Band: Madder Mortem
Label: Dark Essence Records
Release Date: 21 September 2018
Format Reviewed: Digital mp3
2018 has so far bestowed upon us a lot of exciting, accessible progressive metal, but even the most intrepid metalhead can begin to flag towards the end of the year after hearing hundreds of new albums (and forgetting most of them, blessedly). You’re convinced every spot on your year-end list is already taken. Personally, I’m still catching my breath after Oh.’s latest. I’ve been spoiled of late, and now have very little capacity left for surprise. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” man.
But Madder Mortem are a genre unto themselves, and are therefore inherently surprising and unpredictable with every release. The Norwegian five-piece have been quietly creating works of understated beauty for almost two decades now; their line-up has slowly evolved over the years but the core has remained siblings Agnete (vocals) and BP M. Kirkevaag (guitars, harsh vocals). Marrow is their seventh full-length, and treats us to their most mature sound yet – fittingly, because the theme is fidelity to one’s true self, to what lies in your bones (the marrow). It’s bathed in an autumnal glow – sonic colours that are reflected in the artwork of Thore Hansen – beginning with a childlike yet somehow eerie folk piece that’s reprised on the final track. What occurs in between is by turns harsh, grinding, dissonant, haunting, and painfully beautiful. The album is an exercise in Jungian analysis, creating a soundscape full of symbols and contrasts – fairytale and bleak reality, snow and fire, bright stars and black holes, solitude and relationship, depth and growth.
But it is catchy. Deep, personal themes don’t have to be represented by ponderous 11-minute tracks; in fact, in music as elsewhere, they can have more impact the more succinctly they’re expressed. Some might call this a ‘doomy’ record, and thematically perhaps this is so – and yes, it’s gloriously bass-heavy and the guitars are thick as treacle in places: but whereas many of the summer’s doom releases have left me feeling like I’m navigating a bog in cement shoes, the songs on Marrow are actually energising. Partly this is because you genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen next; but we’re carried through it all on the wings of Agnete’s tender yet powerful, sometimes even desperate voice (the album’s finale, ‘Waiting to Fall,’ demonstrates the sheer range). There’s even a hint of the dark cabaret – à la Aurelio Voltaire – about her performance on ‘Moonlight Over Silver White,’ and the title track – the best on the album – runs the gamut from djent to jazz noir. It seems Madder can pretty much play anything. But there’s no cold technical showoffery: it’s all heart. If you appreciated the final Usurpress* album as much as I did, I hope you’ll feel the same way about Marrow.
We must pay our dues in particular to BP M. Kirkevaag. His harsh vocals aren’t too overwhelming in the mix; instead, they sound like fists pounding against glass, providing a perfect contrast, pushing against Agnete’s controlled voice like a deep, powerful current. And when both of them go for it, they can bring the house down, as on ‘Waiting to Fall’ and ‘Far From Home,’ which are almost duet-like in places, approaching what Oceans of Slumber portrayed earlier this year with ‘No Color, No Light.’ [Actually, in writing this I’ve discovered that there is a connection between the bands – Costin Chioreanu has created videos for both.] A warning: if you’ve ever cried for a loved one with mental health problems, ‘Far From Home’ will stop you in your tracks. Agnete’s calm, slightly detached, I’m-keeping-my-shit-together-
None of this is to say this album is gloomy. There are at least three tracks I’d call energetic in the traditional sense (see rousing new single ‘Liberator’), and there are big riffs in every song to keep you more than engaged. The middle eastern-inspired groove of ‘My Will Be Done’ recalls ‘Blood on the Sand,’ the opener of their previous album, the more straightforwardly rock/alt Red in Tooth and Claw (2016). It is the one song on the album that sounds as if it would have been quite at home on RiTaC: it is classic Madder and highly enjoyable, especially the brief but kickass solo.
Thematically, the album is, for me, one of the most cohesive of the year across any of metal’s subgenres. And it is simple. The lyrics are honest and unpretentious, but at the same time are ciphered messages that dig deep into the unconscious. The arrangement is tight and concise. So don’t be fooled by the prog tag – there is no excess, no noodling; or the doom tag – no riff outstays its welcome. Even the tracks surpassing six minutes feel untrimmable, and Madder’s gift for the climactic finish means you wouldn’t want to remove any of the build-up even if you could. I’m reminded of one of the other great albums of the year, Tribulation’s Down Below: when all the frippery is stripped away, there is either good songwriting, or there is not. I’m pleased to say that Marrow invites us to enjoy the best of their career. ‘Liberator’ puts it perfectly: “We know who we are and where we belong.. the stars are ours to own.” Yes, yes they are. 10/10 Jordan
*Unfortunately, singer Stefan Pettersson lost his battle with cancer in the summer, which adds a poignance to Interregnum.
10/10 Immortal classic
**Please support the underground! It’s vital to the future of our genre