Swedish kängpunks Martyrdöd have always sounded iron-willed and up for a fight. No more so than on their new album, Hexhammaren. With a who’s who lineup of Scandi punk / metal heavyweights, Martyrdöd have spent the past 18 years affixing Bathory-inspired melodies to stampeding crust and d-beat. Groups like Discharge, Anticimex, and Totalitär have all played significant roles in Martyrdöd’s theater of noise, and you can’t dismiss death metal’s influential script notes either.
Of course, compliments from on-trend writers with only a surface knowledge of crust’s depths does result in misrepresentative glitches (which is why, I guess, I saw Martyrdöd’s music recently referred to as sludge on a snazzy metal website). That’s fine, by the way—we all discover different things about different music at different points in time. But it’s interesting to note that at the point metal bloggers began to ejaculate oceans of hype about Martyrdöd, some punk fans began to find fault with the band.
In fact, there’s a certain sect of dog-on-a-string dumpster-divers who’ll tell you that Martyrdöd’s best work is found on their first few albums. They’ll tell you that the band’s fourth album, 2012’s Paranoia, is where Martyrdöd ceased to be bona fide kängpunk kings. And there are two reasons for that.
Firstly, Paranoia is where Martyrdöd fully embraced more melodic pursuits—albeit still within a fucking frenzied framework. Secondly, Paranoia is also where Martyrdöd committed the unforgivable sins of (a) exhibiting a serious level of professionalism, and (b) revealing their ambitions by becoming beefed-up, stadium crust Southern Lord signees.
Obviously, it’s not uncommon for crust bands to encounter push-back when they find broader acceptance among a wider audience. But sour grapes about Martyrdöd’s aspirations seem a little misguided, considering the band’s been constantly refining their creative trajectory since day one. All that hard work came to fruition on the band’s fifth album, 2014’s Eldopp, which saw the band display a formidable mastery of their punk / metal aesthetic.
Elddop received far more media coverage than any previous Martyrdöd release, and it was rightfully hailed as one of the year’s best metal or punk releases. Elddop was produced by Fredrik Nordström, at Gothenburg’s famed Studio Fredman, and he added an extra layer of armor to Martyrdöd’s already buff physique. (Just as he did for crushing bands like Wolfbrigade and Agrimonia). Martyrdöd also stretched their creative muscle on Elddop, focusing their tungsten-strength crustcore and d-beat barrages like never before, while also showing a willingness to inject ensnaring melodies into maelstrom tracks.
Many fans expected Martyrdöd’s follow-up album, 2016’s List, to be the release for the band, but it wasn’t as well received. Along with the usual roars of approval, a lot more shrugs appeared. Some complained that List felt like Martyrdöd had picked up their sword and shield, but never quite made it into the heart of the bloody battle. It wasn’t that the album was bland or tame, but some felt it was more formulaic than it was ferocious—more of the same, rather than a ramping up of intensity.
Which brings us to Hexhammaren. Fans may have a few pre-release jitters, worrying that after half-a-dozen albums stacked with full-tilt crust, Martyrdöd might have run out of steam or simply plateaued. The band promised their new tracks would sound like “Hell on earth”, and be “way more metal than expected.” But promising carnage and delivering carnage are two very different things.
The good news is Martyrdöd’s creative arsenal sounds anything but exhausted. Hexhammaren is chock-a-block with heart-gripping music, and if you’re looking for proof of Martyrdöd’s dedication to delivering berserker-strength songs, then note the breakneck shift in gear 60-seconds into “Cashless Society,” where the song simply explodes with maniacal intent.
In all honesty, Hexhammaren isn’t quite what I’d hoped for. But to be fair to Martyrdöd, the band have long surpassed the basement levels of raw crust that I crave. That’s okay, though, because the trade-off is mammoth-sounding, anthemic tracks like “Rännilar.” Hexhammaren is stacked with hard-hitting songs such as this that are filled with blistering, improvised solos, and Martyrdöd’s commitment to the cause and capacity to produce sledgehammering music is writ large throughout.
Guitarists Tim Rosenqvist and Mikael Kjellman tear into thundering cacophonies like “War on Peace,” “Bait and Switch,” and the album’s eponymous opening track. And, once again, Martyrdöd aren’t afraid to throw fist-raising hooks into all the sonic squalor. Vocalist Kjellman’s indecipherable scorched-throat howls rip through Hexhammaren‘s punchy mix; drummer Jens Bäckelin lays down d-beaten pathways and more intricate fills; and Daniel Ekeroth’s bass rumbles and grinds through hurtling tracks as well.
Martyrdöd continue to scour the line between punk and metal until both become a singular trampling onslaught. But that’s also entirely expected, because that’s the band’s baseline template / Martyrdöd 101. What they also bring to the table, however, is their not-so-secret weapon: a desire to deviate from the norm.
Dropping an eerie mid-song chant into “Helveteslarm,” or stepping off the gas on the darkly atmospheric “In the Dead of Night,” provides room to breathe, along with more distinctive sights in an otherwise relentless storm. Whether it’s a doomier, mid-tempo track like “Pharmacepticon,” or the almost folk-flavored melodies in the flaming heart of “Nästa Syrien,” it’s those moments where Martyrdöd offer something different or unforeseen that ensure Hexhammaren holds your attention.
Martyrdöd banged out this record hard and fast, relying on instinctual recordings, and the album certainly feels unconstrained and wickedly serrated in all the right spots. But more than that, Hexhammaren simply sounds more alive than Martyrdöd’s last release. Like every other heavy crust band, these guys have been accused of maintaining an unvarying approach, but by not overthinking things this time around, and keeping the off-the-cuff energy up and the ideas flowing, it’s clear that gut-felt spontaneity is key to much of Hexhammaren‘s success.
Martyrdöd’s signature sound is well established. But what keeps the band sounding visceral and volatile in 2019 is their clear desire to hone their craft by exploring both melodic and mangling terrain. Ultimately, rampaging tracks like “Sthlm Syndrom” or “Den Sista Striden” don’t necessarily add anything unique to Martyrdöd’s oeuvre, as such, but their furious intensity means they’re still neck-wrecking treats.
Hexhammaren doesn’t dramatically alter Martyrdöd’s creative course. But the songwriting here is still fierce, hungry and dynamic, and the band’s dual guitar assault is sure to thrill fans, once again. Martyrdöd will be hitting the 20-year mark soon enough, but Hexhammaren proves the band’s armory is still well-stocked with passion and raw fucking energy.