Switzerland's Metal Scene Is Its Best-Kept Secret
From Celtic Frost and Coroner to Zeal & Ardor, Eluveitie, and Schammasch, the Swiss metal scene is chock full of intriguing, technical talent.
Photo by Orel Kichigai
Switzerland is famous for its chocolate, watches, banks, mountains, and political neutrality, but is probably not the first country you think of when it comes to heavy metal. However, a look beneath the surface reveals that Switzerland has had a profound influence on the history of metal, and continues to punch above its weight internationally. What’s more, with an explosion of exciting new bands and the reformation of several 90s and 00s giants, a new golden age of Swiss metal could be on the horizon.
According to the Encyclopedia Metallum, Switzerland has 122 metal bands per million people, a figure which, while nowhere near as high as Scandinavian countries, puts Switzerland pretty high up on the global chart. But in a country that doesn’t even have a national newspaper due to its regional linguistic differences, can we say anything meaningful about Swiss metal? There are bands to be found in every subgenre, but are there links that draw the diverse strands of Swiss metal together? The answer may be found in some of the characteristics peculiar to Switzerland.
It’s a truism to say that a country’s landscape, culture and politics shapes its art, but this absolutely applies to metal. After a number of successful Swiss rock and prog bands emerged in the 1970s like Gotthard, Krokus, Toad, Krokodil, and The Young Gods, Swiss metal really began with the legendary Celtic Frost in the 1980s. The international influence of Thomas Gabriel Fischer, who led Celtic Frost as well as their predecessor, Hellhammer, and his newest project, Triptykon, is hard to overstate. Celtic Frost’s early thrashy black metal albums gradually morphed into doom and avant-garde, and their Gothic, mesmerizing sound must surely have been inspired by living in the shadow of the majestic Alps.
This mountainous influence on Swiss metal pervades today. Folk metallers Eluveitie are one of the country’s biggest musical exports, and are inherently Swiss by definition— the word "Eluveitie" means "Switzerland" in ancient Etruscan. The band uses traditional village instruments including the hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes, and one of their most well-known songs is titled "The Call Of The Mountains." Elsewhere on the sonic spectrum, post-hardcore outfit Oregon Trail cite the bleak Jura mountains and their humility in the face of the austere Swiss landscape as major influences on their sound and lyrics.
Switzerland is also the home of precision timing. The cities are lit up with neon logos advertising the most expensive watch brands in the world, with factories dedicated to the manufacture of industrial instruments, micro-electronics, financial products, and small arms dotting the rural landscape. As a Swiss resident I can confirm that the cliché about Swiss people being punctual is true, too, with our trains running on time to the second. This commitment to precision runs deep in Swiss culture, and has made an impacts upon its musical sounds. There’s a distinctly technical, proggy feel to Swiss metal across subgenres, at the heart of which lies Coroner.
Without exception, the Swiss bands and musicians I spoke to for this article cited these Zurich progressive thrash legends as their main influence, despite Coroner receiving relatively little interest outside of Switzerland during their heyday in the late 90s. Frontman Tommy Vetterli’s pioneering guitar chromaticism can be seen in the work of later Swiss bands such as Knut, Nostromo and Erkonauts. Coroner recently reformed after a long hiatus, released their Autopsy retrospective in 2016 and performed spectacularly at French metal festival Hellfest last year. According to Steve Huber, guitarist in progressive metal band Time Grid and guitar instructor at Geneva’s School of Contemporary Music, ‘With the albums Mental Vortex and Grin, Coroner influenced me enormously, helping me to avoid the clichés of standard time signatures, to play with colors, techniques and modes."
Switzerland may be located at the heart of Europe, but it still stands somehow apart and isolated; it's not a member of the EU, and has a long-term policy of neutrality in international conflict. This detachment also extends to national character; the Swiss are generally speaking a modest people who don’t show off and play themselves down, a tendency that has affected its music industry in general. Bands that do make it are not well promoted; in French-speaking Switzerland, the free Daily Rock zine provides metal listings and reviews, but there is no national metal magazine, and surprisingly few rock/metal websites. Despite high levels of music education in Swiss schools, many musicians I have spoken to say that professional musicianship is not highly valued here, and with salaries and the cost of living so high, the opportunity cost of becoming a full-time musician is very high compared to other countries.
There are of course huge regional differences; Switzerland is divided into twenty-six cantons, with four official languages spoken (French, German, Italian and Romansh), and each town and city has its own metal character and reputation. Frederyk Rotter, guitarist/vocalist for Zatrokev and founder of Basel-based label Czar of Crickets, notices a split between the German and French parts of Switzerland, telling me, "I have the impression that more metal bands from the Romandie (French-speaking) get their roots from alternative hardcore/punk genres, while the Allemande side (German-speaking) seems a bit more ‘true’ or ‘classic’ metal. In Suisse Allemande, when we talk about a band and say they sound like they’re from the Romandie, pretty much anybody who’s street-smart knows what that means."
But Rotter does hear something in the production of Swiss metal that unites the country’s sound, and that is a certain coldness. ‘No matter if it’s the older bands—Young Gods, Celtic Frost, Fear of God, Bloodstar—or later bands like Knut, Kruger, Nostromo, Unfold, Darkspace, Bölzer, I’d say they have something bleak, cold and 'icy’ in their sound, reminiscent of the climate and landscape of the Alps."
The Basel scene in particular has witnessed an explosion of metal over the past three years. In 2015, Zatokrev became the first ever metal band to be nominated for a prestigious Swiss music award, the Basel Pop-Preis, followed by Schammasch the year after. That same year, Czar of Crickets staged the first Czar Fest, headlined by Schammasch, and in 2017 Czar Fest booked Zeal & Ardor’s first show ever, just prior to their meteoric rise. This year’s festival will be headlined by Triptykon. Says Rotter, "Last year a German newspaper asked me how Basel became a ‘metal town’, and I realized what is happening here. We have more bands, management, labels, booking agencies than ever before, with many motivated young people pushing this forward,"
I live in Geneva, home of the UN, where I am constantly told there is no longer a metal scene, that it burnt out at the end of the 90s—yet with a bit of digging, you can find a band playing on any given night (albeit to a very small audience). There are local stalwarts in every subgenre, from Impure Wilhelmina's tricky post-hardcore to bands like Cardiac, Voice of Ruin, Kess’khtak, Stortregn, Rorcal, and Nansis, and local venues quietly play host to some of the biggest names in metal; in 2017 alone, I have wandered into my regular haunt, L’Usine and found myself in the pit for Paradise Lost, Napalm Death, Cattle Decapitation, and Power Trip, amongst others.
Debbie Smee, a longterm Geneva resident and loyal metalhead, travels across the country to the big-name venues in Zurich, Pratteln, and Lausanne, and completely disagrees with the notion that Geneva has no metal. "There is absolutely a scene here, you just have to look for it," she says.
Defining a metal scene in Switzerland is as difficult as defining what it means to be Swiss. A scene is not a community or a physical space; it’s ephemeral, imagined, fluid, a nexus of clusters. And right now the Swiss metal scene is quietly (or perhaps loudly) expanding and finally receiving the international recognition it deserves. Read on to meet a few of the bands that currently represent the true inventiveness of contemporary Swiss metal.
Zeal & Ardor
Manuel Gagneux’s astoundingly original black metal project took the world by storm in 2017. His experimental debut, Devil Is Fine, which blended black metal with blues and American slave spirituals, received almost universal acclaim, and a string of hastily-arranged live dates proved that he could deliver live as well. Although he doesn’t identify his music as specifically Swiss, Gagneux grew up just outside Basel, recruited his bandmates from his home town, and has been busy recently completing his Swiss civil service. There’s no word yet on a follow-up to Devil Is Fine, but there’s a busy program of 2018 tour dates, and the metal world waits with baited breath to see what Zeal & Ardor comes up with next.
This Geneva hardcore/grindcore outfit achieved cult status in the late 90s and early 00s with albums like Eyesore (1998), Ecce Lex (2002) and the acoustic Hysteron-Proteron (2004). Impossibly brutal but with an eerie emotional depth, their unique "Meshuggah n’roll" brand of hardcore evoked the desolation of living in a city that lacks identity. Their cult status somehow never diminished despite an almost twelve-year hiatus, and they had a sudden and triumphant return to the live stage in 2017. Nostromo are currently in the studio recording new material for one of the most anticipated Swiss extreme metal albums of 2018.
Another Geneva band, Erkonauts credit Swiss giants Coroner and Samael as influences, but their prog/punk/industrial sound is completely unique and incredibly entertaining. Interestingly, Erkonauts are receiving more press internationally than locally, exemplifying the lack of metal promotion within Switzerland, but also demonstrating their huge international potential. New album I Shall Forgive received a string of positive reviews and is a perfect example of Swiss innovation.
Unsurprisingly given the Celtic Frost heritage, there are plenty of Swiss black metal groups on the avantgarde end of the spectrum (Darkspace, Bölzer, Blutmond, 3 Day of Silence). But it’s Schammasch who are making waves internationally, currently completing a European tour with Batushka. They play atmospheric, ambient black metal, and while their videos are shot in the harsh landscapes of Iceland and the Pyrenees, they inspired less by the Swiss mountains than by mythology. The name Schammasch is derived from Šamaš, the Mesopotamian god of justice, and their latest album is based on the surrealist nineteenth-century novel Les Chants de Maldoror.
Darkspace play ambient black metal inspired by cosmic mysticism and the terrifying majesty of outer space. This trio of two guitarists and a bassist from Berne (known as Wroth, Zorgh and Zhaaral) eschew song titles and interviews, but despite their mystery they have had a major influence on atmospheric black metal. Originally inspired by Samael, Darkspace have taken that cosmic element into much bleaker territory. Darkspace don’t perform live often, but in 2018, you can catch them at Netherlands Deathfest and Maryland Deathfest.
The term ‘Bölzer’ can be roughly translated as "a chaotic release of energy," an apt description for this genre-defying two-piece, which was formed in Zurich in 2008. They blend elements of black, death, and doom metal with complex riffing and a hint of psychedelia, producing a huge range of sounds. Lyrical themes are carefully thought-out references to ancient cultures, folklore and Nietsche. To date they have released three EPs and one full-length (2016's Hero), and have gained a reputation for their powerful live performances. Having just finished an Australian tour, they have a string of European dates this year.
Geneva’s Michael Schindl celebrated the twentieth anniversary of his long-term musical project Impure Wilhelmina last year. Originally labelled as post-hardcore alongside a slew of similar bands that arose during Geneva’s alternative music heyday in the late 90s, Impure Wilhelmina’s sound has morphed through a series of transitions towards something much more melodic. Schindl’s trademark desperate melancholy pervades throughout though, tugging on the heartstrings in a deeply unsettling way. With typical Swiss understatement, Impure Wilhelmina has never received the international recognition they deserve, although last year’s Radiation, their sixth album, received universally positive reviews.
These lot serve up another unique sound from Switzerland: progressive sludgy hardcore. With complex rhythms and riffs and psychedelic passages that never detract from the brutality of their live assault, Colossus Fall is highly experienced and deserved more international recognition for their 2015 album, Hidden Into Details. Their next release is currently in production.
Voice of Ruin
Thrash metal from the shores of Lake Geneva, Voice of Ruin’s sound has a distinct groove element highly reminiscent of American bands like Lamb of God and The Black Dahlia Murder. They are admired in Switzerland for their passionate live performances. Their second full-length, Purge and Purify, was released in 2017, and the band are playing a string of European festivals this year.
Hailing from the watchmaking town of La Chaux De Fonds, Coilguns are another Swiss band that have applied that precision and intricacy to their music. This is hardcore with a complexity that belies the violence and chaos, bringing in elements from sludge, grindcore, and even black metal. All the band are ex-members of German prog metal collective The Ocean, but 2018 is set to be all about Coilguns, with new album Millennials due out on March 18th and a European tour to follow.
Catherine Fearns is writing up a storm on Twitter.