtime fans will find no real reason to care about this once the initial rush of “hey, new stuff!” passes.The album is undeniably fine, and those who have enjoyed the band’s past work will enjoy this (albeit to a lesser degree), but there’s no reason to return to it after one or two listens.
Zi is out September 30 through Prophecy Productions. You can purchase it here.