Album titles are usually a crapshoot, an afterthought, a nothing. Do you think Necro Zombie Pus Slurper spent more than ten seconds debating whether to call their latest album Dawn of the Dead Necro-Morts or Dawn of the Dead-Necro Morts? And let’s be honest, even when an album title sounds profound and supremely suitable for the music – Wood Earth Forest Reaper’s Sunset of the Ancient Nature’s Summoning Sun or whatever – does it really change your perception or experience of their neo-post-folkened-crygaze?
But then again, here comes Norway’s Madder Mortem waltzing. Trust me, please, that I’m exactly the kind of asshole who would write something like “Madder Mortem is the best band you’ve never heard of” in this space, but that’s a little rude and presumptuous, isn’t it? Maybe you do know Madder Mortem. Maybe you already love them! Why shouldn’t you? So, what if we revise the sentiment to “Madder Mortem is the best little-known band that should by all rights be universally beloved”? Not quite so snappy, but much closer to the truth. The real point of all this is that Madder Mortem’s magnificent new album bears the name Marrow, which is such a simple, perfect, magical name for this band and this album that it gives the lie to my previous dickishness about album titles.
For the uninitiated, the primary attraction of Madder Mortem is the unparalleled vocal prowess of Agnete Kirkevaag, whose voice is a thing of such power, range, and expressive depth that it would be wasted were it not given such consistently strong and texturally rich songs to play against. Compared with Madder Mortem’s 2016 album Red in Tooth and Claw, Marrow is a bit subtler. It has plenty of big hooks – towering, outrageous, impossible hooks – but they take slightly longer to unpack than Red’s buoyant immediacy. On “Liberator,” for example, the most effective hook is actually the mathy breakdown that immediately follows the chorus, where the guitars unleash a flurry of tapping backed by tambourine. Elsewhere, “White Snow, Red Shadows” ricochets around with its spitfire vocal cadence that yields to some really fabulous close harmonies before pulling way back again with a satisfyingly disgusting breakdown riff.
Stylistically, Madder Mortem’s sound is very eclectic, but they unite each disparate thread such that nothing feels cluttered or haphazard. Marrow is full of cleverly meandering songs that still hit the listener squarely in the gut with their emotional directness. This eclecticism means that Madder Mortem should be an easy sell to fans of a diverse range of bands, from Leprous and Devin Townsend to The Gathering and Anathema, and from Tool and Katatonia to Burst and The Third and the Mortal. The left and right channel guitar interplay of the first post-chorus on “Far From Home” displays the progressive spirit of a band that, like many of those peers, never needs to beat you over the head with obvious progressive signifiers. The simple, plaintive lyrics of the chorus are another affecting touch that shows Madder Mortem know how to offset the sometimes jangly, nervy approach of their music:
“You’re so far from home / And it’s tearing me apart.
I drown in the hope / That there’s shelter where you are.”
And friends, just LISTEN to the goddamned bass in the bridge after the second chorus: That is the sound of a band making exactly the right sound. Every player turns in a powerhouse performance across this miraculous album, pushing right up against but never quite to the point of overplaying. This is a band of seasoned musicians whose complete confidence in each other allows each song to unfold as a nuanced conversation between equals.
And yet, for as much as the entirety of Marrow is a richly composed album that reveals new facets with each listen, Madder Mortem is also a band that excels at “holy shit” moments. These aren’t cheap and easy crescendos, either, but truly and honestly shocking moments of power and surprise and beauty. They make sense once you’ve plotted their outlines, but they never quite lose their ability to startle. Slide guitar adds a very nice touch to “Stumble On,” which marries a nakedly uplifting chorus to a nearly trance-inducing conclusion that registers as one of the heaviest moments of the album. The walking bass line gives “Until You Return” (which opens sounding like an alternate-universe Radiohead tune) a wonderful swagger as it gathers steam.
Marrow has perhaps the widest dynamic range of any of Madder Mortem’s albums. “My Will Be Done” is the heaviest, most aggro song of the album, but the downtuned chugging is easily offset by other interesting songwriting touches, as well as by how the song is smartly situated between two of the slowest, most thoughtful pieces of the album (“Until You Return” and the searching ballad “Far From Home”). Album closer “Waiting to Fall” is the most overtly doomy song, even flirting with some touches of Neurosis, while the deftly precise drumming on the verse of “Moonlight Over Silver White” effectively highlights the contrast between the band’s ability to summon those nimble, watery tones and the unrelenting forward drive of the chorus and the immense crush of the post-chorus. The album’s fifty-three minutes fly by in what seems like much less, as each song looks straight into your eyes because it wants to say, “Look at what we can learn together.”
Marrow is a pitch-perfect title for this album because Madder Mortem’s music radiates an inner strength, an essential truth robed in a deceptively unassuming nature. They cut away the unimportant, the ancillary, the distracting, and leave behind a flame-burnished core. If you accept their open invitation and let Madder Mortem get their hooks in you, it’s almost impossible to avoid getting swept up in the bold, confident, and yet somehow restrained drama of these songs. The song “Pitfalls” from Madder Mortem’s previous album contained this simple gem of a lyric:
“I may be frail of heart /
But I’m strong of will.”
Marrow is full of music to fortify your aching bones, even when you feel most frail and vulnerable. That’s the power of great art: it sees your true self and speaks plainly about what it cannot fix, but it can also walk alongside you and steady you to face the world with all the strength of will you can muster. It’s there, inside you – the marrow.
You are stronger than you think.
What a great review! It sucks me into wanting to fully explore this album and find the treasure hidden in its nooks and crannies.
Thank you for this wonderful review of this wonderful album. You managed to put into words almost exactly so much of what I feel when I listen to Marrow.
If heaviness is measured holistically, I think is is heaviest piece of music I’ve heard all year. It’s not all depressing or dreary or angry…some of it is actually quite uplifting…but it’s always got your heart in it’s hand, tugging them strings in one direction or another, which makes it an emotionally draining listen. Yet at the end, I can’t stop from hitting ‘Play’ and doing it all over again…maybe because the music is just so darn good and the band always sounds like they’re having so much fun playing together, even when things get doomy ‘n gloomy.
In Agnette, Madder Mortem benefits from having not only one of the finest vocalists in music today, but also one of the finest lyricists, which makes for a perfect storm of beautiful, raw, emotional expression. And well…there’s very little I can add. What a great review, very worthy of the music. Congratulations, man.
Thanks very much for reading. And yeah, I agree that Agnete’s lyrics are consistently excellent, which is yet another reason why the band’s relatively lesser-known status (at least here in the States) is such a bummer.
I think they were on the cusp with Eight Ways. That one received significantly more media coverage and label promotion than anything before or after it. I am madderly in love with the band and didn’t even know this one was coming out until it already was, thanks to tripping over a review somewhere. The too many years between Eight Ways and Red In Tooth and Claw killed their commercial momentum. Fortunately, the same cannot be said for their creative momentum, which has only seemed to pick up steam throughout their career.
But yeah, in a purely meritocratic musical world, these guys ‘n gal would have a similarly large crossover demographic as peers such as Opeth and Mastodon, et al.