Artist: Madder Mortem
Album Title: Marrow
Label: Dark Essence Records
Date of Release: 21 September 2018
If all music was simple, straightforward and easily digestible, it’d get very boring very quickly. There is a time and a place for music that requires no real investment of thought or effort from the listener and I’m a fan of that kind of thing when my mood dictates. However, I also like to be challenged and made to work hard by the music that I listen to. Quite often, it is the album that initially sounds too complicated, inaccessible or lacking in immediacy that will ultimately make the biggest impact if the requisite effort is made to get under the skin of the record.
Take Katatonia as my finest example. When I first heard ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’, I hated it. But over time, I persevered and now it enjoys a place at my top table. The same could be said for Meshuggah, Pain of Salvation and a plethora of others too numerous to quote here.
Instead, I wish to turn my attention to ‘Marrow’, the seventh album from Madder Mortem, a Norwegian quintet that have spent more than 20 years challenging themselves and listeners with new ideas and influences, whilst at the same time cleverly carving out a unique but identifiable core identity. Madder Mortem are certainly one of those bands that deserve the ‘unique’ tag as no-one sounds quite like them. On second thoughts, no-one sounds even remotely similar to Madder Mortem. And it is because of this that I like the band so much.
So, when I received a direct message from vocalist Agnete M. Kirkevaag, offering me the opportunity to get an advance listen of their latest baby, ‘Marrow’, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity. Even though I’m drowning in new releases as the post-summer festival glut of new albums starts to take full effect, I had to give ‘Marrow’ my full attention. I’m glad I did too.
According to the press release that accompanies ‘Marrow’, this record is “…about sticking to the essence of yourself. Your ideas, your thoughts, your values. To stay true to your roots – your Marrow.” It is a subject matter that resonates strongly with me and only serves to underline what I was referring to about Madder Mortem being a unique band and not conforming to any genre ‘norms’. They do what they want, producing music that they believe in.
Until this point, if you were to place a gun to my head, I’d reveal ‘Eight Ways’ as possibly my favourite record to date. However, having spent significant time with ‘Marrow’, I may be tempted to change that answer. With Madder Mortem, it is wise to never make a snap decision, so time will ultimately tell. But as I sit here now, ‘Marrow’ is in with a shot at the title.
As with every previous release, it is difficult to accurately describe the Norwegian’s music into a pithy soundbite because it is just too multi-faceted and varied for that. Sound like a cop-out? Just take a listen and judge for yourself. Suffice to say that there are very few stones left unturned across the 11 tracks that comprise ‘Marrow’. Everything from progressive rock to Scandinavian-inspired folk, and from avant-garde to doom metal gets an airing. The textures, tones, emotions and atmospheres can vary greatly, often within individual songs. And yet, the final product manages to remain cohesive and never disjointed. Equally, I find the music to be fresh-sounding, remaining modern and relevant in today’s metal world.
The opening instrumental, ‘Untethered’, is typical Madder Mortem – equal parts beautiful and unsettling. The acoustic guitar is simple, rich and inviting, reprised in the much shorter closing twin-track, ‘Tethered’. But as the short opening piece develops, eerie and haunting sounds rise up around the guitar to smother it in a dystopian, almost malevolent cloak. I’m listening…
The driving bass of Tormod Langøien Moseng and drums of Mads Solås create an intro to ‘Liberator’ with genuine energetic intent, something that is further built upon by urgent-sounding, jangly guitars of BP M. Kirkevaag and Rickard Wikstrand. Agnete’s clean and crystal-clear vocals are next to arrive before being joined by some deep, resonant and heavy guitars to juxtapose their lighter approach elsewhere. The stomp of the guitars alongside a commanding rhythm section is infectious, as are the quiet choral-style vocals that sit below Agnete’s commanding delivery. In addition, the melodies within this bold song are surprisingly catchy some of the most immediate in recent years.
‘Moonlight Over Silver White’ sees a continuation of those chunky, stomping and lurching guitars but not before a quiet intro sets something of a creepy, twisted nursery-rhyme-like tone. There is a greater sense of contrast here, as the choruses are much more restrained affairs to counteract the power of the choruses, whilst the song joyfully veers into more avant-garde territory on occasion. And yet for all its quirks, it’s a composition dominated by some strong melodies that get stronger the more one listens.
The initial honesty and simplicity of ‘Until You Return’, led by some of the softest and most angelic singing I’ve heard from Agnete, is temporarily unseated by the bang and crash of Madder Mortem on all-out attack mode, a clamour that borders on the barely-contained, threatening to spiral out of control at any moment. But the masterstroke is the way in which the understated and delicate melody is built upon in the latter stages and replicated in a heavier guise. This track serves as a perfect metaphor for the Madder Mortem school of music, where no matter how melodic and ‘pretty’ the music gets, you’re never fully relaxed, always waiting for the chaos to descend as inevitably, the Norwegians like to toy with the listener, test and confuse them. ‘Marrow’ is certainly no different.
Even the more whimsical, folk-imbued and acoustic-led ‘Stumble On’ cannot help but build through its lifespan to something more commanding and powerful. It doesn’t quite descend into the dark recesses of some of its peers but nonetheless, I love the strength of the composition, especially the multi-layered and striking closing third which shows a bucketload of intensity and drive.
Elsewhere on ‘Marrow’, My Will Be Done’ has the sheen of groovy death metal at points, whilst others it offers passing resemblance to an industrial metal track, complete with rasping male vocals spitting venom all over one of the most abrasive cuts on this album. Then there’s the nine-minute monster that’s ‘Waiting To Fall’. Heavy, plodding doom metal riffs and screamed, gruff vocals are expertly juxtaposed with sensitive, minimalist atmospheres where Agnete’s voice sounds brittle and poignant.
The bass of Tormod Langøien Moseng comes to life many times on this record, never more so than on ‘Far From Home’, a song that is nestled at the heart of this record and which leads me to wonder if perhaps, despite some of the overt heaviness and experimentation at play, we are witnessing the most accessible Madder Mortem release of their career to date. As wild and unruly as the music gets, such as the opening bars of the title track, we are never far from a melody that manages to break through the oppressiveness to offer more than a mere chink of light.
Speaking of oppressiveness, there’s a strong argument to return to the title track. Even though it dallies with some subtle, minimalist avant-garde soundscapes, it remains a challenging listen thanks to the range of tones and almost overbearing textures that it explores, not to mention the downright odd nature of some parts.
I could go on but instead I’ll draw the review to a close by reiterating my gut feeling that ‘Marrow’ might just be my favourite Madder Mortem yet. Despite the generous proportions of this record, I get to the end and invariably feel the need to go back and enjoy it all over again, invariably discovering something new that I’d conspired to miss the last time. In that sense, ‘Marrow’ just gets better and better. If only more bands were as unique and inspiring as Madder Mortem…
The Score of Much Metal: 9.25
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you can check out my others from 2018 and from previous years right here:
A Dying Planet – Facing The Incurable
Árstíðir – Nivalis
Mob Rules – Beast Reborn
The Spirit – Sounds From The Vortex
Aethereus – Absentia
Unanimated – Annihilation
Manticora – To Kill To Live To Kill
Rivers of Nihil – Where Owls Know My Name
Halcyon Way – Bloody But Unbowed
Michael Romeo – War Of The Worlds, Part 1
Redemption – Long Night’s Journey Into Day
Distorted Harmony – A Way Out
Tomorrow’s Eve – Mirror of Creation III – Project Ikaros
Atrocity – Okkult II
Lux Terminus – The Courage To Be
Kataklysm – Meditations
Marduk – Viktoria
Midas Fall – Evaporate
The Sea Within – The Sea Within
Haken – L-1VE
Follow The Cipher – Follow The Cipher
Spock’s Beard – Noise Floor
Ihsahn – Amr
The Fierce And The Dead – The Euphoric
Millennial Reign – The Great Divide
Subsignal – La Muerta
At The Gates – To Drink From The Night Itself
Dimmu Borgir – Eonian
Hekz – Invicta
Widow’s Peak – Graceless EP
Ivar Bjørnson and Einar Selvik – Hugsjá
Frequency Drift – Letters to Maro
Æpoch – Awakening Inception
Crematory – Oblivion
Wallachia – Monumental Heresy
Skeletal Remains – Devouring Mortality
MØL – Jord
Aesthesys – Achromata
Kamelot – The Shadow Theory
Barren Earth – A Complex of Cages
Memoriam – The Silent Vigil
Kino – Radio Voltaire
Borealis – The Offering
W.E.T. – Earthrage
Auri – Auri
Purest of Pain – Solipsis
Susperia – The Lyricist
Structural Disorder – …And The Cage Crumbles In the Final Scene
Necrophobic – Mark of the Necrogram
Divine Realm – Nordicity
Oceans of Slumber – The Banished Heart
Poem – Unique
Gleb Kolyadin – Gleb Kolyadin
Apathy Noir – Black Soil
Deathwhite – For A Black Tomorrow
Conjurer – Mire
Jukub Zytecki – Feather Bed/Ladder Head
Lione/Conti – Lione/Conti
Usurpress – Interregnum
Kælling – Lacuna
Vinide – Reveal
Armored Dawn – Barbarians In Black
Long Distance Calling – Boundless
In Vain – Currents
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets And Dead Messiahs
Tribulation – Down Below
Machine Head – Catharsis
Bjorn Riis – Coming Home EP
Twilight’s Embrace – Penance EP
Bloodshot Dawn – Reanimation
Rise of Avernus – Eigengrau
Arch Echo – Arch Echo
Asenblut – Legenden
Bleeding Gods – Dodekathlon
Watain – Trident Wolf Eclipse