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 release—I’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.
FAVORITE TRACK: “Until You Return”
RELEASE DATE: 9/21/18
FOR FANS OF: The Gathering, Opeth