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Raw but melodic black metal inspired by Scandinavian pioneers - 65%

kluseba, July 12th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2015, Digital, No Solace (Bandcamp)

Since Mgla's third full length effort Exercises in Futility has recently won the Metal Archives poll for best album of the decade, I became curious enough to give said album a spin. I had heard about Mgla before but had never ever listened to a record of the Polish black metal duo. I usually appreciate black metal in combination with other genres. For instance, I appreciate its combination with symphonic elements as can be heard in records by bands such as Dimmu Borgir. The fusion of black metal and folk elements is also rather intriguing and I particularly appreciate the early works of Moonspell here. I have also a soft spot for experimental black metal such as its combination with crust and punk music as is the case for Putamen Insula. My main problem with Mgla's Exercises in Futility is that it represents what sounds like black metal by the numbers to me. I'm not saying that this is a bad album or trying to be contrarian. I understand that this might be a very good album if you are a black metal purist. However, it's only of an average quality in my ears and fails to stand out significantly to be considered the best release of an entire decade.

There are several elements I actually like about the album. Its atmosphere is bleak, gloomy and sinister. The vocals are angry, desperate and energetic. The cold guitar riffs blend in nicely. The rhythm section is surprisingly diverse and the drum play in particular offers far more than expected blast beat passages. The final two tunes offers atmospheric transitions that give the two longest tunes some conceptual depth. The lyrics are rather interesting and offer some emotional and philosophical value instead of focusing on blind nihilism and predictable shock value.

However, there are also a few negative elements that have to be pointed out. The song writing sometimes lacks structure and especially the first two songs rush by in a blur without leaving any memorable marks. The cold guitar riffs are typical for this type of music but they end up sounding uninspired, repetitive and exchangeable over the course of six songs and a total running time of forty-two minutes. The same can be said about the vocals that always sound the same instead of varying in order to add some atmospheric layers or accentuate the record's emotional outbursts.

Throughout the album, only the variable rhythm section and thought-provoking lyrics can truly convince. Now, if you are a black metal fan who appreciates raw but melodic outputs by bands such as early Burzum, Dissection and Watain, you should certainly give Mgla's Exercises in Futility a try. However, if you are expecting a groundbreaking record that will surprise, move or impress you, I must disappoint you as you would rather find these attributes in the pioneer records of the aforementioned bands. In the end, Mgla's Exercises in Futility is an above average album for metal fans in general and perhaps a very good record for black metal aficionados. However, it certainly isn't album of the decade material in my book,

they're all grown up now - 94%

RapeTheDead, December 15th, 2015

Look, I realize I'm just piling on the hype train here, but it's difficult to argue with an album that pretty much satisfied all of my expectations. With Hearts Toward None already solidified this band's status as a bona fide black metal band in my mind, and you can already see the little ways Mgla's evolving their sound begin to manifest with this album. Everything that made them a good band before is still left intact, and there's even more for a seasoned fan to enjoy.

The strength of this band as far back as Presence (the only thing I haven't heard by this band is the split they put out with Clandestine Blaze) has always been the straightforward riffs and how they remain memorable, even when emphasized and repeated. Somehow, despite staying strictly confined to a melodic black metal realm leading to a similarity in theme between songs, this band has a multitude of tracks and moments that stand out. Exercises in Futility is no exception to this; while my favorite tracks on this album were the first and last ones after the first few listens, I started gravitating towards "Exercises II" and "Exercises IV" once I had listened to the opener and closer way too many times, and then eventually the rest of the tracks grew on me once I gave them more time. Every track has something really cool to offer, which is something I couldn't even say about past Mgla albums--they're not impervious to a stinker or two, after all, but there are none to be found here. Exercises in Futility is surprisingly diverse despite remaining within the parameters of the band's style, and as a result it sounds the most well-rounded of any album they've put out.

There are a couple extra spices that have been thrown into the mix that give Exercises in Futility its own flavor compared to Mgla's previous releases. Primarily the drums. Especially the drums. The way Darkside dances on the cymbals effortlessly to make the standard blast heavy black metal drumming really stick with you is awe-inspiring and persists throughout every song. The moments where the drums lay off the blasting for a little bit and settle into the pocket are great tension-releases, too, and the songs that have a mid-paced groove in them are on a whole new level as a result. I'm particularly thinking of the moments at the beginning of the album, the opening of the fifth track and the groove midway through the closing track--each one of these three segments of music is near-impossible not to bang your head to. It's rare that I find myself noting a black metal drummer having really interesting beats, but shit, this guy might be one of the most memorable drummers I've ever heard.

The real beauty of Mgla lays in their songwriting, however. Because their riffs are so melodically similar to one another, they write songs that can take proper time and care to introduce the best riffs while still keeping every moment interesting in some way. They always write a hell of an epic closer, too (I'm starting to notice that I really like it when a band has a larger-than-life final track), and "Exercises VI" holds its own with the best of 'em. Starting off with a nice acoustic intro, a triumphant tremolo riff crashes in to introduce the black metal element, and then the song goes to a rolling double-kick while playing the distorted version of the opening riff. It sounds somewhat simple and mundane when I type it out, but I swear it's genius when you actually hear how it flows. Earlier Mgla was riffy and enjoyable on a more primitive level, but now that these guys have more patient songwriting everything stays as enjoyable on the twentieth spin as it was the first time around. "Mgla's third album shows them really maturing as a band and expanding on their earlier albums while staying true to their core" sounds like some stock music-journalist tripe and it pains me to even write a sentence like that, but at the same time I can't say it's incorrect.

Maybe this review doesn't serve a particularly intriguing purpose, because I've heard nothing but positive feedback already about this release and I really can't find any major negatives with it myself. I was a fan of the band before, I'm still a fan now, and if you're the same way I can imagine Exercises in Futility will also satisfy you. Everything you liked about Mgla is still there--powerful harmonies, lots of energetic groove, hollow, resonant vocals that do well to add a low-end to the otherwise somewhat shrill music, and of course a stubborn adherence to black metal tropes through it all. Anything you could have possibly liked is just explored in greater detail on Exercises in Futility, and this really shows that these guys are beyond being just a mere up-and-comer in the world of black metal. They've established themselves as one of the black metal heavyweights in a strong Polish scene, so jump on the bandwagon while you still have the chance. I haven't really said anything new about this album, but nothing else needs to be said. It's good. Listen to it if you like black metal. Cool? Cool.

Excellence in focus. - 81%

ConorFynes, October 19th, 2015

For once, the hype was correct.

I almost wanted to dislike Exercises in Futility. I think there is a contrarian buried within anyone who claims to appreciate black metal as art, and that side of me was egged on by the flood of PR buzzwords and praise from the dubious usual suspects. Though I’ve been enamoured with the polished austerity of their sister project Kriegsmaschine, I couldn’t even say I was a fan of Mgła before this. With Hearts Toward None didn’t strike me with the same awe as it clearly did for many others; I gave it a few half-hearted listens around the time it came out and shortly thereafter dismissed it as too rock-oriented for my taste. Exercises in Futility isn’t the game-changer some have lauded it as being, but it has nonetheless managed to stand out in a particularly stalwart year for black metal fare.

If there’s anything that best describes Mgła’s orientation, it’s their desire to express their fairly extreme nihilism by notably moderate means. They’re melodic without ever being so overt about it that their music could be construed as ‘catchy’. They’re surely dynamic, but never so much that one end of their sound might alienate the other. Mgła are caught at the crossroads between atmosphere and a focus on clearcut riffs. They’re accessible yet multi-layered enough to reward continued listening, and once they’ve ushered in their chosen sound on "Exercises in Futility I", they stick close to form to the very end.

In many ways, I’m reminded greatly of Inquisition's Obscure Verses for the Multiverse, another relatively recent album that earned much of the same accolades from many the same people. That album navigated many of the same balances though in a way that was distinctly Inquisition, and it felt like a number of variations on a theme (in the best way). Exercises in Futility sticks to a very defined sound and atmosphere. Mgła offer nothing in the way of surprise nor shock. They don’t need left-field turns to impress the listener. They’ve distilled their essence down to a framework of unassuming riffs, purposefully structured songwriting, and an overtly despondent worldview, and they keep me rapt through most of it.

Mikołaj Żentara‘s riffs are effective and practical. Relative to the prevalent black metal trends, it’s almost an act of revolt to be colouring within the lines as much as he does with his guitarwork here. Exercises in Futility sounds nearly martial in the predictable focus of his performance here. I might argue, however, that drummer Darkside (Maciej Kowalski) has had an even greater impact on the performing style of the band. The quick-strummed patterns here are nothing new to black metal, but Darkside’s performance often recalls a far more moderate pace than less distinctive drummers might have veered towards. Regardless of what punishing tempo the nihilistic atmosphere would seem to evoke, Darkside opts to keep the rhythms remarkably controlled. That impressive restraint defines a lot of Mgła’s distinctive character amidst a flock of soundalikes, and it doesn’t impede the band from sounding passionate and intense while they’re at it.

Exercises in Futility revels in its predictability. It benefits from its focus, from its willingness to stake its claim on a few solid elements, building them up to their natural conclusion, all the while shirking the crazy mishaps and extracurricular flourishes you hear so often in black metal these days. Even if Mgła begin to sound like they’re retracing territory by the album’s second half, I think that’s still part of the album’s charm. Even if others have done more outstanding things within the style over Mgła this year, this album demonstrates that they are either masters, or masters in the making—that is, if With Hearts Toward None didn’t get that point across already.

Another Footnote on a Postcard from Nowhere - 94%

TheStormIRide, September 11th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2015, CD, Northern Heritage Records

Poland’s strongest orthodox black metal export, Mgła, return with their third full length album of nihilistic and misanthropic hymns, Exercises in Futility. According to press releases, this album aims to be the band’s most cohesive and natural album to date. After gaining a relatively large following with 2013′s With Hearts Towards None, which has already been declared by many critics to be a modern day classic, Mgła had very large shoes to fill with their follow up.

Exercises in Futility brings exactly what we’ve come to expect from the band, and those who have followed the band in the past should find no surprises within the album. That being said, it’s an exceptional album that may even surpass Mgła’s past efforts. The band brings the same formula of orthodox black metal riffing and brilliant percussion (that incredible cymbal rolling style placed throughout just needs to be heard), yet the overall presentation is anything but formulaic. Fast paced trem riffing with tons of cyclical rhythms and melodic accoutrements surge forth while, offering a chaotic yet inviting background for the acerbic, barked growls to weave their narrations of fruitless efforts.

Varying tempos are at play, offering an expansive approach and allowing the six tracks to unfold like the chapters from a story rather than as individual offerings. Exercises in Futility is one of those albums that begs to be listened to from start to finish, as the intricate melodies and dissonant riffing play off each other, complimenting each opposite. The band may claim to believe that nothing in life matters, the instrumentation belies that belief as there is an outpouring of emotion placed into every passage, riff and note; encapsulating tragedy and triumph in one fell swoop.

While many black metal acts rely on ridiculous lyrical content that lacks any substance, aside from the general shock value, Mgła’s lyrics are just as potent and provoking as their music. Exercises in Futility begins with the simple statement, “The great truth is there isn’t one; And it only gets worse since that conclusion.” The album’s concept is driven by the uselessness and futility of everything we know and the lyrics serve as harrowing poetics grounded in this nihilistic outlook. Despite the obvious effort put into the music by the band, the lyrics proclaim that it all has just been, “Another chapter in the handbook for exercises in futility.”

Mgła proves that they’re in a league of their own at this point. Their grasp of songwriting is immense, so much so that they manage to level the playing field by simply playing black metal as it was intended to be played. There are no frills, bells or whistles during Exercises in Futility, just a band with a phenomenal understanding of how to create dynamic black metal. Gripping in scope, Mgła have managed to top their previous albums with aplomb and leave the world wondering why nihilism never sounded so good.

As if all this was something more
Than another footnote on a postcard from nowhere
Another chapter in the handbook for exercises in futility


Written for The Metal Observer.

Useless - 85%

KonradKantor, September 6th, 2015

Let me make something perfectly clear before we get going. Not only does Mgla not give a shit about what anyone has to say about its new album, Exercises in Futility; it also doesn’t care about your parents being diagnosed with cancer or your children being psychologically abused or physically tortured. It doesn’t care about people blowing themselves up in the Middle East, planes crashing in Asia, explosions in factories in China or that your childhood heroes are all depressed and committing suicide. Take a look around your house, look at the things around you and ask yourself what you see? Furniture? Shelves? Books? Pillows? An empty cereal bowl? Whether you studied M-theory in an 800-level grad school class at MIT or you were born with a missing chromosome, your existence is worth less than the inanimate objects around you. At least, that’s how Mgla sees it. If you find that to be offensive in any way, you’re clearly too short to ride this roller coaster, Timmy.

The foundation that shapes a piece of music can be dissected in two ways: 1. By its raw musical content (notes, beat patterns, production, etc.). 2. By the philosophical lessons and emotional influences that flow from it (i.e. lyrics, how the music makes you feel, etc.). Generally, one of these aspects usually outweighs the other, especially when it comes to black metal. With Mgla, however, things are a bit different. Everything the band has been involved in, from Crushing the Holy Trinity all the way down to With Hearts Toward None (the album that brought the Polish nihilists onto nearly everyone's radar), carries a lot of weight, musically and philosophically. In other words, every piece of music Mgla has written contains lyrics just as valuable as the music itself. Exercises in Futility is no different. Actually, this is the first time that both the everyday bumblefuck going about his or her day doing as little critical thinking as possible, as well as the philosopher still trying to interpret the Qabalistic significance of With Hearts Toward None’s III and VII, are spoken to directly, and as equals. So put down your copy of the book of Isaiah, because this shit ain’t too hard to figure out, even if it's not very easy to accept.

Musically, it's clear that Mgla has dedicated its existence to an astonishingly orthodox, black metal approach. The band doesn’t just beat riffs to death, it strips them down, tars and feathers them, drags them through the streets, flays them alive as slowly as possible, and once they’re less than an inch from suicide, gives them a water break while delivering the same level of torture to another riff, only to return and finish the job before the end of the song. “Exercises in Futility I” is a prime example of how diverse the riffs of a single song can be even if they only possess a few harmonious notes that bounce back and forth between guitars as they’re accompanied by very standard, interchangeable drum patterns. As predictable as it may seem, Mgla’s style of songwriting will have ninety nine percent of modern black metal bands eating its dust as they're left standing on the side of the Autobahn attempting to reinvent the wheel. Isn’t it ironic that one of the most uniquely sounding bands of this decade has achieved greatness by simply not attempting too many unique things at all and merely sticking with what works? That may not be entirely true, as there are exist plenty of “aesthetically” orthodox albums recently that could put even the most caffeinated of us to sleep (stop pretending that bands like Marduk and Watain excite you). But perhaps Mgla’s ability to captivate comes simply from the fact that their hearts really are in it. That's right... members M. and Darkside hold their brand of nihilism sincerely in the innermost center of their precious aortas. How's that for a paradox?

Aside from “Exercises in Futility I,” which may be the album’s crowning achievement, tracks “II,” “IV,” and “VI” maintain similar degrees of harmony and pacing. Tracks “III” and “V,” however, are a bit uglier in the best of ways, primarily because they don’t lead the listener where the listener wants to be led. Harmonies quickly disappear in these two tracks, and things get pretty ugly. Because of the songs' perfect placement on the album, "III" and "V" go from being nearly dismissible to downright mandatory. In fact, more than ever before, Mgla bears some striking resemblance to Polish counterparts Azarath and Behemoth just by hammering its instrumentation into your skull over and over. One, teensy-weensy complaint, though? The album’s production hides the Darkside's brilliant cymbal work, particularly in “Exercises in Futility V.” The drumming sounds as relentless as ever, but the subtle intricacies of the drum fills are lost due to the sheer volume and constant humming of the guitars and bass. The mandatory stretching of one’s ears isn’t something black metal fanatics are unfamiliar with, but it feels like an unnecessary practice with a band like this, as the music is so straightforward to begin with. Nevertheless, the complaint only speaks to Darkside’s greatness as a black metal drummer.

Exercises in Futility fits in line stylistically with all of Mgla’s other LP’s, with the biggest potential standout of the three being whichever one it was that first turned the listener on to the band. Structurally, the album itself is built much more like With Hearts Toward None than the band’s debut, Groza, however it is unique in its own way. As opposed to utilizing the grandiose ebb and flow system that made With Hearts Toward None so cathartic, or slowly tearing apart an open wound the way Groza did, Exercises in Futility gives us more of a hurried glimpse of the macrocosm of the band’s core philosophy. Imagine focusing a telescope powerful enough to break through all dimensions so that we could see the greatest secret that lies at the end of the outermost wall of the outermost universe, and then suddenly realizing that the great secret is... simply nothing. However frightening or exhilarating that may be, it’s not healthy in large doses. And neither is Exercises in Futility, so be happy that, as The Dude would put it, Mgla is definitely into the whole brevity thing.

At the very center of our brief cosmic journey here on Earth, there exists a cesspool of people who claim to know things. They claim to know whether or not we existed before this and in what form. They claim to know why we’re here, and they also claim to know what lies in store for us at the end of this very brief, mortal existence, and what we need to do in order to reach immortality so that we can be eternally happy. On the other side of the fight is Mgla, an entity comprised of no less fanaticism and self-loathing than any other person “claiming to know,” but they’re still an underdog, and they're as sincere as ever before. In short, the world could use a bit of nihilistic philosophy to balance out all of the bullshit that spews forth into our faces every single day. And as an agnostic simply sitting on the sidelines and witnessing all of the spiritual chaos, it’s kind of nice to see such a good fight put up by these Polish reapers of hope, shrouded in secrecy, with all the passion and conviction in the world that we are nothing but worthless, organic sacks of matter. Well, either that, or they’re just another fucking emo band feeling sorry for themselves and trying to be scary, but the first description sounds so much cooler, doesn't it?

- Originally written for yourlastrites.com

Back from the lands of nowhere. - 90%

DSOfan97, September 4th, 2015

Mgła are back after two and a half years of silence. Well, they released two EP's but those were mere re-issues, not all new material. It's alright. Exercises in Futility is the album of the month in my opinion. The duet from Poland managed to, not only reach but also surpass With Hearts Toward None. The previous album, while being great, had those moments when I would think of stuff irrelevant to the music, whilst in this one they draw your attention for much more time. Thus we can assume that the band has evolved and expanded its skills in every direction and dimension and most of all, there is a massive shift towards consistency.

Structure wise, this is not that different from With Heart Toward None, and yet consistency took its toll in the process of shaping the new album, making it a really significant chapter in the band's discography. Whoever hasn't heard of Mgła's previous full-length, has at least heard of the Crushing the Holy Trinity split in which they took part. This time everyone must listen to these voices, these guitars with the extremely sharp tone, or the drums... Well, I will elaborate further on the drums later. Back to the guitars now, the melodies are amazing but I would like some more harmony and some more detail. Some riffs are based in one single root note, a feat that isn't quite enthralling to be honest. The distorted sound however is both heavy and crispy, while the brief clean introduction of the final track calms the atmosphere before the rigid black metal performance is continued. The vocals have a unique sound to them, they sound literally as if M. has torn his vocal cords apart. And the lyrics are great too, as there seems to be some kind of mutual themes in the first two tracks, while the whole album shares the same feel and themes, of hell, torment and misanthropy. The way the lyrics are spoken/screamed though is going to take its time until it sinks in. In the end you'll probably enjoy it, just give it some time.

The drums now... Do you know why Mgła stand out while not being experimental or something? For two reasons. One of them is that the two of them really fit with each other and thus their music is more tightly written. The other is Darkside. His drumming is hard to describe, but basically, he keeps a steady beat with the kick drum and the snare while adding flavor using a vast array of cymbals. His work withe cymbals stands out because he uses to roll on the cymbals as if they were floor toms. And since he's the only one who plays like that, as far as I'm concerned, Mgła have a great advantage when compared to other artists of their league.

Mgła deserve an album like this. An album that will once and for all cast them out of the shadows of the, nowadays, poor underground. Exercises in Futility has the potential to become one of this year's highlights and make many lists. For most of its playing time you will feel dazzled but after its completion you will instantly want to repeat it. Since I'm still new to this album, I'm not sure whether I'll keep enjoying it as much in the following months, but this is surely a good album. For now, I love it and that's all that counts.

Favorite tracks: "Exercises in Futility I", "Exercises in Futility IV", "Exercises in Futility VI".

90/100.