Looking back at their 20 years long career, it was inevitable that Manes, the elusive Norwegian art rock collective, would release an album like Slow Motion Death Sequence. Emerging from the bleakness of their early black metal affectations and distilled through more experimental approaches, the quintet seems to have gradually abandoned stylistic determinism while all and any genre tropes in their music became fluid and inconstant. The pilgrimage they first embarked upon with Vilosophem and traversed with Be All End All again leads them into unexplored terrains. In that sense, Slow Motion Death Sequence is a diorama of the band’s existence, ever-changing as it loses parts of itself only to create and incorporate new ones.
The album opener and single, “Endetidstegn”, is befitting of its title (“signs of the end of times” in Norwegian), but it also provides glimmers of hope found in empathy and compassion. These connections with other people become weapons turned against the surrounding melancholy and apathy of modern life. The song’s inner rock structure is immersed in electronic glitches and scratches, borrowing elements from electronica and trip-hop, where each of these sparse noises mirrors the imperfections of existence. “Endetidstegn” lends a very atmospheric and synth-heavy opening to the record, reminiscent in equals parts of Porcupine Tree and Portishead, yet with Manes’ unique signature. As the cut culminates with Asgeir Hatlen’s voice soaring “Who am I to decide, long gone” and drowning out the cacophony beneath him, it turns into a sincerely simple and beautiful rock tune. A testament to how confident Manes are in their ambiguous amalgamation of styles.
With years and years separating their releases and with only scarce touring, Manes’ music emanates a warped ephemerality. Like Richard Linklater’s 2014 film Boyhood, it captures snapshots, palpable moments out of the lives of its members, reflecting the real passing of time and sense of decay instead of an artistic projection. Slow Motion Death Sequence thus encapsulates the band’s past four years—the personal struggles, the joys, and the tragedies—and sublimates them into nine excellent songs that flow organically, narrating a story full of subtle mementos and intimate incursions.
Their compositions are built as much around solid structures as they are around individual sounds and phrases, unencumbered by pretenses or expectations. Compared to their previous two full-lengths, Slow Motion Death Sequence is busier, with synthetic chirps and clinks, pulses, and electronic effects constantly illuminating the dark backdrop of the music, yet simultaneously simpler and to the point. It makes for an album that can be either disassembled and examined under a microscope, engaging with all the minute details hidden in plain sight—deceptively plain sounds produced in complex manners and found sounds incorporated in the sonic tapestry—or just enjoyed by soaking in its emotions.
There are no weak songs on the record. The slowly pulsing and eerily atmospheric “Scion” showcases a bubbling progression led by a voluminous, distorted bass, while post-punk elements emerge on the busy “Therapism”, and progressiveness and inspired guitar leads mesh with spectral synths on “Chemical Heritage”. The two clear standouts are the beautiful ballad “Last Resort” where the band drops into a slower and moodier approach, and the creepy “Poison Enough for Everyone”, which is rendered askew by electro-industrial flair and vocals dancing slowly over the cold scrim. Like something that came off from a Coil or Current 93 record.
Lyrically and conceptually, there are multiple threads running through the album, touching on concepts of death, mortality, and the erosion of humanity observed through different perspectives, mythologies, and thought experiments. The lyrical and atmospheric “Building the Ship of Theseus” especially toys with metaphysics of identity, questioning the impermanence of our psyches and implying the possibility of dissolution even before the finality of physical death. Throughout the album, the samples, field recordings, and soundbites carry the musicians’ little personal touches pregnant with meaning that might not have been meant for the listener, but just for themselves.
“Ater”, a fairly abstract coda, dissolves and buzzes through echoes, before a wall of concrete distorted guitars surfaces and saturates the music, closing this chapter for Manes and already introducing the next one.