Two years ago, avant-garde doom duo Muscle and Marrow charmed the heavy music world with a unique, unexpected take on unsettling atmosphere and emotive composition. That record, The Human Cry, captured the attention of fans and critics alike with its impressive scale and unnerving vocal work, setting expectations high for any future efforts. On May 27th of this year, guitarist/vocalist Kira Clark and drummer Keith McGraw returned with a plaintive new dirge called Love. Does Love match up to the unconventional heaviness of its predecessor? As if predicting that very question, Clark opens the record with one of the rawest self-assessments ever sung in heavy music, “I don’t want to die. I still don’t know how to love.”
This fervent manifesto, this rueful honesty sets the tone for the entire record. Love is a work of pain, of romance, of heart. It is an emotively heavy piece with a unique instrumentation that provides an especially effective mechanism for Clark to relay her earnest fears and hopes. It isn’t particularly metal, relying on many of the best tricks and tools in the pop music playbook rather than killer doom riffs to hook listeners, but it remains an impossibly heavy record primarily because of the tremendous and palpable sentiments bared for the entire world to see. It is a mesmerizing listen that draws you deeper and deeper into its gaping maw, beckoning you into the warm, deathly embrace of the womb of the Earth.
The key to the emotional weight of this record is Kira Clark’s own vulnerability. Simply put, Clark is the epicenter of this record, and her voice is the keystone of each composition contained therein. Although each song is musically excellent and distinct in its own right, it is Clark’s vocal performance that adds the weight and gravitas to the record as she explores concepts such as love, death, and the feminine form. What does it mean to love? Is emotion a gilded cage or a deliverance from the grave? What burden do women bear to carry on the legacy of their families? All of these topics Clark explores with conviction and purpose, channeling her lament over the death of a departed family member and facing her dread of the future.
Though the lyrical topics themselves are both heavy and relatable, they would mean little if Clark’s voice didn’t carry the entire force of her convictions within it. Thankfully, on Love, Clark delivers one of the most convincing vocal performances you’ll hear in heavy music all year. Her tone is utterly perfect for both matching the hopeful highs and the lugubrious lows of the music and lyrical content, dipping into gut-wrenching shrieks and cherubic coos as the occasion fits. Most effective, though, is the use of layered vocals throughout a number of the tracks. All of the seven songs contain multiple vocal tracks allowing Clark to harmonize with herself or explore conflicting emotions through layered sung lyrics. Final track “Light” contains an especially effective use of vocal counterpoint between Clark’s different voices, as though the singer is grappling with her own insecurities and delusions and expressing the many disparate expectations placed upon the female form. It is an utterly convincing delivery and the perfect culmination to the record.
Thankfully, the music on Love carries its own weight, refusing to buckle under the gravity of Clark’s vocal madness. Although the drum and guitar work on this record is less “heavy” than on The Human Cry, it loses nothing in its efficacy. The band is able to shift effectively between different moods and atmospheres seamlessly across the record, pulling off a number of impressive riffs and hypnotizing rhythms throughout. Though the approach may be uncharacteristic for doom, I still found myself nodding along to a number of the riffs and the caveman drums, especially the start-and-stop interplay between Clark’s droning guitar lines and McGraw’s seething, cymbal-heavy attack in “Black Hole.” It’s an alluring listen that loses nothing in its atypical nature.
Love also finds the band injecting more noisy electronic elements into their sonic palette than were used on The Human Cry. The droning quasi-industrial vibration of this new element lends the album a deeper cinematic, almost science fiction feeling, as can be heard on “Womb.” A space ship engine or massive mining drill whirs and thrums before Clark’s riffs stoop down to crack the Earth while McGraw’s caveman assault batters the track’s texture with a frenetic energy. Love may be one of the rare occasions where a band drenching their standard instruments in a thick layer of noise actually adds to the weight of the music rather than simply obfuscating its intent. This can perhaps be heard best on “Bereft Body” as the pummeling percussion, gaping riffs, and buzzing electronics arc toward a deafening crescendo that acts as a startling, disarming juxtaposition to Clark’s plaintive chanting. Muscle and Marrow have certainly shown their ability to grow and explore musically on this record, and the album benefits all the more for it.
Ultimately, Love is a very different animal from The Human Cry. While Muscle and Marrow’s debut was creepy and cavernous, Love is raw and mournful, emotionally heavy without conforming to genre norms or sonic expectations. It bears just as much in common with St. Vincent as it does St. Vitus, incorpoating the intoxicating melodies of electronic pop with the sincerity and heft of doom metal. It’s a heartfelt, honest work of art that I have found myself returning to over and over again as I allow Clark to pierce my heart and soul and to probe into the dark places of my consciousness. In truth, this album strips me bare and exposes my own inner workings for what they are, and that’s a rare and incredible experience to find in this particular genre. I can find no faults with this album aside from its sadly short run time; if given the option, I’d happily listen to Clark eviscerate my feelings for an entire hour. For all of this, I award Love
4.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Love was released on The Flenser on May 27th. You can buy it directly from the label here or from Bandcamp here. If you like what you hear, go tell Muscle and Marrow “Thanks” over at Facebook. Or, if you’d rather thank Clark for taking you on an emotional roller coaster in person, you can catch the band on tour now.
7/5/16 – Doug Fir Lounge, Portland, OR
7/6/16 – Neurolux, Boise, ID
7/8/16 – Kilby Court, Salt Lake City, UT
7/9/16 – Lost Lake Lounge, Denver, CO
7/10/16 – Reverb Lounge, Omaha, NE
7/11/16 – 7th Street Entry, Minneapolis, MN
7/12/16 – Empty Bottle, Chicago, IL
7/13/16 – El Club, Detroit, MI
7/14/16 – The Drake Hotel, Toronto, ON, CA
7/15/16 – La Sala Rossa, Montreal, QC, CA
7/16/16 – Half Moon, Hudson, NY
7/19/16 – Great Scott, Boston, MA
7/20/16 – Aurora, Providence, RI
7/21/16 – Bowery Ballroom, New York City, NY
7/22/16 – Johnny Brenda’s, Philadelphia, PA
7/24/16 – DC9, Washington DC
7/25/16 – Cat’s Cradle Backstage, Carrboro, NC
7/26/16 – The Earl, Atlanta, GA
7/27/16 – Gasa Gasa, New Orleans, LA
7/29/16 – The Sidewinder, Austin, TX
7/30/16 – Rubber Gloves, Denton, TX
8/1/16 – Valley Bar, Phoenix, AZ
8/2/16 – Casbah, San Diego, CA
8/3/16 – The Echo, Los Angeles, CA
8/4/16 – The Chapel, San Francisco, CA
8/5/16 – Henry Miller Library, Big Sur, CA
8/7/16 – Cobalt, Vancouver, BC, CA
8/8/16 – Barboza, Seattle, WA