Literature has been one of the foremost sources of inspiration for metal lyricism and composition alike, regardless of subgenre. The list of examples is significant—Ernest Hemingway and Cobalt, Georges Bataille and Deathspell Omega, H. P. Lovecraft and seemingly everyone, and so on. Drawing inspiration from a novel is a challenging but relatively structured undertaking; a plot can be interpreted into numerous sonic and lyrical directions but will always follow the same trajectory of its narrative.
Poetry contrasts this process by its very nature, as its natural code of symbolic meaning and suggestive prose necessitates musical decoding drawn from a strictly thematic place. Even poems with a decipherable narrative are often told in a verbose, indirect manner that challenges metal lyricists and composers to write with a liberated hand, looking beyond the words on the page to a deeper understanding of the poem’s true meaning and mood. Agalloch’s interpretation of W. B. Yeats is a stellar example of this process being executed beautifully, as is the latest offering from Ehnahre, a Boston-based avant-garde metal collective who count Kay Dot alumni among their ranks. Their incredible four-part song cycle on The Marrow captures the essence of Theodore Roethke’s eponymous poem* through consuming landscapes of avant-garde death-doom that are as ridden with despair as the poet’s initial musing on whether or not life is worthwhile.
On the whole, The Marrow offers a more dismal, droning version of Kayo Dot’s Hubardo with plenty of desolate passages drawn straight from a Portal record. But the manner in which Ehnahre fulfills this overarching theme varies in a way that enriches it’s expansive soundscapes of filth and anguish. A percussive assault on the double bass introduces “The Crow Speaks” in such a way that renders the instrument virtually unrecognizable. This performance, in conjunction with the following metallic electronics and sound samples, provide the first instances of the album’s electroacoustic undertones. The sudden pang of dissonant guitars pierces through the chaos and begins to distort alongside the double bass and effects before percussion smashes into the fold to intensify the mood. The cacophony sets the track up for its first burst of Roethke’s poem, with wispy, haunted vocals wheezing out the words they’ve been tasked with delivering:
The wind from off the sea says nothing new./The mist above me sings with its small flies./From a burnt pine the sharp speech of a crow/Tells me my drinking breeds a will to die./What’s the worst portion in this mortal life?/A pensive mistress, and a yelping wife.
It’s the first evidence of Ehnahre’s superb synchronization of Roethke’s poetry with their musical interpretation. The unsettling nature of the 18-minute behemoth of an album opener speaks to the stanzas’ severe lack of hope. And like the narrator, the band focuses on every small detail; every moment of seemingly unkempt chaos feels measured and inspired, as do the carefully placed bursts of Portal-esque death metal and further experiments with electoracoustics and noise. These themes only intensify on “A Wandering Fire,” which sees the narrator’s faith further replaced with pain:
One white face shimmers brighter than the sun/When contemplation dazzles all I see;/One look can take my soul away/Brooding on God, I may become a man./Pain wanders through my bones like a lost fire;/What burns me now? Desire, desire, desire.
The track’s churning pulse truly feels like a wandering fire contained within a leveled forest where nothing of value might be burned. Noisy, mechanical elements throughout the track allude to Godflesh‘s more epic compositions before the grating wall of riffs in the track’s finally solidifies the comparison to the industrial metal legends. It’s a logical, fitting evolution from “The Crow Speaks” which highlights Ehnahre’s skill at subtle evolution. Each track on The Marrow flows naturally into the next before taking on a new form, showcased further by the narrator’s complete damnation of life on “Godhead”:
Godhead above my god, are you there still?/To sleep is all my life. In sleep’s half-death,/My body alters, altering the soul/That once could melt the dark with its small breath./Lord, hear me out, and hear me out this day:/From me to Thee’s a long and terrible way.
By this point, the band has turned it’s full attention toward the narrator’s desperate admission to the heavens—the journey from birth to heaven’s gates is arduous and hardly worth the struggle. The frustration born from this seemingly one-sided conversation erupts through Ehnahre’s instruments, with a heightened death-doom romp akin to a Gorguts 45″ played at 33 1/3 rpm. The consistent themes married with subtle evolution continue on “Godhead” and further prove how apt Ehnahre is at drawing the essence of the poem out and allowing the underlying themes to swirl around in the wind. As such, the title track closes out the album with an appropriate appeal to inner peace:
I was flung back from suffering and love/When light divided on a storm-tossed tree./Yea, I have slain my will, and still I live;/I would be near; I shut my eyes to see;/I bleed my bones, their marrow to bestow/Upon that God who knows what I would know.
“The Marrow” presents the sharpest turn in sound on the record, but in it’s lyrical shift, the change seems necessary and natural. As the narrator bleeds out in hopes of achieving their place in the great beyond, Ehnahre softens their approach down to the faint roar of post-rock, as if Godspeed You! Black Emperor wrote the ugliest song of their career. The double bass is bowed in a solemn eulogy while a cascading atmosphere of tremolo guitars and ambient electronics cushion the vocalist’s howling repetition of the poem’s famous concluding refrain. The bones are bled, the marrow is offered and the narrator pleads for a place among his final reward.
With that, Ehnahre close out an exceptional example of how poetry can be woven into the artistry of extreme metal, both in the vocal style’s apt delivery of the subject matter and the music’s freed approach to translating words on a page to notes on a staff. Not only does the band excel at the numerous subgenres they bring into the fold, their desire to reach beyond to grab at an underlying concept has paid off rich dividends of sonic rewards. Though the intro to this review touched on Ehnahre’s ties to Kayo Dot, the intention was not to insinuate the band needs to use their ties to avant-garde metal pedigree as a crutch to gain recognition and attract interest in their music. To the contrary, records like The Marrow prove why the band have slowly grown their discography into a towering body of work worthy of admiration in its own right. By the time the band releases their next album, it would be more than fitting for them to be referred to as torchbearers in the modern avant-garde metal landscape and shining examples of what the subgenre can achieve if given the right pairing of musicians, concept and unbridled spirit of sonic exploration.
The Marrow is set to be released 8/25 via Painted Throat Music. We will update this review with a purchase link when one is made available.
*Roethke, Theodore. “The Marrow.” The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke, Anchor Books, 1975. [FULL TEXT]