Insect Ark‘s debut, Portal/Well saw a warm, if not enthusiastic, welcome at AMG by our staff’s very own card-carrying Illuminati member. Such is Roquentin‘s power that the one-woman, drone-doom project didn’t blow up despite its extreme catchiness and party-ready bangers. Never one to allow the powers that be (other than myself) to dictate a band’s future, it was with great curiosity that I reached into the murky waters of the promo pond to retrieve Marrow Hymns, a sophomore effort which sees founding bassist/multi-instrumentalist Dana Schechter joined by drummer and synth-wrangler Ashley Spungin. At forty-four minutes, it’s hardly a marathon, yet the staid oddness of the whole thing proves to lengthen the listening experience. Marrow Hymns is a puzzle, a rejection of metallic idioms that enlightens nearly as much as it perplexes.
The first thing Marrow Hymns taught me: I’m a sucker for some well-utilized slide guitar. Leads on “Slow Ray” and “Sea Harps” bend and warp across the rhythmic landscape like a silted river, and their lazy topographies somehow makes the songs all the more fascinating. When these melodic abstractions drift above the steady bassline and measured drumming, the effect is mesmerizing as any good drone should be. Insect Ark regularly uses such contrasts over the course of the album, rejecting speed and precision in favor of an earthy expressiveness, and as the album progresses the duo leave behind more metallic tropes.
While A-side cuts like “Arp 9” and “Skin Walker” feel like little more than odd sludge pieces, the band hit their stride with “Sea Harps” and continue to press forward, successfully experimenting with the Boris-like “Windless” and droning “Daath.” While it’s exciting to experience an album with a sense of direction, this makes for a lopsided listening experience – in fact, my recommendation for the album would be to just skip the first four songs and start halfway through. Though the A-side of Marrow Hymns does have a clear winner in “In the Nest”, it really pales in comparison to the later material, and packaging the two together weakens the album as a whole.
Schechter and Spungin’s performances here rely heavily on timbral nuances and long-term sound development, and the more organic sound of this album (when compared to Portal/Well) works wonders. The less exciting front half sees them reigned in and in sync with each other as they amble through the plodding doom, and it’s here that their synergy is best felt. There’s a clear interplay between the murk of Schechter’s bass and Spungin’s sparse drumming in “In the Nest,” as the song’s huge swells of sound demonstrate. Yet Marrow Hymns does at times feel too safe, and the front half suffers from a formula of low risk and low reward.
Though Insect Ark have no end of ideas to share, they seem to be unsure of their footing, not knowing in what direction to set off. Marrow Hymns finds that impetus too late, and though it eventually finds lands well worth journeying through, it loses a lot of time to its too cautious beginning. It reads like a novel that kills off half of its characters in the second act and starts a new plotline with the remaining cast; perhaps an ambitious experiment, perhaps a misunderstanding of structure, but a perplexing reorientation in either case. Despite a solid second half and compelling ending, the album can’t overcome its confused exposition. That’s a shame since such wonderful drones and emotive soundscapes deserve to be heard on their own merits without the baggage of adjacent songs, but such is the nature of the album format. Perhaps the third time will be the charm.