Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Music Review: Mortiis - Perfectly Defect

Known for performing in what is often referred to as his "troll-look," Mortiis himself has said he doesn't like it being called that, since nordic trolls are playful and short and he is neither.

Mortiis has a varied musical history, one that wouldn't make much sense unless examined on it's whole. HÃ¥vard Ellefsen of Telemark, Norway began as the bass player for the pioneering black metal band Emperor. His first solo effort is referred to by fans as Mortiis' Era I, and includes a catalog of synthesized neo-classical music which the man himself refers to as "dark dungeon music." Era II was controversial because of how different it was from any previous efforts. Only one album emerged from this era, one of my favorite albums of all time: The Smell of Rain. The album was controversial among fans because of it's synth-pop sound, despite the lyrics being anything but pop-sounding. The album has, to me, always stood as an example of how divergence can be paired to create a powerful artistic effect: the 80's New Wave sound music mixes with the dark, moody emotional tone of the lyrics, particularly on the track Marshland. Still, Rain was well received by the small amount of us who enjoy both black metal and electronic music. Fans of the former tended to find the lighter style weak and annoying, while fans of the latter were turned off by the album visuals (Mortiis as a monster exploring a dry wasteland) and dark, almost abyssal lyrics that made Depech Mode feel like Pet Shop Boys.

Era III was ushered in with The Grudge an album that mixed the synth tone of Era II with the dark, aggressive feel of the black metal genre from which the man sprang. Inserted into this mix is a unique industrial feel, one that relies on sound-crafting technology but easily manages to maintain an almost organic sound. The title track of The Grudge remains one of the artist's best-known songs, and has enough permutations to fill an album of it's own--my two favorite versions being the raw (acoustic) mix that appears as a bonus track on the original album, and the Gothminster mix. Grudge hearkened the first use of guitars and other instruments traditionally associated with heavy music, but did not depend on them and so was often not considered heavy enough for fans of heavy music. Still, for those among us who enjoyed the fusion of electronics and brutality (i.e. Bile, Psyclon Nine, Grendel) the album really hit the spot.

Lyrically, Mortiis has remained the same since the beginning of Era II, focusing on darker, but still human, emotions. His personal aesthetic has evolved instead. Though trademarked by the long ears, pointy nose and crinkled skin, the disguise has transitioned from a classically supernatural appearance in the early days (Era I) to the urbanized, modern style represented today. When paired with his music, the monster appears to be a representation of a darker side of the artist, like some kind of personal demon. Unlike most personal demons, the one in Mortiis' work doesn't lure him into darkness but is instead a more coherent part of his personality. Humans--Mortiis included--do well enough in finding darkness, either through lust, weakness or superstition. The monster, therefore, becomes a watcher who taunts these human failings, be they loneliness (Everyone Leaves from Rain) superstition (Parasite God from rain) anger (the title-track from The Grudge ) or drug use (Decadent and Desperate from The Grudge--the video of which depicts Mortiis' monster shouting at his chained human form after passing out from drug use). Mortiis' lyrics always have a target, whether it is himself or someone else, and rarely have anything nice to say about either. You Put a Hex on Me from Rain is something of a love song, though it appears to be blaming the object of his affection for his state--claiming she has hexed him despite making it clear that he does not wish to inflict his affection upon her. (It's worth mentioning that Mortiis/Ellefsen is married to model Linda Ellefsen, quite happily) Anger and betrayal are often present themes as well, and Mortiis' poetic style is captures it well; an example being the chorus of The Grudge, where he refers to the target of the song as a "emotional heretic" and charges in the chorus, "If I crawled through all the circles of hell for you, you wouldn't even piss on me!"

Perfectly Defect  continues this theme, despite being a slight musical departure for the artist. It's close enough to the polished darkness of The Grudge to be considered part of the Era III sound, but is perfected as a genuine offering by a band, rather than the brainchild of one artist--as represented on Rain. The Grudge introduced guitars to Mortiis' sound, but they take a stronger position in the mix for Defect, especially on the lead-in track Closer to the End. Vocally, Mortiis has remained fairly consistent since Rain--he did not introduce self-made vocals until Era II. Mortiis is not a powerful singer (he isn't Ronnie James Dio or Glen Danzig) but he eschews the temptation to mask this with distortion or black-metal-style rasping. Mortiis' vocals remain clear (relatively) and therefore decipherable to casual listeners. Mortiis' employs a more of a rhythmic, almost spoken style like Tom Waits or Thomas Fischer of Triptykon, sharing the poetic richness of both with the depressive growl of the former and the blackened aggression of the latter. Several of the tracks lack any vocals at all, instead creating an atmosphere that is both musical and poignantly dark. The overall tempo of the album is slow without being plodding, and polished without being weak. In other words, there is grit for those who enjoy it without being muddy.

Make no mistake, the album is heavy. Fans of softer music will find the harshness overbearing and therefore won't appreciate the lyrics. Likewise, the themes present are not happy ones. Closer to the End could be thought of as more subtle pairing to this anti-superstition earlier song, Parasite God. Guilt, anger and emotional emptiness are explored as well. Stylistically, this is Mortiis' sharpest album to date--there is no confusing this for techno, electric pop, or soundscapes, it is most clearly a heavy album for fans of heavy music. Additionally, the free download includes a number of bonus features, including an art booklet and a lyric booklet, disc-art (for burning your own CD and label) and avatars for every song that include lyrics displayed on the screen of your player for each song (or, at least, the ones with vocals) This is more than I've ever gotten for similar downloadable albums that I've had to pay for! The fact that Mortiis has included them in an album he's giving away for free shows a profound respect for and devotion to his fans.

On a personal note, I've had the pleasure of speaking to the man on two occasions...through Twitter. But still, he has always been polite and courteous, something most people wouldn't expect from an artist of his style and aesthetic. I'm sure he doesn't remember speaking with me, but it was more than I've gotten from a lot of artists and writers to whom I've attempted communication. I'm not putting anyone down: I know these people are too busy to talk to every single fan. But the fact that Mortiis has always been a gentleman strengthens the bond I feel I have with his music. Indeed, several of his albums from all three eras are present on my music playlist for listening as I write, making him an inspiration for my writing. I am happy to add Defect to this list, and highly recommend it to fans of both industrial music, metal, and harder techno/electronica. The album can be downloaded free from the linked banner below.