Review: Mamaleek – Via Dolorosa
Anything that Mamaleek puts out tends to ask more questions than it answers. The name, if Metal Archives is to be trusted, is an Arabic designation for slaves, but this puzzling and anonymous duo of brothers are anything but bound to the same old routine. As you might expect from a band on Flenser Records, each release gives a giant middle finger to predictability; Mamaleek embraces the limitless possibility of electronics while remaining grounded in an eclectic and noisy brand of metal. Via Dolorosa, their fifth release, continues that tradition in an astonishingly beautiful and fearless fashion.
If you’re familiar with the group’s back catalogue, the first half of the opening track will be familiar territory. “Nothing But Loss” opens with a jaunting groove from an acoustic, rather than programmed, drum set—a first for Mamaleek—and jumps right into a loose, loud proclamation. The chord progression is soulful, the vocals are nasty, and it feels like home. The atmosphere clears around the two-minute mark, and that’s (almost) the last time you’ll hear a distorted guitar on this album. Just in case you’d already forgotten that middle finger in the face of your expectations.
That’s not to say that distorted guitars and conventional heaviness were a staple of their previous albums. It does, however, create a much more consistently sparse atmosphere than we’ve seen from Mamaleek. “Already There” sets an imaginative, bare-bones mood with a crackling drum loop guiding a couple wandering clean guitars, which is starkly contrasted by the bitter, vitriolic snarls on top of it all (a sparse guitar lead near the end gives one more glimpse of distortion). The effect is mesmerizing, and I’m not sure whether to kick back with a beer or snarl and stop blinking for the rest of the day. The next two tracks, “Ain’t No Thief” and “What’s Left” follow in a similar fashion, with spoken word and found sounds dotting the landscape. That aforementioned contrast is a standout feature of the album as a whole, and it is on masterful display in the middle three tracks. The instrumental work alone is at times hauntingly gorgeous, or at times relaxingly loose, while the harsh vocal work is positively nasty. What Mamaleek demonstrates here is akin to a developing painter: his early works fill and splash the canvas with bold, clashing colors, while his later paintings allow negative space to work with the brushstrokes to create new masterpieces.
While the middle three tracks mentioned above provide a fascinating glimpse of the album as a whole, I would be remiss if I left out the genius of “Pain As Providence.” Dagon, my fish god friend, mentioned to me that he noticed a trip hop feel to parts of the album, which fits the rhythmic profile of this song. Percussive (but not quite drumset) loops establish a lounging, easy mood; the guitars, however, take harmonic cues and tones from jazz, utilizing chordal extensions and blue notes aplenty. And the vocals… oh, those vocals. The style is switched up a couple times through the track, but it is never anything less than positively grating. Mamaleek sets a stage that a smoky-smooth female voice could linger over, but they take the far opposite approach for a brilliant result. Later in the tune, a slightly-out-of-tune piano tinkers in, a warping tonal color that is further explored in “What’s Left” in the guitars.
Similar to the way we said goodbye to any semblance of heavy guitars after the opening two minutes, you can also bid harsh vocals farewell after “What’s Left.” The last three tracks get their money’s worth of open space, introspective loops, and sparse spoken word. When I first listened through the album, it seemed lopsided; songs were arranged in a way that favored a weightier front half before drifting off at the end. However, the order seemed more purposeful the more I listened. A better view of the album seems to be a gradual and intentional decompression, like a spinning top gradually losing speed. I hesitate to use the terms “shoegaze” or “post,” as Via Dolorosa is treading in its own waters, but there is certainly an introspective weight to the album as the music thins out. While the album is likely to polarize fans and new listeners, there is no doubt that Mamaleek has succeeded in pushing themselves into new territory. All in all, Via Dolorosa is a superb and refreshing album with a unique voice in the heavy music discussion.