Well, what more can be said about Marduk that hasn’t already? Almost unanimously, fans of Scandinavian black metal (first-wave, second-wave, or whatever-the-fuck-wave you want) describe these Swedish legends with phrases like “trvest,” “most-consistent,” and “best vocalist in the business.” For almost three decades,1 Morgan & Co. have been pounding out black metal as—many would say—it should be: like the bloodiest battles on the fucking planet. From 1992’s debut to the present, the band has worked hard to perfect their craft. Such as getting better with each new vocalist brought aboard: from Dread (Disfear, Tormented, The Lurking Fear) to Joakim Af Gravf (ex-Dimension Zero) to Legion (ex-Witchery) to Mortuus (Funeral Mist). No matter the voice, Marduk‘s vocal department is one of the most consistent in the business. And Mortuus is the best they’ve ever had. But, that’s only the vocalist. Let’s not forget Morgan and his thirteen-album2 career as black metal riff master. Now Viktoria, their fourteenth LP, has arrived. What would you wager that this is gonna be good?
Well, it’s no surprise Viktoria is good. The question is: what type of Marduk “good” is it? For me, there’re three tiers to Mardukism. The first tier includes the nonstop black-metal bludgeoning of Marduk (Panzer Division Marduk), the second is the melodic side of Marduk (Serpent Sermon), and the last is a mix of both (Rom 5:12). Some fans like them all, while others prefer one of the three. And where does Viktoria lie in the Marduk terrace garden, you ask? That would be the tier three. But, unlike similar releases, Viktoria is simpler and subtler—relying more on conciseness and a sleek, thirty-three-minute runtime. This means that the moment the pummeling begins to repeat itself, it gives way to its more melodic side. And before any of the emotional riffage falls into navel-gazing territories, the chaos returns. To me, it’s the best of both (thrice?) worlds. And, while not the band’s absolute best record, Viktoria proves there’s no end in sight for Marduk.
From the opening seconds of “Werwolf,” it’s clear that Viktoria—thankfully—ain’t 2015’s Frontschwein. In two short minutes, “Werwolf” sets the mood and burns your cranial temple to the ground. Its in-your-face chorus (backed by Sigh-like shrieks) will ring in your ears for days. “Narva,” “Viktoria,” and “Tiger I” also use addictive vocal patterns to drive their messages home. “Narva” is like “Werwolf,” in nature, but adds its own unique flavors via sick guitar licks, slick bass leads, and a massive, melodic build. “Viktoria” goes one step further, alternating between bass-led emotion and off-the-rails aggression, letting Mortuus do what he does best: screaming like a nasty, fucking banshee. Then “Tiger I” pushes the train from the tracks. Its vicious, slow plod is like a march through a dense jungle. The vocals are Horna-esque and sky-splitting, with occasional machine gun-like spatterings that pull you deeper into the song’s trance.
“June 44,” “Silent Night,” “Equestrian Bloodlust,” and “The Devil’s Song” also lock you into a trance, but in very different ways. “Equestrian Bloodlust” is the simplest, fixing your gaze with memorable, Immortal-ish guitar play. “June 44” sticks to similar simplistic rhythms but with wild vocal diversity. For this track, Mortuus drops in everything from booming barks and exaggerating staccato shrieks to eyebrow-raising ooo’s and whooo’s. “The Devil’s Song” displays vocal variation like the backing shrieks from “Werwolf,” while laying down thick layers of Gorgorothic melody. Then “Silent Night” closes the album out like a snail in thick, atmospheric fog. Not to mention the closer houses the most-convincing and well-executed vocals on the album.
Though Viktoria continues on the path last explored by Frontschwein (and first discovered by Panzer Division Marduk), this newest outing is very different from its predecessor. Frontschwein felt bloated and textureless, while Viktoria is far from any of that. Its concise structure, its simplistic cover design, and its ability to highlight each song’s strength makes it a winner in my book. When compared to Frontschwein, Viktoria is far superior. When compared to the band’s entire catalog, it falls short of only a handful of records. It’s not their best but it’s nowhere near the worst. And, when compared to the other black metal output this year, Marduk‘s Viktoria is in the top ten of the year.