Artist: Madder Mortem
Album Title: Old Eyes, New Heart
Label: Dark Essence Records
Date of Release: 26 January 2024
I really do love it when I get to listen to a band that is worthy of the ‘original’ or ‘unique’ tag. I’ve said it before in reviews, most notably in my piece about 2018’s ‘Marrow’, but I’ll say it again, because it’s important: there really is no-one on this planet that we call Earth who sounds quite like Madder Mortem. And that is why they have always deserved a special place in my heart. Do I listen to their albums on a frequent basis? No, not as often as I would like. But, when I do listen to them, do I enjoy the experience? You bet your life I do. Not always the easiest of listens, there’s always a lot going on within the Norwegian’s music as well as a fair amount of eclecticism. However, every dive into the world of Madder Mortem is always a rewarding experience.
So, with that in mind, let’s turn out attention to album number eight, ‘Old Eyes, New Heart’. As always, this latest album is full of music that requires – no, demands – full attention. It’s no good giving the music on this album a cursory, half-hearted listen because if you do, you’ll not feel its full force, you’ll miss all the various ideas at play, the feelings generated, and the overall impact will be diminished significantly.
It’s important to note that the five years that have passed between albums seven and eight have been tough for Madder Mortem. Not only has the band had to deal with the Covid pandemic and everything that this threw at us all, but for vocalist Agnete M. Kirkevaag, and her guitarist brother BP, it also brought the sad loss of their father, Jacob. With the help of long-time artistic collaborator Costin Chioreanu, the work of their artist father, Jacob, adorns the cover for ‘Old Eyes, New Heart’. It’s a fitting tribute to one of the band’s biggest fans and supporters during his lifetime.
It’s no wonder, then, that one of the most overriding emotions that permeates this record is sorrow. But, as Madder Mortem have always managed to do, there is so much more than this to be heard. Yes, there is much sadness to the music and lyrics, but there’s also anger, frustration, but no little amount of hope and positivity, as well. Alongside guitarist Anders Langberg, bassist Tormod L. Moseng, and drummer Mads Solås, the Kirkevaag siblings have succeeded in creating yet another rollercoaster of emotions.
Importantly, however, these emotions are delivered via ten individual compositions that work both individually as well as collectively, exploring horizons both familiar and new to Madder Mortem.
If there’s anything even approaching a ‘classic’ Madder Mortem song, it’s probably the opening ‘Coming From The Dark’. It starts quietly, with the unmistakeable vocals of Agnete rising from the silence, before the track erupts with a strong riff and stop-start drumming accompanying a typically engaging vocal performance from Agnete, underlining immediately the fact that she is without doubt the not-so-secret weapon of the band. Mind you, she needs a set of quality musicians around her, and she undoubtedly has that here, as each member is integral to the final product. It’s heavy without feeling too aggressive, and it is progressive without coming across as too daunting, with frequent clever shifts in tempo or approach throughout. The intensity grows around the halfway mark and it’s here that we get a first taste of Agnete’s higher-pitched vocals that verge on a despairing wail, signalling an introduction to some gruff male vocals from BP to compliment the more powerful musical soundscape.
I wasn’t a fan of ‘On Guard’ for the first few spins, but I have grown to appreciate it far more now. It’s a slower, darker affair with a bluesy, ‘southern’ feel to it, led by a pulsing bass that acts as the song’s heartbeat. The slide guitar embellishments included at points throughout take a bit of getting used to, but the song ultimately wins out because of the clever lyrical content, the full-on commitment, and because of Agnete’s arresting performance, allowing her subtle skills to work their sultry magic.
The contrast between ‘On Guard’ and immediate follow-up ‘Master Tongue’ couldn’t be more pronounced as the latter literally explodes from the speakers with really aggressive intent. It quietens through the verses, to be led by a great drum/bass combination, whilst the choruses are a curious combination of melody and slightly abrasive attack. Again, there’s much to get your head around, meaning that it’s another composition to work at getting your head around. However, it’s the riff that is introduced after the halfway point that wins the day for me and helps pull me in kicking and screaming for further listens. The groove and cheekiness of the material is ultimately infectious and thoroughly alluring.
Speaking of alluring, there are a series of compositions that I’d happily describe as my favourites on ‘Old Eyes, New Heart’. And these are ‘The Head That Wears The Crown’, ‘Cold Hard Rain’, and ‘Unity’.
‘The Head That Wears The Crown’ is a composition that begins gracefully, with a majestic Gothic-tinged intro and then flits effortlessly between serene melody and much heavier, more abrasive passages. Indeed, as it unfolds, it gradually becomes more aggressive, but it does so in a manner that almost flies under the radar and it’s not until the growls join Agnete’s more urgent and powerful delivery that you realise how much the song has changed over what is only a mere four-and-a-half minutes. ‘Cold Hard Rain’, however, is a dark delight, full of ominous atmosphere and is easily my favourite track on the whole album. The brooding chorus, with deeply chanted vocals at its heart is hypnotically beautiful, utterly beguiling, and arguably one of my all-time favourite Madder Mortem tracks as a result.
The final track of this wonderful trio is ‘Unity’, which again captures my attention thanks to great performances all round, a fantastically absorbing chorus, and song powerful lyrics. “There’s no place here for anything but you and me. No place here for anything but unity.” There’s also space for a passage where Agnete delves into spoken-word territory, just to keep things interesting and typically Madder Mortem in terms of originality.
This review wouldn’t be the same without a word for both ‘Here And Now’ and closer ‘Long Road’. Both are more delicate and melody driven, and both feature some of the most gorgeous vocals from Agnete. But it’s ‘Long Road’ that strikes hardest because when Agnete sings, and you consider everything that has happened over the last five years, the lyrics feel so much more poignant and moving. “It’s been a long, slow road but we’re finally home. It’s been a hard few years, but we’re out of it now…I’m bruised and broken but healing fast…” When coupled with the gentle, sorrowful, and minimalist soundscape that accompanies these words, I defy anyone to avoid developing a lump in their throat. It’s a raw and honest concluding composition, that perfectly ties up all the loose ends whilst offering some genuine hope for better times ahead.
If you’ve never given Madder Mortem a chance, I beg you to change that with ‘Old Eyes, New Heart’. It’s easily one of their most accomplished records to date, and definitely one of the most consistently intelligent, high quality, and powerful within their steadily lengthening career. So what better time to dive right in and see what these Norwegians are all about? And, for the die-hards and those already familiar, I have no doubt whatsoever that ‘Old Eyes, New Heart’ will be one hell of a massive hit with you, too. Thank goodness for bands like Madder Mortem, without whom life would be so much duller and more one-dimensional.
The Score of Much Metal: 93%