In Myrkur, Relapse Records knew from the very beginning it had a new act with tremendous crossover potential.
If you recall, 2013 was the year San Francisco “blackgaze” band Deafheaven broke out of the underground and into the glamorous world of blog-rock stardom, reaching an audience rarely exposed to the blast beats, tremolo-picked guitar roar and snarling shrieks of black metal. Deafheaven’s second album Sunbather ended 2013 with the highest score on Metacritic, an online review aggregator.
A year later, Relapse began promoting Myrkur’s self-titled debut EP, recommending the mysterious one-woman band to people who liked Ulver, Alcest and, yes, Deafheaven. “This is black metal unlike anything that has been heard before,” the label boasted. The name of the woman behind the music was held back until release day for maximum impact.
It worked. Myrkur was the talk of the extreme metal community in 2014, not only because of the well-oiled rollout, but also because of the band’s principal: Amalie Bruun, a Danish woman, a successful model and a member of a Brooklyn-based pop band. Put simply: Bruun does not look like much like many of the people who’ve made black metal over the past few decades.
Not that that matters one bit. What matters, of course, is Bruun’s music, and on her new sophomore full-length, Mareridt, the music is very good.
To be sure, Mareridt (“nightmare” in Danish) also requires patience, as Bruun spends the first half of the album exploring different styles, some decidedly unheavy. The title track (and opener) establishes an eerie vibe, showcasing Bruun’s stratospheric soprano and a folksy tune backed by low rumbles and drones. It’s followed by “Måneblôt,” a deep dive into a maelstrom of feedback, blast beats and demonic hiss, and “The Serpent,” with its march of dark riffs and roiling chorus. In both, Bruun’s spectral voice floats above the fray, unspooling legato melodies to balance the aggression.
Later, “Crown” sets off like a heavy ship into a pitch-black night before evolving into what might be the album’s most easily likeable song: Its gauzy vocal melody recalls Sigur Ros. Its ominous piano sounds like a foggy graveyard. And its dramatic coda would fit snugly into a theater production. If Myrkur is a black metal artist, “Crown” is the sound of her pushing and pulling hard on the genre’s boundaries.
The strongest stretch of Mareridt, however, is three songs on its back end. First up is “Funeral,” a swirl of blackened sludge that moves at the pace of, well, a funeral procession. Here, Bruun is joined by fellow shadow-master Chelsea Wolfe; their drowsy incantations do little to lighten the mood. Next: “Ulvinde,” an early single and a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It spends two minutes being lush and beautiful before making room for strangled screams, serrated guitars and a spine-tingling crescendo that leads nicely into “Gladiatrix,” a massive bundle of muscle and melody and hiss. “Throw me in the lion’s pit,” Bruun sings in the song’s first verse. “Watch me fight for it.”
From her first dip into the extreme underground through today, Bruun has faced attackers on all sides. On Mareridt, she once again turns them away with gloomy grace. For Myrkur, self-actualization lies somewhere beyond black metal. It will be interesting to see how Bruun navigates that journey.