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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.