Seven years since their last album, many might understandably mistake Madder Mortem for a new band. An extremely accomplished one for sure, that started 23 years ago in Norway, toiling under the radar initially as Mystery Tribe. By their debut as Madder Mortem, Mercury (1999), they had worked out their signature style of avant prog and doom metal (plus extra witchy goth), anchored by the powerful voice of Agnete M. Kirkevaag. Their unique sound may not have helped their popularity, as they were too raw to appeal to most prog fans, too weird to connect with fans of commercial giants like Evanescence, and too diverse for meat and potatoes doom metalheads.
However, a lot has changed since their fifth album Eight Ways (2009) was released. A bunch of bands have picked up on elements that Madder Mortem has pioneered and run with it, perhaps not to huge record sales, but at least to consistently sold out clubs and a growing number of festivals in Europe. Bands like (the now defunct) Devil’s Blood, Jex Thoth, Blood Ceremony, Jess & The Ancient Ones and Purson are hardly copyists — they all had unique psych noir-leaning takes on the prog, proto-metal and doom — but listening to Red In Tooth And Claw reminded me how indebted some of them are to Madder Mortem.
And in turn it sounds like they have taken on a bit of a psychedelic tinge themselves, particularly on the bewitchingly haunting “The Whole Where Your Heart Belongs.” On “Returning To The End Of The World”, the band’s menacing crunch is balanced by Kirkevaag’s seductively melodic vocal lines, some of the more accessible of her career. She can still belt out wails just as powerful, even more so than when she was 17 years younger, but there is a blossoming tuneful sensibility that surfaces at least in part on every track. On “Fallow Season,” a crunchy guitar riff would likely have escalated into something fairly bombastic on an older album. Instead, there’s a graceful groove that ties it together with a smoother flow, despite the fact that the band does get worked up into some shouts and punishment of their instruments before the end.
“Blood On The Sand” boasts the kind of meticulous arrangements that are the bread and butter these days for bands like Opeth and Mastodon. “If I Could” is one of their most accessible songs, which I could imagine actually getting some traction as a video or something, even with the screams and shredding guitar solos. What keeps me coming back to this band is that every track holds surprises, and never sits still long enough to inspire boredom. I doubt I’m the only one who hears just a couple songs and knows they’ll have to hunt down the band’s entire discography. While this is more engaging than recent Opeth, more eccentric and a thousand times cooler than any current prog metal, I don’t know how much their audience will grow. I don’t doubt they can inspire the kind of intense devotion that sees people planning trips to Europe just to see them live. I’m tempted!