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M Dean Brown , August 25th, 2015 15:16

"This is my music, so I will write what I want. And if you are listening to music because 'a woman made it', then turn it off. Listen to any music only if it speaks to your ears and your heart."

Amalie Bruun, the multi-instrumentalist known as Myrkur (Icelandic for "darkness"), posted this pointed request online following the social media-created controversy that surrounded the mysterious Relapse-signee at the time her self-titled EP was released in 2014, a rudimentary seven-song homage to the early neo-folk traditions of the black metal legends Ulver. Her words should go without saying in this day and age, but even though metal espouses virtues of being all-inclusive – open to every gender, race and denomination – sadly there's still some work to be done to destroy certain misogynistic ideologies that are championed by a minority of underground metal elitists.

But what's also relevant to the Myrkur story beyond a musician having to fight for her gender is that metalheads, who ironically always crave mystery from their artists, hate to think that they've been duped. So when Myrkur arrived billed as an unknown artist from "the darkness of Scandinavia" who channelled a "distinct sense of Nordic isolation" and confused rumours started to spread that she was, in fact, a well-regarded model from Los Angeles and also a member of the indie-pop band Ex-Cops, social media lit up with hateful posts aimed squarely at Bruun's identity, gender, legitimacy, and record label.

While this may have been a marketing ploy to safeguard a burgeoning enigma, technically Relapse and Bruun never really deceived anyone. Myrkur's music does channel the isolation of her Scandinavian heritage, and that imagery is much more evident on her haunting full-length debut M.

Recorded in Norway under the tutelage of Ulver's own Kristoffer Rygg (Rygg co-produced and mixed the record) and backed by other established black metal session musicians – guitarist Teloch (Mayhem, Nidingr), drummer Øyvind Myrvoll (Nidingr) and multi-instrumentalist Ole-Hendrik Moe (Ulver), amongst others – M's substantial "kvlt" credentials are laid out for all to see; which may (or may not) entice even the most ardent of Myrkur haters. Nevertheless, the music itself has more dimensions to it than what you'd expect if it was a calculated attempt to gift Bruun with sizeable underground credibility or to adhere to some misguided set of rules on what defines black metal (that's becoming an increasingly nebulous concept these days, anyhow). In truth, M is good enough to bury the "controversy" outlined above for good and alleviate the need going forward for Bruun to make pleas to people to (rightly) take gender out of the equation when it comes to her music.

At the heart of the black metal classics, from Burzum's Filosofem to Ulver's Bergtatt: Et eeventyr i 5 capitler, there is an intangible air of longing, a timeless ache that seemingly spans centuries only to be subsumed into the music. One of the major differences between Myrkur's full-length and the preceding EP is how this atmosphere is naturally, authentically channelled and how it immediately grips the listener, from the opening choral vocals of 'Skøgen Skull Dø' to 'Norn', the graceful Eluvium-esque piano piece that finishes the album. Melancholy, ethereal, hypnotic and ever-shifting between delicate beauty and moments of strident black metal orthodoxy, M is structured to ensure each transition is sensibly arranged; even if the fluidity of the shifts can sometimes disorientate. The album is also meticulously layered, and the natural 11 second reverb captured by partially recording vocals in the stunning Tomba Emmanuelle adds to the wide spectrum of textures and tones, from pitch dark to blinding light and everything in between.

The continuous sense of movement throughout M is experienced not only from song to song but also within certain songs. For example, the aforementioned 'Skøgen…' utilises Nordic folk, black metal, classical and drone influences at different stages in tandem with the layered, synth-like vocals of Bruun and her reverb-laced howls, giving the track focused dynamism while maintaining compositional clarity. 'Hæven' follows this paradigm closely while flitting between slow doom riffs, blasting jolts and Alcest-inspired dream-pop. So too does 'Onde Børn', a song that musically harkens back to Ulver's debut with its movements between light and darkness through folk-infused black metal, as the warmth of Bruun's angelic vocals are frozen in place by a Nordic chill as the song closes. While later, the same chill ripples through the first half of 'Skadi', the bleakest track on the album: animalistic shrieks and nasty second wave riffs slowly reside to reveal unexpected choral vocal harmonies and less oppressive instrumentation, all before returning to the darkness.

In fact, the embellishments that take M beyond black metal's second wave prove the most interesting from a compositional viewpoint in terms of how they make the entire album hang together (see: the lullaby 'Byssan Lull', the medieval 'Nordlys', and the ecclesiastical 'Vølvens Spådom'). 'Vølvens Spådom' acts as a spectral, vocal-centred introduction to 'Jeg er Guden, I er Tjenerne'; the latter continues the melody of the former in a more expansive way as the song moves from scratchy tremolo-picked noise to grunge (vocally and musically) to the kind of bleak minimalism Ides Of Gemini have made their own – replete with the same purposely underdeveloped drums. The drums overall are the least interesting instrument on M. Where Myrkur's EP favoured programmed drums, M incorporates live percussion. Although given how one dimensional Myrvoll's performance is, with the exception of the black thrash-meets-horror soundtrack collision of 'Mordet' and the re-recorded/greatly improved 'Dybt i Skoven', it's hard to tell the difference. This is a stylistic choice, however, strictly in line with the traits of early black metal releases.

Like Alcest and Ulver – the two largest influences on Myrkur's music – Bruun has made her sound so open-ended that her music could go in any direction in the future. For the next Myrkur album we could be met with a classical piano-and-vocal collection, a set of songs which full explore the alternative rock/shoegaze side of her sound, or a straight-up black metal release. But the most intriguing thing about Myrkur at present is how all of those disparate styles find a fitting home in the unearthly realm she has created here, and to focus solely on one particular side might temper what makes M so engaging (for example: Alcest's full embrace of shoegaze on last year's Shelter). By conveying the masculine and feminine duality inherent in old musical traditions and modern musical developments, Bruun has composed a truly rewarding record that defies direct categorisation. Plus, she's lit a serious fire under the black metal elite – and that's something that should be applauded vigorously.