Credit must be given to Murmur for the bravery of their metamorphosis which has taken them beyond the boundaries of "United States Black Metal".
The enormity of King Crimson’s rhythmic movements and their innovative approach to songwriting -- catchy songs jam-packed with jaw-dropping musicality and lengthier voyages traversing numerous progressions -- have shaped countless bands, from Enslaved to Mastodon and Meshuggah and onwards to Shining (Nor), Between the Buried and Me and even Biffy Clyro. But unlike Pink Floyd, whose influence can also be found in the music of a whole host of modern bands of the progressive persuasion, King Crimson barely get a mention in metal-centred print outside of, perhaps, the odd BTBAM or Enslaved interview (correctly) declaring the metallic dissonance of 1974's Red as being an essential album to the development of progressive metal over years. That’s why it comes as a pleasant surprise to hear Season of Mist signees Murmur not only take direct inspiration from the difficult side of King Crimson’s gold-plated discography, but also have the humility to acknowledge the importance of Robert Fripp and company with a fantastic cover of the ‘Crimson classic “Larks’ Tongue in Aspic, Pt.2”, added as a bonus song on their second album, Murmur.
The addition of “Larks’ Tongue...” as a bonus isn’t your typical tacked-on-at-the-end-of-an-album-to-fill-space affair, however. It's fundamental to your understanding of Murmur’s rapid evolution since the time of their debut album, Mainlining the Lugubrious. Released back in 2010 to plenty of praise from "United States Black Metal" (USBM) aficionados, Mainlining the Lugubrious left an inkling that there was more to Murmur than non-linear re-workings of the second wave of black metal and the US bands who brought the devious genre across the pond during the ‘90s.
The progression from Murmur’s morose first album to their eponymously-titled second album is quite striking: Murmur have re-evaluated their stance and have embraced prog rock, noise rock, post-rock, jazz, and avant-garde experimentalism with an album that, musically, barely resemblances black metal while retaining some of the genre’s atmospheric attributes. “Water from Water” opens Murmur and preserves an air of black metal in its sombre guitar leads, screams and blasting fragments. Drummer Charlie Werber’s tumbling fills and asymmetrical rhythms push ahead of the guitars, which play complimentary harmonies, but there is unevenness to this song as the band try to straddle old and new without fully committing to either. “Water from Water” is forgivable, though, as the intention behind the track seems to be more of an introduction or bridging point from the Murmur of old to the newly adventurous version of the band.
By comparison, “Bull of Crete” is much more assured of itself. This song pulls from noise rock and incorporates jazzy meters and even some spidery shoots of Slint-esque post-rock. The shouted vocals borrow from Unsane and the sung vocals have the same kind of slacker-quality to them that Sonic Youth patented in the ‘90s. And there is a cohesiveness to “Bull of Crete” that “Al-Malik”, the lengthy song that follows, has in its post-metal opening -- think Yakuza, or Mastodon if each player in that band was as fond of freewheeling as drummer Brann Dailor -- but it loses it at its midpoint because of indecisive noodling, only to rebuild its strength as riffs reconvene at pace and off-kilter drums rush ahead to a maniacal, explosive finish.
Interestingly, “Recuerdos”, a paired-back song constructed out of acoustic guitars inspired by the phrasing of Latin music and ‘70s prog synths, brings succinctness to the fore and the balancing of both instruments is measured, which is encouraging for the future of Murmur. “Recuerdos” acts as shrewd reprieve before the most forceful pairing of songs from the album, “Zeta II Reticuli” and “Zeta II Reticuli, Pt.2”. This two-parter places emphasis on jagged, jazzy grooves that add stability and more pained shouts and even some Mike Patton-esque scatting -- reminiscent of his work with the Dillinger Escape Plan on Irony is a Dead Scene -- and consequentially both tracks sound oppressive because of this, which is vital considering the drum production on Murmur can appear thin when the guitars work along individual furrows, and some of the screamed vocals wheeze instead of roar.
It’s indisputable that each member of this Chicago four-piece is technically dextrous and more than capable of replicating the work of some of the best musicians to have ever graced this earth with their presence. But as you first experience Murmur’s own brain-scrabbling music, by the time you get to the bonus track and meet the legendary purpose and poise of songwriting contained within “Larks’ Tongue...”, it makes what preceded it pale in comparison in terms of Murmur’s varying degrees of songwriting coherence and execution. When metal bands turn to the free-form insanity that makes jazz or avant-garde music such difficult genres to gauge at first, there is a tendency to take their eye off the trajectory as each instrument explores different paths while remaining loosely engaged with each other.
Ephel Duath -- a band that Murmur draw close comparison to these days -- have fallen foul of this in recent times, and with songs like “King in Yellow” and “When Blood Leaves”, Murmur fall into the same trap and revert to inadvertent annoyance rather than sounding instrumentally confrontational. Yet while the end result can at times lack clarity as the band try to lock into place where they sit stylistically -- an issue they should iron out by the next album -- credit must be given to Murmur for the bravery of their metamorphosis which has taken them beyond the boundaries of USBM.