Photo: Gobinder Jhitta / Relapse Records

Myrkur Rejects What Came Before on ‘Spine’

After an unimpeachable run of Scandinavian black metal and folk albums across the 2010s, it’s not yet clear what Myrkur will be here in this decade.

20 October 2023

On Amalie Bruun’s last major statement under her Myrkur identity, 2020’s Folkesange album of Scandinavian dark folk, there was the sense of an artist uninterested in rigid genre boundaries, with the compositional virtuosity to test those boundaries to extinction and who held herself to a stringent standard of professional excellence.

Signing off 2020 with the “Dronning Ellisiv” single in December, an unreleased song from the Folkesange sessions, Bruun marked her journey into new motherhood with 2021’s “Rivers Blessed” demo track that focused specifically on that experience with its chorus taken from a Danish poem (“There Is Nothing in the World As Silent As Snow”), which speaks of the crisp, still new world that exists after snow has fallen, a potent metaphor for the permanent existence of hope in a world made fresh and new.

Myrkur’s fourth album, Spine, finds Bruun still very much in the process of transformation, shedding aspects of the past and searching for something uniquely her own. Truth be told, your enjoyment will depend on whether you came here for metal or to follow Bruun’s journey because there’s very little of the former here. It’s quite discombobulating having to rearrange one’s ears to take Spine on its own terms, given how far it deviates from the sounds of 2014-2018 that made Myrkur’s name.

The album opens with “Bålfærd”, a wordless combination of gently fizzing organ and drones meshed with an expressive violin part that comes off like something Nico would have welcomed on her almighty duo of albums, The Marble Index and Desertshore. “Like Humans” then moves into gothic pop territory, a full-on modernization of the power ballad format.

There’s a lot owed here to Kate Bush‘s 1980s album run; elsewhere, there are fun games to spot potential influences. “Mothlike” is a delicate piano-led ballad that evolves into neatly clacking drums, programmed effects, an impeccably clean-toned solo from Will Hayes (who performs all guitars on this record), and then just a brief burst more than two minutes in of black metal storm. “My Blood Is Gold” is a shivering, wintry construction with beautifully curtailed strings repeatedly falling away into the dark against piano chords that glow like embers before the huge chorus.

“Valkyriernes Sang” is the only song that ever really looks back fondly on previous work, but there’s still something in the lead into the chorus and the chorus itself that puts me in mind of Madonna’s voice on “Like a Prayer”. The song breaks for a moment that will sound and look epic played live: a single slow beat over a full-throated few lines of Danish, then a glorious soprano wail. It’s the only song that really exits the resolutely mid-tempo pace, but what it shares is a certain feeling that nothing here is a stretch for anyone involved. Nothing here is discordant, out-of-place, straining at limits, or of less than impeccable taste.

The greatest strength in Bruun’s arsenal, alongside her formidable voice and musicianship, lies in her sense of composition. Something like “Devil in the Detail” shows her ability to let songs grow to their fullest and allow them to breathe in and out, gaining and shedding elements as the intended emotion or desired motion demands. In this case, there’s choir harmony, a drip-drop of strings, a final small explosion of metal clatter over a full curtain of vocal wails, synth, and swaying major chord piano. Another example is the intricacies of “Menneskebarn”, an acoustic guitar-laced lullaby to her child that in lesser hands would be an unsophisticated acoustic plod but, with Bruun in command, takes its undulation of acoustic strings and laces them with warm surges of synthesizer, even brief chimes pecking at the ear.

So, how to sum it up? Hmm. There are indeed sexist arseholes who wish women didn’t exist within their chosen music. There are also people so rigidly wedded to genre comfort zones that they reject anyone who expands, let alone breaks those artificial borders drawn in sound. Those people always end up pushed into the dustbin of history by a tidal wave of sheer creative excellence. This is an impeccably rendered work of dark pop music.

However, it’s also the first Myrkur album – and I own all of them – where I’ve felt ambivalent. I can understand why outcasts, who find a place of refuge and community in a subculture, feel uncomfortable when it winds up the on-trend hangout for a glitterati set who use then discard it as last season’s fashions once it no longer fits the whims of their precious personal journey. It still leaves me curious where the formidably talented Bruun is going and how she next chooses to deploy her mastery of musical form. Still, while an artist expanding into new realms is a wonderful thing, Spine feels like a repudiation or sloughing off of what made Myrkur a standout talent.

RATING 6 / 10