The first time I heard the Norwegian oddity known as Manes, I was in grad school. That fateful day, I was grading organic chemistry exams, locked away in that windowless closet of a grading room. With hours of work ahead of me, I took the time to find some new music to ease the pain. After getting caught in the rabbit’s hole of “similar artists” and the “who-played-with-who” links of Metal Archives, I emerged with Manes. And, I figured, this oughta do. In my experience, there’re only two ways to grade exams. Hard and fast or soft and smooth.1 That particular evening,2 the soft and smooth, not-metal metal of Manes helped ensure most students would receive a passing grade. It’s been almost a decade since that night and here I sit with Manes‘ newest outing, Slow Motion Death Sequence. Along with a strange desire to grade exams…
If you’ve never heard of Manes, shame on you. Now that we have that out of the way, be sure you don’t start your journey with the band’s 1999 debut, Under ein blodraud maane. Because it’s a pile of Satan’s red-black dung? Not at all. But, like fellow countrymen Ulver, Manes took a sharp turn (and dump) on the traditional Norwegian black metal of the ’90s after a single release. The change included electronica, trip-hop, clean vocals, and atmospheric keys. The turning point of Manes‘ career, 2003’s Vilosophe, split the fanbase in half. But, at least, the record was simplistic in its delivery and song-centered. From there, the experimentation increased and the weirdness factor began to spike. It peaked on 2007’s How the World Came to an End and worked like a fucking charm. That said, even Manes‘ black metal style is good.3 Just don’t go comparing Slow Motion Death Sequence to Under ein blodraud maane.
The album of comparison to Slow Motion Death Sequence would have to be Vilosophe. It’s no sequel but the band spends less time on filling dead space with effects and feedback here than they did on How the World Came to an End and Be All End All. Slow Motion Death Sequence is a glass-smooth river disturbed only by the occasional ripple and rock protruding through its surface. The tracks that make the surface appear as a sheet of glass are “Endetidstegn,” “Last Resort,” and “Building the Ship of Theseus.” The opener is an exercise in sheer beauty, combining the best elements of Manes, Ulver, Katatonia, and Sólstafir. It has the right length and the correct amount of build to hold you close and drag you in. “Build the Ship of Theseus,” like “Endetidstegn,” is simplistic and has an upbeat attitude to keep the album moving right along. This, as with the opener, is achieved via a combination of male and female vox, as well as a simple repetition that grows with each minute. But the ultimate in ascensions and repetition has to be “Last Resort.” Beginning with innocent clean guitars, this one climbs for seven-and-a-half minutes before the distortion and layered male-female vocals blow its top off.
The ripples across the river’s surface are “Scion” and “Chemical Heritage.” These back-to-back tracks share similar moods and electronic elements, making them a touch more exploratory than the previous tracks discussed. “Chemical Heritage” keeps it simple, disclosing its Samael-like experimental side, while maintaining a moody song structure. “Scion,” like Be All End All‘s “A Safe Place in the Unsafe,” pushes even harder, wrapping a diverse song in Raunchy-like effects and a trip-hoppy vocal approach. It’ll be an eye-opener for many but it’s too addictive to ignore.
Unfortunately, there’re rocks that break the clear surface and hinder the flow. Examples are the unsettling “Poison Enough for Everyone,” which feels a bit out of place, and the moody “Ater,” which doesn’t go anywhere. That said, “Ater” ends the album in a fitting way, even if it’s not a strong piece.
Taking all this into consideration, Slow Motion Death Sequence is better than Be All End All but not quite as good as How the World Came to an End. And, while I wouldn’t call Slow Motion Death Sequence a “safe” album, it’s a focused record that’s more accessible than Manes‘ previous two discs. I’ve been looking forward to this album for so long that it’s hard to attach a score to it. But, when comparing Slow Motion Death Sequence to an album like How the World Came to an End, this new record falls a little short. That said, Manes doesn’t have a bad album and if you’ve never heard them, this ain’t a bad place to begin.