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Review: Myrkur Is a Light in Black Metal’s Darkness on ‘M’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: August 19, 2015
Label: Relapse

Danish black metal composer Amalie Bruun’s debut full-length as Myrkur, M, was recorded, in part, in a Norwegian mausoleum. She described the space as vast, frigid, and unrelentingly dark, though once your eyes adjusted, paintings of bodies were visible on the walls. The tomb’s 11-second natural reverb was the practical reason for schlepping to Oslo, but it’s a fairly potent physical metaphor for her twilit pieces on this record. She crafts needling, crepuscular marathons that are pummeling in their darkness, but as soon as you adjust she’ll confront you with something a beautiful as a reward for enduring.

When Myrkur first emerged in 2014, it was like a nightmarish déjà vu of black metal’s ’90s. Cloaked in anonymity, bearing blistered, rotting compositions coated in hiss and distortion, the Relapse-signed project bore all the hallmarks of the form’s mysterious, mystical past and a charmingly slipshod amateur recording approach. Genre icon Kristoffer Rygg, of Ulver, remarked as a result (positively) that it “genuinely sounded like shit.”

He’s hopped onboard to produce Bruun’s M, which has done a fair bit to pull her sound into the future. Influences from Scandinavian folk music and disorienting dream pop are allowed to shimmer and stew without a veil of hiss and fuzz over the proceedings. The grand cinematic sweep of songs like “Skøgen Skulle Dø” (loose translation: “The Whore Had to Die”) is all the more affecting now that Rygg is around to help clean the smudges off the lens. Tremolo-picked guitar lines thrash and crack like a riding crop against bare flesh, muscular and visceral in a way that her self-titled EP wasn’t.

What remains Bruun’s strongest suit is the way she juxtaposes the extremity of her influences. She comes out of more subdued sections to use blast beats like scare tactics, drops in glacial vocal harmonies as soothing lullabies. The effect of a song like “Skadi,” as it moves from ghostly terror into a dreary shoegaze turn is like jumping straight from a hot spring into an ice bath. Your brain can’t quite keep up with the overstimulation, so you just have to sit and relent to the confusion, stew in it. M, like much of black metal, is about that power differential — the idea that the rushes of distortion and drums are something that can be resisted, but shouldn’t. The magic comes when you let it overwhelm you.

It’s a trick that most contemporary black metal acts attempt, to start with darkness then quickly switch polarity, but Bruun manages to make it feel fresh by the amount of ground she’s able to cover in one song. In bulbous swooning numbers like “Hævnen,” she can evoke forgotten spirits of primordial chant, black metal balladry, and dead-eyed drone all in the space of the same three minutes. There’s a whole world within the darkness, you just have to let your guard down.