Occasionally, I’m turned on to a truly unique act that I somehow missed, despite that act having a long and productive career. Such is the nature of progressive music—full of surprises, sometimes delivered as a sheer consequence of obscurity. The Norwegian group Madder Mortem is one of these bands. As I’ve only just now heard their music—on this, their seventh full-length releaseI’ll approach this review as objectively as I can, completely ignorant of their earlier catalog.

That being said, Marrow is an album that challenges definition, flirting with a multitude of sub-genres, including gothic, folk, psychedelic, doom, and sludge metal. Each track contains unexpected, but successful transitions. Though the music constantly makes unexpected turns, its identity remains firmly anchored to the vocals. We are treated to beautiful and impassioned clean vocals, care of frontwoman Agnete M. Kirkevaag, juxtaposed against the fiery harsh vocals of her brother, BP.  The melodies are often laid atop a heavily distorted foundation of low guitar tones. The lyrics are poetic and well-conceived—ranging from themes of frailty and hopelessness, to secular anthems and romantic ideals. Marrow is the best kind of disorienting, like a witty, eccentric new acquaintance whom constantly catches you off guard until you become close through mere exposure.

Upon my first listen, I struggled to even attach a genre to Marrow. The opening track, “Untethered,” is a simple acoustic interlude with subtle synth tones. It’s pretty, and almost folksy. Could this be a Norwegian folk metal band? No. Track two, “Liberator,” transitions into a thumpy bass part and an up-tempo, almost punk, drum beat. Then at 40 seconds in, the tempo drops, and the vocal harmonies come in. I’m reminded most of Enslaved, here. Progressive, melodic black metal? At this point, I learned to let the music morph as it wishes and relieve myself of expectation—an apt choice.

The following track, “Moonlight Over Silver White,” is largely a gothic metal track. The clean vocals are pulled back here—subdued and vacant. I’m reminded of music from The Gathering or Katatonia. But as you settle in, BP’s screams and the lumbering guitar riffs wrench you from any complacency.

If “Moonlight Over Silver White” doesn’t remind you of The Gathering, “Until you Return” should. This is easily the prettiest track on the album, but still gets riled up whether you are ready for it or not. It’s largely a romantic song about devotion and commitment from a distance, a theme rarely explored in extreme metal, but done in a compelling way.

“My Will be Done,” by contrast, is the most “metal” track on the album. This one comes with a healthy dose of screams, thumping riffs and a whole lot of distortion. As innocent as the themes of “Moonlight Over Silver White” are, this song is a complete and blatant rebuke of religiosity—in true Norwegian tradition.

The title track, “Marrow,” again is hard to pin down. Parts doom, parts gothic, with proggy verses and tortured vocals. This one is full of passion—epic vocal harmonies and dense guitar chords.

The tempo is completely upended on “White Snow, Red Shadows,” a track with nearly 400 words in about four minutes. By comparison, “Marrow” has 231 words in over six minutes. “White Snow, Red Shadows” is largely a canvas for frantic poetry—delivered quite well, I should add. The urgency of the lyrics lends the track a unique feel on the album, and there are some pretty groovy riffs in there as well.

“Waiting to Fall” is a lumbering, sludgy track that reminds me of Opeth’s “Sorceress” at times—but like all of Marrow, it only reminds me of anything at times. This song is heavy in guitar tone, but even more so in subject matter. It’s heart-wrenching. “Each fragile grain of joy will fail. What’s left is weak and small and pale.” The lyrics are well crafted, and brutal. This track, appropriately, has some of the most tortured vocals, as well, displaying the upper range of Agnete’s voice, along with some pretty great harmonies.

In case you suspected the album would switch to a hopeful tone to finish, you would be incorrect. The last track is a mere 30 second poem with a strummed acoustic guitar accompaniment. “All the little singing birds, tethered to a tree. Never to take flight again—never to be free.” Enough said.

Though the lyrics are mostly heavy in tone, there are a couple surprising love songs in the mix. So too is the music—undoubtedly heavy, but full of unexpected yet seamless transitions. Marrow is like no other album I’ve heard, and I appreciate its nuances greater with each listen. Madder Mortem have tapped into something raw and genuine with both the lyrics and melodies on Marrow. Though I’m late to the game, this album is a nice surprise, and I’ll have to work back through the catalog to find out how this band has progressed through the 25 years they’ve been making music without me having noticed.

 

RATING: 9/10

HEAVINESS: 6/10

FAVORITE TRACK: “Until You Return”

RELEASE DATE: 9/21/18

FOR FANS OF: The Gathering, Opeth

Not only did 2018 bring us the genesis of The Progress Report itself, but also myriad excellent new albums to bring into our listening rotation. We saw some new looks for some old favorites, and much maturation even amongst acts that have been around for more than a decade. Thankfully, there are still new avenues to explore in this, the most dynamic genre of music. With that in mind, let’s take a moment to reminisce about this year’s greatest offerings with my top five albums of 2018.

5. BETWEEN THE BURIED AND ME – Automata

For simplicity sake, let’s count these two releases as what it is, one double album. Neither half feels complete without the other, but the whole package is nothing but consistently entertaining prog. This is my favorite BTBAM material since Parallax, full of all the goofiness, intensity, and beauty that makes the band great.

4. HAKEN – Vector

This was the surprise album of the year, for me. Haken is more of a traditional prog metal band than I usually prefer, with elements reminiscent of bands like Rush and Dream Theater, but this newest release feels more modern and polished. There are still a lot of long, self-indulgent passages on the album, but everything works. “Puzzle Box” is still a contender for favorite track of the year.

3. SLUGDGE – Esoteric Malacology

Pure slimy entertainment. You can’t bugdge this one from my top 5. Slugdge bring a lot more death metal to the table than the rest of the bands featured on this list, and it always feels a step above. The lyrics are delightful in their epicness and the riffing follows suit. This band strikes the perfect balance of excellent, technical music and comedy, purposefully taking the themes of giant, omnipotent slug overlords completely seriously and never breaking character. “Crop Killer” is one of the best death metal tracks I’ve ever heard.

2. RIVERS OF NIHIL – Where Owls Know My Name

This album speaks directly to me as a fan of progressive music. Admittedly, it’s less technical than RoN’s previous releases, and that’s okay by me so long as they elevate the other elements, which they have, beyond my expectations. I’m glued to every moment of this album. The riffs are engaging, and I love the use of jazzy horns and dense layers to bring us new, evocative, yet oddly familiar sounds. WOKMN wins the award for most spins this year.

1. THE OCEAN (COLLECTIVE) – Phanerezoic I: Palaeozoic

With much less time to process it, I hesitated to catapult this one all the way to the top spot, but it’s just so damn inspired. I think it’s the best work of The Ocean’s catalog, which is saying something. This concept album has an undeniable story arch that begs to be heard from start to finish. “Permian: The Great Dying” remains the only track to give me goosebumps over multiple listens, and on that alone, this album deserves the top spot. It won’t be for everyone, but it will be special for those whom it speaks to—and this is just part one of two. Time will tell if the second half takes the title for 2020. Can’t wait.

That’s it for 2018. It was a god-awful year in general, but hey, at least we got some decent tunes out of the deal. Let me know what I missed, and where I’m wrong. Here’s to better things from 2019. May all your listening dreams come true, and happy new year!

If The Magic School Bus was a German progressive death metal band, it would be The Ocean (or The Ocean Collective). Of all the ways one might be exposed to the geological periods of the Earth, the music of The Ocean is by far the most brutal, dramatic, beautiful, and entertaining. Phanerozoic I: Palaeozoic picks up where 2007’s Precambrian left off, continuing the epic chronological accord of the Earth’s geologic past in stunning fashion. Where Precambrian succeeds, Phanerozoic exceeds, surpassing all greatness already established by these titans of the genre, with this, the first of a two album package. We are treated to flawless and enthralling narrative structures, ever dynamic and dramatic passages that constantly excite and carry the listener along, aided by a diverse range of vocals and instrumentation that evolve yet remain rooted to the concept.

Do yourself a favor. Go back and spin The Ocean’s Precambrian, and then immediately throw down Phanerozoic. I recently wrote a piece on my favorite call-back moments in prog metal, and I think track one of Phanerozoic, “The Cambrian Explosion” might be the new reigning champ. Disc two of Precambrian opens with a simple, repeating, four descending note melody. The rhythm pops up again in the album’s concluding track,Cryogenian.” So of course, track one of Phanerozoic, appropriately entitled “The Cambrian Explosion,” opens with this familiar theme. Not only is this a delightful wink and nod to established fans, it’s a damn fine opening to the album.

In true prog fashion, “The Cambrian Explosion” is a two minute, slow-building introduction that hits it’s climax as the track transitions into “Cambrian II: Eternal Recurrence.” The two tracks combined succeed in setting the stage for the album. They are heavy, lumbering, with trading off clean and harsh vocals, and dense, layered guitar chords. The lyrics seek to highlight the insignificance of your life amidst the vastness of the Earth’s evolution, successfully keeping your arrogant ass in check. After a quiet interlude, the theme is reestablished in a chilling transition at 6:30, beautifully book-ending an excellent start to the album.

Thanks to the next track, “Ordovicium: The Glaciation of Gondwana,” I now know what the glaciation of Gondwana was. See, learning already. This track displays Loïc Rossetti’s most tortured harsh vocals, from the perspective of a person living through the breaking up of the super-continent Gondwana and the cryptic, desperate personal conflict that arises. It’s a fine track, but the least memorable of the album.

With perhaps the most metal title ever, “Silurian: Age of Sea Scorpions” is an emotional whiplash. This song carries some of the most poignant and devastating moments of the album, often transitioning in unexpected ways. The use of violin and piano are especially effective. The transition at 5:10 is a brilliant touch, and the melodic interlude that follows is the prettiest passage of the album. The airy, harmonized vocals floating atop cascading piano notes evokes visions of long-extinct exotic sea creatures, settling into eternity on the ocean floor, trapped beneath endless ice.

Beautifully tragic tone now established, the voice of Jonas Renske of Katatonia is all too fitting for “Devonian: Nascent.” Now, I was anticipating this album from its announcement, and I’m on the record as picking Renske as my favorite clean vocalist in all of metal, so needless to say, this track was destined to please. Having digested it for some time, the song merely meets expectations. To be clear, I think it’s great, but my expectations were very high, and I would have preferred more interplay between Renske and Rossetti, especially later in the track. Overall, it makes for a fine second single.

The first single, “Permian: the Great Dying” expertly finishes the album, following the brisk instrumental, “The Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse.” “Permian” is a complex song that constantly builds on itself throughout its roughly nine and a half minutes. The interplay between exposed vocal passages and then stacks of harmonized vocals backed by heavily distorted guitars and strings gives the track its power. Although the beat is relatively simple, the vocal lines often feel extended beyond expectations and bring a lot of surprising flourish. The melody of the word “alive” at the nine minute mark gives me chills every time. I can envision no better way to end the album, and the geologic time period than with “the great dying.” I just feel blessed that my prehistoric ancestors were part of the five percent that survived it so I can hear this song today.

Sadly, The Ocean are not for everyone, but they should be. This is one of those albums I lament how few people will hear and appreciate, because it’s genius. Phanerozoic is the conclusion The Ocean of 2007 was destined to reach. It’s mature, with a polished, consistent sound throughout. The lyrics are provocative, somehow tying the drama of massive transitions in geologic time to the dramas of the human experience, millions of years removed. The vocals are impassioned, intense and beautiful. There are surprising details strewn throughout, and the instrumentation is deftly tailored to each passage. Phanerozoic is easily my favorite The Ocean release, and perhaps the best thing about it is there’s a second part due to be released in 2020. Here’s hoping part two lives up to the promises part one makes.

 

RATING: 10/10

HEAVINESS: 7/10

FAVORITE TRACK: “Permian: the Great Dying”

RELEASE DATE: 11/2/18

FOR FANS OF: Between the Buried and Me, Ne Obliviscaris

From the ever intriguing minds of Haken comes Vector, the British band’s fifth studio album. Clocking in at around 45 minutes, Vector is Haken’s shortest yet most dynamic full-length release to date. This succinct collection of seven songs takes the listener on a psychological roller coaster, focusing on themes of the mind from the perspectives of both the mentally wounded and their apparent psychoanalysts. Musically, Vector successfully delivers myriad tones ranging from an orchestral introduction, to catchy pop, punchy metal, and subdued melancholic passages. (more…)

Immersion, the latest from Belarus’ Irreversible Mechanism, has all the ingredients of a masterpiece without the refining touch of a true master. This album feels as though Irreversible Mechanism found the recipe for a Fallujah album in an issue of Martha Stewart Living and just went for it. All the ingredients are thrown in, from the ambient interludes to the technical guitars and tortured screams, but the doses aren’t properly measured, and the flavors aren’t adequately blended, unfortunately. (more…)

You may not have heard of MESTIS, but you may have heard the guitar stylings of Javier Reyes, the other guitarist alongside Tosin Abasi in the instrumental prog metal band Animals as Leaders. MESTIS is the side project of Reyes, and Eikasia is the second album under that moniker released through Sumerian Records, and it also features Eric Moore on drums. If you are looking for a companion to the heavier Animals as Leaders releases, you’ve come to the wrong place. Eikasia is a melding of instrumental jazz, relaxed atmospheric tones, classical guitar and a touch of proggy djent, in the same vein as Reyes’ previous release, Polysemy from 2015. Reyes delivers clean, groovy guitar with a couple muted surprises. My beef with this album is not in the talent of the artist, but is the same as it is with many instrumental prog acts. Eikasia is pleasant, but lacks the dynamics necessary to give the music any weight or to make it truly engaging. (more…)

One of the most interesting aspects of progressive music is how artists choose to deliver both message and melody. I often wonder how some of my favorite artists decide to marry certain verbiage to certain note progressions. Did they fall in love with a lyric and work to find a way to deliver it within a preexisting melody? Was that melody picked to emphasize the lyric, or perhaps the other way around? For whatever reason, some of the most interesting lyrical moments occur when a string of notes are delivered within the confines of a single word, syllables be damned. With that in mind, here are 5 of my favorite one-word melodies. (more…)

Although one can often find profound or illuminating ideas within the lyrics of progressive metal songs, occasionally one will encounter two opposing philosophies that cannot coexist. Not all of our favorite song writers have the same perspective on every issue, and some ideas are simply mutually exclusive.

I recently noticed such incompatible truth claims with the advent of Rivers of Nihil’s Where Owls Know My Name. In 2001, Devin Townsend made a declarative statement in the lyrics of the track “Canada” off the album Terria, the opening lines of which clearly state “The road; it’s home.” Now, in an apparent direct refutation of this sentiment, RoN state “you can never call this a home,” “this” seemingly referring to “the road” for a traveling musician. As these are both respected artists within the community, it behooves me to analyse and conclude on which writer is correct. (more…)

A few weeks ago, I reviewed IV by Grayceon. Now, we have another project made up of former members from Giant Squid, and in this case, Agalloch as well. Indie band Khôrada have come out with their debut album, Salt, and it’s a lot to chew. This is a band that’s difficult to categorize. They’ve been able to cultivate a unique sound, somewhere amidst post-rock, sludge, and black metal. Like the twisted, abstract face adorning its cover-art, Salt is perhaps summed up best in one word—tortured. It is in all ways somber, but often animated, captivating, and evocative. (more…)

Hopefully you like songs describing the collapse of the universe in the most convoluted way possible, because Obscura have given you ten more of them. Diluvium is the fifth release from this German, progressive technical death band and the final in a series of related concept albums. The concept of Diluvium is almost too all-encompassing, as nearly all the songs are similar both lyrically and in their instrumentation. Minor shortcomings aside, Obscura once again display nearly unmatched technical skills, effortlessly blending intimidating guitarwork with entrancing melodics, making Diluvium one of their strongest releases to date. (more…)