Rare is the band that truly sounds like no one else. Either standing on the shoulders of giants, or innovating their way to hundreds of copycats, few have no comparable peers, followers, or ancestors. Madder Mortem, also known as Norway’s best-kept secret, are one of those bands. With their idiosyncratic sound, an avant-garde mixture of alternative, gothic and progressive metal, and frontwoman Agnete Kirkevaag’s signature blend of ragged screams and sultry smooth croon, the band is nearing 20 years of existence, yet never gained a large audience. 2016’s excellent Red in Tooth and Claw finally started making some waves for the quintet, upon which they now hope to capitalize with Marrow, an album constructed around the central theme of inner strength.
After the more accessible RiTaC, longtime fans may have feared that the band would commercialize the uniqueness out of their sound. Those fans may breathe a sigh of relief; Marrow is darker, denser and grimier than its predecessor, a throwback to their older Deadlands sound. Its added heaviness comes from a sense of controlled chaos. The title track’s chorus crashes like an avalanche of guitars and cymbals around Agnete’s defiant wail. Sharply undulating leads from the guitar on “Liberator” and “White Snow, Red Shadows” add an urgency that sounds desperate, particularly on the latter where Agnete’s voice hurries as much as the instruments, running headlong through the unrelenting flow of the track. The unpredictable anti-religion track “My Will Be Done” showcases the brilliantly layered compositions, different textures rising and falling like unstoppable waves over a shifting foundation.
But Madder Mortem’s strongest quality has always been their emotional core, so beautifully represented by Agnete’s powerful voice. “Until You Return” is a flawless example that has her switching between a lonely gentleness with her croon that sounds like a heartbroken ’20s lounge jazz singer, screaming in confused despair during chaotic barrages, and tugging on the heartstrings during the final dramatic harmony. The song also showcases the smart production, deftly weaving focus from guitars to bass, and layering grit, static and distortion on the torrents while cleaning the more benign sections up to increase the dynamics and contrast of the compositions. Between the punchy drums, the gritty guitars and the colossal bass, the entire album sounds as impressive as it does oppressive.
If any weak spot must be gleaned from Marrow, it’s the final two tracks, of which “Stumble On” is slightly less impactful than the others, and at first glance, “Waiting to Fall” is a tad overlong and less memorable. But neither comes close to boring; “Waiting,” in particular, is the darkest and most desperate track on the album, going right for the jugular with its sledgehammer riff and throat-tearing vocal harmonies. Though its hooks are less immediate, an attentive listen reveals the raw despair, the track title underlining the prevailing feeling of standing at a cliff edge with no way back. The defiance dissipates and leaves nothing but hopelessness, a disturbing reminder that not all find inner strength in their darkest times.
Marrow seems to say misfortune is where you may find your core. Across the running time, a ray of defiant light shines like a thread, but it’s steeped in deep emotional turmoil, in loss and pain. Marrow‘s dark ending brutally, but truthfully, suggests that some people never recover from the trauma that makes others grow stronger. Despondency crashes into despair and the music washes forth through it all like a destructive tidal wave. It is fitting for Madder Mortem at this point in time. As they finally begin to see some of the recognition they deserve, they have not given in to the temptation to go the easy route. They stay true to their core, ripping their hearts from their chest and laying them bare to the world, with a dark and deeply intimate album so full of craftsmanship and passion it pours out at the edges. Marrow is unforgettable.
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Dark Essence Records
Websites: maddermortem.bandcamp.com | maddermortem.com | facebook.com/mmortem
Releases Worldwide: September 21st, 2018