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Another portal to a bombastic kingdom - 82%

gasmask_colostomy, March 25th, 2020

The history of Håvard Ellefsen, otherwise known by his pseudonym Mortiis, twists together two strands of reality - the truth and the legend. Before Mortiis became the name for an industrial rock group that orbited its eponymous founder, it was a simple teenage entity playing bass for Emperor. Before attaining adulthood, the Norwegian had contributed to both the demo and self-titled EP for the black metal horde, then left the group. Notably, the lyrics to foundational Emperor songs such as 'Cosmic Keys to My Creation and Times', 'I Am the Black Wizards', and 'Wrath of the Tyrant' were penned by Mortiis, leaving the first mark of his obsession with Tolkien-esque worlds and inscribing his own story. His solo ambient project that followed rarely used any lyrics, while album and song titles reverted to Norwegian until 1999’s The Stargate, though the depths of isolation and the layers of narrative swaddling would be revealed by the publication of Secrets of My Kingdom in 2001, a book that picked off the thorns around Mortiis’s life and art.

However, by that point Mortiis had abandoned the "dark dungeon music" that he had been creating, turning to dark synthpop and industrial styles that necessitated sly Era II and III tags to explain the vast shift in direction. Accruing other bandmembers and settling on industrial rock for more than a decade led many to think that the loner of old was done with his dark ambient past. Even as the genre was relabelled as dungeon synth and many pointed to Mortiis as progenitor, the troll-faced legend of old continued to play with his new band, releasing The Perfect Reject in 2018 as yet another lukewarm remix effort. And yet, with a revamped edition of Secrets of My Kingdom emerging the same year, the stage seemed set to acknowledge the roots of dungeon synth once more. On the other hand, no one - not even Mortiis himself - expected a new album of dark ambient material to be released in 2020.

Let that last statement be moderated slightly, for Spirit of Rebellion is not precisely an album of new material. While working on a re-recording of his sophomore release from 1995, Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, Mortiis found that the music still contained so much unrealized potential and ended up by transforming the material into something quite different. Keeping the original structure of the album can’t hide the vast differences of the reworking, nor will translating the titles from Norwegian to English cause many to view this as a mere 25th anniversary refresh. Indeed, the extra 11 minutes added to the old running time, not to mention richly detailed new artwork and its creator’s retouched troll mask, just goes to show that the spark of dungeon synth creativity Mortiis showed in the ‘90s is flickering once more.

A key feature that marks the new from the old is how bombastic Spirit of Rebellion sounds in contrast to the clammy melancholy of the old tracks. The extra percussive presence that opens 'Visions of an Ancient Future' belies Mortiis’s more recent obsession with the marching rhythms of Nine Inch Nails, even including piano during the build-up of the introduction. As a result, the track begins a lot more modern than medieval, though the roll of brass horns instantly transports the listener back to the mythical precincts of Era I. Nevertheless, the feel remains starkly separate: where Mortiis once pondered lonely defeat inside his forgotten kingdom, he now seems to have resurrected the ghosts of war to march together once more. Snatches of operatic vocals and distant dripping percussion contribute to the same images of legendary castles, yet the action comes from the battlements at least as often as it turns to the reflections of the damp pooled cellar.

Many similar features colour 'A Dark Horizon' too, with a dramatic break around the 7 minute mark that would have been unthinkable on the downbeat Ånden som Gjorde Opprør, particularly the stentorian wails of male and female vocalists, even if the balance is later restored with one of the most tranquil and old-school passages. The soft rasp of an old MIDI is a reminder that the clarity of strings and horns portrayed on Spirit of Rebellion was by no means the norm in 1995, when sounds blended together into a subtly foreign mixture informed by folk and medieval music as much as electronic and classical. As such, the restrained mid-section of 'A Dark Horizon' captures the spirit of the older recording the best, while much of the rest - the 8 minutes added to 'Visions of an Ancient Future' in particular - offers a very different interpretation of what Era I Mortiis stood for. No promises have been made regarding further forays back into dungeon synth, nor will all the fans of the ‘90s albums find exactly what they are expecting, yet one thing is for sure - Spirit of Rebellion is another portal into Mortiis’s secret kingdom.

Originally written for The Metal Observer -