Swedish black metal group Marduk released their debut album, Dark Endless, in 1992, and they’ve never stopped making music and touring since, despite multiple lineup changes, including three different lead vocalists preceding current frontman Daniel “Mortuus” Rosten, who joined in 2004. Serpent Sermon is the band’s 12th studio album, its first for Century Media, and its fourth with Mortuus up front. (Buy it from Amazon.) And if it’s not quite the breathtaking achievement 2009’s Wormwood was, it’s nevertheless evidence that 20 years into their career, Marduk are better than they’ve ever been.
During their first decade, Marduk were basically known for being head-down masters of the blast beat and the grinding riff; albums like 1996’s Heaven Shall Burn…When We Are Gathered and 1999’s Panzer Division Marduk, not to mention 1997’s Live in Germania, were black metal landmarks simply because of their relentless brutality. Guitarist Morgan Håkansson (the only remaining original member), bassist Roger “Bogge” Svensson, and drummer Fredrik Andersson assaulted the listener with one machine-gun burst of noise after the next, as vocalist Erik “Legion” Hagstedt croaked and shrieked lyrics about Satan, blasphemy, misanthropy…and Nazism. That last bit probably requires some explanation, so here it is: Marduk are not and have never been a Nazi band; their explanation is, they’re just students of history, like Slayer. (For more on the subject of Marduk’s lyrics, read this thing I wrote in 2007.)
When Legion left and Mortuus joined, though, Marduk underwent a pretty serious metamorphosis, entirely for the better. Out went the monotonous blasting, and in came a variety of tempi, from doomy throbbing to midtempo grooves—and yeah, there were still ultra-fast sections, but now they had drama and dynamics making them all the more powerful. The production on the Mortuus-era albums—2004’s Plague Angel, 2007’s Rom 5:12, 2009’s Wormwood, and now Serpent Sermon (buy it from Amazon)—is better, too: the guitars have a thick coating of distortion, replacing the wash of static that is black metal’s general stock in trade. The bass is clearly audible, frequently coming to the fore, as on this album’s closing track, the seven-minute “World of Blades.” The drums sound like drums, not a typewriter. And samples of sermons and movie dialogue, as well as ominous sound effects, bring in an industrial feel. Plus, Mortuus is just a better vocalist than Legion was. He’s got a guttural, rasping croak with lots of baritone rumble, reminiscent of Rammstein‘s Till Lindemann or even Laibach‘s Milan Fras, which gives his blasphemous declamations a real power. Plus, he writes vocal lines for himself that cut across the grain of what the band is doing; when they’re fast, he’s slow, demanding your attention. Even the most skeptical atheist may find him or herself fascinated by Mortuus’s engagement with his anti-Christian subject matter, particularly since he goes beyond boneheaded sloganeering (cf. Deicide) into near-philosophical disquisitions not unlike French black metal cult heroes Deathspell Omega. (Mortuus also records as a solo act, under the name Funeral Mist; 2009’s Maranatha is a must-hear.)
This is an ambitious album, but it’s also one that provides the simple pleasures of a well-crafted buzzsaw guitar riff, a roared, fist-pumping chorus, and drums thundering like a jackhammer on your brainpan. Rom 5:12, Wormwood and Serpent Sermon form a trilogy of sorts, and when heard separately or together, they prove that Marduk are one of the most artistically vital bands in contemporary black metal—something no one would have ever believed a decade ago.