Myrkur is the project of Danish singer-songwriter Amalie Bruun. Her work blends folk, post-rock, and black metal into a swirling, foglike sound that prioritizes none of these elements, but manages to keep them from sounding tacked-on or cut and pasted together. Her voice recalls Hope Sandoval‘s at times, in the way it seems trapped within a traveling cloud of melancholy, but when she hits the upper parts of her range, and layers two and three harmonies together, the effect is stunningly beautiful.
On Myrkur‘s self-titled debut EP (get it from Amazon), Bruun sang and played guitar and bass; Thorlief Störölf also played bass; and Rex Mymur programmed the drum machine. Her guitar playing is impressive, combining simple riffs with a fairly broad range of distortion effects and bursts of noise. Her melodies are relatively straightforward, and beneath the noise, frequently lean in the direction of moody rock. On the first single, “Nattens Barn,” though, she cranks up a powerful, galloping riff in the song’s second half that’s almost breathtaking in its crudity and its visceral impact.
The first sound heard on the first track, “Ravnens Banner,” is her voice, angelic and clear, multi-layered into choral harmonies. After 45 seconds, though, a fuzzy guitar riff launches, and a minimal, jackhammering drumbeat is heard, punctuated by the occasional mechanistic fill. Two and possibly three layers of guitar begin to pile up, creating rough harmonies as the bass swells the music’s midsection. In the piece’s final minute, the choral vocals return, not battling with the guitars, bass and drums, but not lining up with them, either; it’s a highly compelling effect, as though a black metal band set up in a choir’s rehearsal room and neither group was willing to give way.
The second piece, “Frosne Vind,” runs less than two minutes and sounds like a folk song (the melody, slowly plucked on a clean electric guitar, is naggingly close to “Greensleeves”), but again, the vocal harmonies are choral in nature and heavily reverbed. The third track, “Må Du Brænde i Helvede,” is the closest thing to a straightforward black metal song on the EP, but the composition and arrangement have unique elements that set it apart. Though Bruun adopts a guttural, growling vocal style for the verses, and feeds her voice through a harsh distorting effect as well, the bridge features a creepy, horror-movie whisper buried in the mix, and at times almost animalistic barking sounds can be heard in the background. The fast guitars and machine-gun drum machine are but one layer of a dense, complex piece of music. “Latvian Fegurð” allows the choral vocals to float atop the searing metal riffs, though growls and roars show up again, in the background. This piece’s tempo changes, and the way the guitars and bass flow around each other, help to create the illusion of a seamless band performance more than any other track on the EP. After two more songs, “Dybt i Skoven” and “Nattens Barn,” the whole thing ends as it began, with “Ulvesangen,” a 45-second choral piece.
The new Myrkur full-length, M, comes out August 21. (Get it from Amazon.) It features a broader range of collaborators, including Håvard Jørgensen, formerly of Ulver, and Morten Bergeton Iversen (aka Teloch) of Mayhem on guitar; Øyvind Myrvoll of Nidingr on drums; Ole-Henrik Moe on traditional Nordic instruments (Íslensk fiðla, hardingfele) and violin; Tone Reichelt on horn; Martin Taxt on tuba; and Christopher Amott, formerly of Arch Enemy, who plays guitar on “Mordet.” It was produced by Bruun, and mixed by Kristoffer Rygg, aka Garm, of Ulver.
The album begins as the EP did, with 45 seconds of crystal-clear vocal harmonies, lightly bathed in reverb. When instruments come in this time, though, they are not just distorted guitars (though one is present) and jackhammer drum machine; the violin and horn give the music a ritualistic, ceremonial feel. It’s not until the halfway point of “Skøgen Skulle Dø,” the opening track, that it truly becomes riff-driven, and even then, the female chorus is the focal point. And the song’s last 90 seconds are an entropic wash of electronically distorted voices, cymbals, and drones, closer in spirit to Sunn O))) or the solo work of their sometime collaborator Runhild Gammelsæter than anything Bruun has done before.
The second song, “Hævnen,” begins slow and doomy, before launching into a speedy roar, over which Bruun shrieks and growls; then a folkish melody takes over for a few seconds, during which time her voice is high-pitched and clear. Then, it’s back to roaring and riffing, after which the doomy riff and the folky melody take the song out, with piano and atmospheric keyboards (from Bruun) filtering through from the background.
The drones that appeared on “Skøgen Skulle Dø” reappear as a primary compositional tool on “Onde Børn,” causing the music to flow patiently forward while almost totally ignoring the drums, which are dull and cardboard-sounding anyhow. “Vølvens Spådom” is a vocal piece, almost Celtic, almost New Age, multiple Bruuns swimming around each other in a sea of reverb; its melody continues into “Jeg er Guden, I er Tjenerne.” That’s followed by “Nordlys,” for piano, single voice, and electronic whooshes; “Mordet,” which begins with an absolutely goosebumps-raising thrash riff before erupting into black metal thunder. In the piece’s final third, Bruun adds a John Carpenter-esque keyboard melody that ups the ominousness quotient significantly. The horror-movie vibe continues on “Byssan Lull,” another piano-and-vocal piece.
Up next is a re-recording of “Dybt i Skoven,” from the EP. Where the original had an almost Jesus & Mary Chain-esque primitivism, with Bruun’s vocals recalling Courtney Love at her cleanest (think the verses of Hole‘s “Doll Parts”), the new version is mixed more cleanly, with her voice lower in the mix and a more “live” drum sound. The verses and chorus fit together more seamlessly—while there are no radical differences between the old and new versions of the song, the re-recording is decidedly better.
The next-to-last track on M, “Skadi,” is a thick wall of noise; the guitar is a distorted crunching sound, there are low piano chords adding depth and weight to the mix, the drums crash and thump, and Bruun’s vocals are ugly and threatening…until they turn angelic in the song’s second half, just as an additional layer of guitar begins to soar. It’s not a solo, but it serves the same cathartic, bursting-through-the-clouds purpose as one.
The album’s final track, “Norn,” is an instrumental, a solo piano piece. It provides a comedown from an album that really doesn’t need one, a softly illuminated path out of a carefully sculpted wilderness.
Amalie Bruun has a unique vision that regards metal as just one tool in a box. Her music, particularly on M, doesn’t prioritize the transition from verse to chorus in a traditional manner; nor do the songs resolve in an expected way. Instead, these are short pieces which combine into a larger whole. The use of traditional instruments and almost liturgical harmonies alongside noisy, deliberately ugly guitars (the minimalist drumming is strictly there as a timekeeping device, rarely used to create or accentuate mood) sets up an otherworldly paradigm that has little to do with rock as it’s been understood for the past 40 years, and neither is it particularly “black metal,” despite genre partisans’ attempts to categorize Myrkur thus, for good or ill. Her work deserves consideration as modern composition more than anything else, and its singularity demands (and rewards) serious attention.
Stream Myrkur, and tracks from M: