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A Natural Evolution - 85%

Zephyrus, October 28th, 2009

What’s this, bass solos? In MY Black Metal? Is this the Marduk we know and love? That depends on your relationship with this infamous Swedish syndicate.

The familiar Marduk earned their reputation with 1999’s “Panzer Division Marduk,” a half hour of constant blast-beat drumming and guitar riffs like a blizzard of daggers. Coupled with this extreme take on the genre, smacked with the pejorative of “Norsecore,” was the band’s lyrical fascination with World War II. The false reputation of Nazi sympathy was likely influential on the visas denied them for US tours.

So what has become of Marduk in the past decade? 2004’s “Plague Angel” was the perfection of the formula, with superior production and the vocal virtuosity of Mortuus. The result was a relentless storm of hellfire, never again recaptured. Why? They gave into criticism, and 2007’s “Romans 5:12” saw a forced attempt at progression: more emotional melodies, clean vocals, and slower tempos. But as Daniel Dennett said, true evolution produces “competence without comprehension.” Change cannot be forced, it must occur naturally.

With “Wormwood,” Marduk starts over, closer to the merciless fury of “Plague Angel,” but at the same time more dynamic and mature. Whereas prior experiments separated standard all-blasting songs and slower, groovier songs, tracks on this album have more transitions within the songs. This allows the intensity to be more consistently sustained, producing a more flowing, cohesive narrative.

Mortuus, as his name suggests, is the voice of death, one of the best in the genre. His vitriolic vocals range from throat-ripping shrieks, to guttural growls, to yells of malefic triumph. His variegated performance fits well the band’s departure from being a one-trick-demon-pony. The riffs, cleverly crafted as always, now sport the alliance of engaging drum rhythms just as much as the ruthless blast-beat attacks, in which this band is often accused of overindulging. All these elements combine most perfectly on the track “Into Utter Madness,” a malevolent onslaught both catchy and complex.

As my initial perplexity implies, the bass guitar on this album enjoys much more prominence than on your typical Black Metal opus. Its place in the production offers a fuller, deeper sound absent from the thinner, icier works of the past. On the other hand, this incites more claustrophobia than the cavernous “Romans 5:12.” The handful of bass solos, such as what ends the opening track, glimpse the more emotional side of Marduk, unveiling the undercurrent of sorrow beneath this aural vortex of violence.

Lyrically, the band has backed away from tanks and concentration camps, to the safer territory of death and blasphemy. The controversy was key to their identity, but if this is the price of letting these guys tour the US, I’ll take it.

So how does “Wormwood” measure up? On the one hand, it’s a marked improvement over the forced evolution of the previous album. Sadly, the spirit of that Black Metal blitzkrieg called “Plague Angel” could not be harnessed again. Still, through blood and iron, Marduk have sealed their status among the signature acts of Scandinavian Extreme Metal.