The cover of Insect Ark’s new album Marrow Hymns features a phoenix, the mythical bird that is cyclically reborn. It is not a victorious image, not one that usually comes to mind when the phrase “to rise from the ashes like a phoenix“ is used. The phoenix depicted on the cover is grey and black, burnt, and so is everything around it. The only patches of colour in the painting are the fire still burning in the bird’s wings, and a trace of red on the main part of its body. Its beak is wide open, as if it was shrieking. Being reborn through fire is obviously a painful process. Where there should be an eye the bird has a target image. Its new form that is about to be born is already being targeted to die. This little detail ads the element of time, specifically of cyclical time, to the cover painting, reminding the viewer of the endless cycle of suffering that is life. Finally, there is another noteworthy detail: the phoenix appears to be burning on a pyre, which was the most popular form of putting witches to death during the time of the witch hunts.
Like the cover, the music on Marrow Hymns speaks of suffering. All of the nine tracks are instrumentals and most of them concentrate on low tones. The majority of the tracks are slow, sometimes painfully so (Slow Ray, Windless), lacking dynamics and energy. Some have a frustrating stop and go character. One can hear the difficulty of going on, of persevering, the frustration of not really getting anywhere, and the exhaustion resulting from all of the above. Imagine walking or swimming through a thick substance like liquid glue. This is the feeling that has been transformed into music here. The tracks that differ somewhat from the rest, that are more energetic, are Skin Walker, Sea Harps and the final track, Daath. Daath is a Hebrew word meaning knowledge, but also a term for a concept, a state of mind, and a developmental stage in Jewish mysticism. Judging from the track’s character the knowledge referred to and probably gained by passing through the described ordeal is not of the calming kind, but possibly dangerous, to oneself and to others.
Women are definitely underrepresented in the metal genre, and that’s why it is interesting to see a female take on death and doom. Unsurprisingly, it differs a lot from the male. If you want to get an idea of what this is all about, I don’t think that references to other bands will be helpful. A better starting point might be reading up on the portrayal of women in history and literature, and stories told by authors like Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin and the poet Emily Dickinson. Since this will take time you probably don’t have, you can start by watching the band’s excellent and intriguing videos to older tracks, works of art in themselves, for example the video to The Collector. The videos incorporate everything that has been mentioned and more. There are references to women as witches, to the “madwoman in the attic“, and to a way out of the cyclical suffering that women in literature often ponder and also choose – suicide.
Marrow Hymns are not easy to listen to, but they are worth engaging with.