I was going to begin this review by referring to Madder Mortem as one of Norway’s best kept secrets, but I had no idea if that were true. It’s hard to judge how well-known a metal band is outside of one’s own group of heavy metal compadres, which is probably why I’m so often surprised by the billing of certain acts at certain German festivals (Feuerschwanz, anyone?). Therefore, I had a quick gander at Google Trends collected some hard data so that I could cherry pick a result that fit my prior assumptions back up my assertion about the Madders‘ relative obscurity. Lo and behold, Madder Mortem‘s search popularity was lower than every band I thought to compare them against. They’ve been searched-for at a consistently similar rate to Mörk Gryning for the past few years, and Mörk Gryning haven’t even existed since 20051. This trend is puzzling, because the Madders‘ music is magical, but a patchy release schedule may be partly to blame: their last output, EP Where Dream and Day Collide, appeared way back in 2010. However, early evidence indicates that Red in Tooth and Claw may just be the album to lift Madder Mortem out of obscurity, with the Google Trendometer showing a significant spike of interest over the past month.
I hope this trend continues, because this record’s a peach. Ever since dramatically shifting gears for their second album All Flesh Is Grass, Agnete and co. have produced some of the most original, diverse, and well-written progressive metal in the business, and Red in Tooth and Claw is no exception. Madder Mortem‘s style is not easy to describe succinctly; switching effortlessly from crushing grooves to uncomfortable dissonance to quiet contemplation or soaring beauty, they are experts at manipulating your emotions with their skillful song-craft. The one-two punch of “Blood on the Sand” and “If I Could” that open the record showcase the Madders at their emotive peak, with off-kilter timing and uncomfortable harmonies building towards dramatic releases of tension. Though each runs for over five minutes, the shimmering guitars and arpeggiated bass-lines create a continuous sense of motion meaning that neither seems too long.
The remaining tracks are equally powerful. Each is gifted with a distinctive personality, from the danceable groove of “Fallow Season” to the heavy, creeping riffs and Devin Townsend-isms of “Pitfalls” and “Stone for Eyes” to the subtle bossa nova rhythm in “Returning to the End of the Free World” to the dreamy lullaby that is “The Whole Where Your Heart Belongs.” This breadth of ideas could easily lead to a garbled mess, but Madder Mortem consistently fashion them into well-crafted songs. Their distinctive riffing style is a factor here, as is Agnete Kirkevaag’s incredible voice. Agnete is one of the most underrated singers in metal: she has fantastic power, tone and range, and her delivery is always spot on. Her vocal lines are invariably inventive, whether she’s soaring over the heavy, angular riffage of “Parasites” or soothing you to sleep in “The Whole Where Your Heart Belongs.”
Madder Mortem have always benefited from great production quality, and Red in Tooth and Claw is no exception. Everything is crisp and clear, with the excellent basswork in particular allowed room to shine through. The guitar sound is the thickest they have achieved for a long time, adding weight to the heavy sections but reigning in some of the raw aggression I loved on prior records. Thanks are due to the mastering engineer for not brickwalling this; still, an even wider dynamic range would have given some of the longer builds and transitions an even greater impact. My only other minor quibble is the lack of progression from previous releases. Though they’ve honed their writing over time, their style has remained relatively static since 2002’s Deadlands. Their music is so varied and their songs so good that this is barely an issue compared to most other bands, but despite loving this album, it never really surprised me. I want surprises from my prog.
Red in Tooth and Claw is a fantastic return after their six year pause. Those in the know will already have snapped this baby up, but if you are new to the band, it should go straight to the top of your shopping list. Madder Mortem have the potential to appeal to fans of anyone from Muse to Meshuggah, and if there is any justice in the world, Red in Tooth and Claw will see them take their rightful seat at the table of prog-metal royalty.