This year has seen a deluge of decent black metal albums from both familiar and unfamiliar bands alike. So, it’s hardly surprising to see another strong contender coming late in the year with an album that screams so loud with deep and dark emotion it feels like its heart might burst before it makes it to the end. Mara is a Swedish band peddling raw, underground blackness embracing bands like Gorgoroth and Helheim with a sound that is both violent and oppressive but with mournfully melodic strains bleeding through to lend the sound its pagan veneer (something like Murg, also from Sweden, might be another good, more recent comparison). Mara brings a message from a dark side of the Norse pantheon, the Thursian philosophy of chaos that sets itself firmly against the Aesir and the Vanir. Whether it’s the strange brand of Norse paganism – or at least the modern interpretation of it – that stirs front man Vindsval (the only person in the band, in fact) to produce such an intense form of black metal, is not entirely clear. But this is surely one of the most furious albums you’ll hear this year. Complexity is not so much part of the formula here as Mara, after a brief intro, hammers its way like a demon possessed siege machine into first track Bloodbound. The riffs are at times simple but always effective – almost primal, in fact – as Vindsval conjures up an atmosphere so intense it borders on claustrophobia.
There are a few things worthy of note that help set this apart, alongside the muscular, chest-beating aggression. For a start some pretty spectacular solo work that occasionally breaks away from the main track into a searing white hot noise that switches between moments of clarity above the chaos before re-joining the maelstrom in the form of tremolo leads that seem to tear at the pulsing rhythm. These fret-board tormenting antics only seem to make the raging beast that is RÖK even more furious during the opening track, a seven and a half minute opus that’s easily good enough to have rounded off many a black metal album all on its own. The title track that follows – also released as a video if you want to see Mara in full, brutal effect – is a short sharp blast with criss-crossing guitar leads that you would be mistaken for thinking could only have been the work of a gang of corpse-painted madmen, rather than just one.
But pure speed and spite alone is not necessarily where Mara’s strengths lie, and the track mainly serves as an ear-bleeding bit of respite between the emotional turmoil of the opener and the other, longer tracks that compete the album. Because third track The Path is another fine example of how Mara packages up sheer all-out aggression with starry-eyed and heartfelt pagan longing. Penultimate track Eitr begins with a serene, extended acoustic break before closing as a swirling headbanger. While the final track of the five, Burial Mound, adds a depressive BM edge as Vindsval’s vocals claw and scream before the track descends into its own vacuum while throwing up one of those mesmerising, pulsing black metal riffs that wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Kampfar’s glorious first couple of albums. As Burial Mound comes to a close, it’s hard not to feel a little exhausted as the turmoil of RÖK fades off into the background.
Dipping into the back catalogue (I gave 2015’s Seiðr and last year’s Thursian Flame a brief spin but there are a couple of demos lurking further back into the past as well) Mara seems to have streamlined its pagan leanings this time round and made up for what’s been lost in that process with something that’s perhaps more focused and even more visceral. Something like Heimdalls Wacht (particularly the most recent album) or Vargafrost would be other good comparisons but really any band that manages use heathen themes with subtlety, to drive its emotional fury rather than as a thematic crutch.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said this when encountering a black metal outfit I’ve not heard before, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to find yet another band that clearly hasn’t had much attention at all beyond the underground as it deserves. An album that manages to be both raw and boldly atmospheric with a number of quite stunning artistic flourishes splashed across its tapestry. A towering effort that should fuel the fires of any one who likes to witness black metal as feral rage and keep cold hearts aflame in the darkest months as the year draws to a close.
(8.5/10 Reverend Darkstanley)