Hidden histories are a tricky thing. On one hand, they’re everywhere, untold stories bubbling beneath the surface of clean, accepted narratives. They’re also fascinating in their obscurity, inviting a host of retellings, rediscoveries and the create of new, even cleaner, more “accurate”, meta-narratives. On the other hand however, they tend to be highly personal, conflicted and hard to tell. Thus, caution is necessary when approaching them, so that we’re careful not to make what was rough and contradictory suddenly smooth, subjugated to our need for nicely fitting images and solved puzzles.
The story of Manes is such a hidden history, a band seemingly forgotten by a scene which seems to often celebrate similar tales to its own. Starting out as a Norwegian black metal band in 1993, Manes garnered a hardcore following that’s not often seen beyond Scandinavia’s fierce dedication to its artists. But a decade later, with the release of Vilosophe, the band began to shift their style towards avant-garde and progressive metal, to the enthusiastic cheering of music critiques but the dry derision of their original listeners.
Whether because of their fanbase falling away following this shift, or just because of fatigue and life getting in the way, the band eventually called it quits, back in 2011, releasing what was to be their last album three years later. And then, as if written from above, they announced a comeback album, which is the one we’re dealing with today. So far, so good: the story seems obvious. We know its ilk; we’ve heard Ulver and basked in their transformation, as well as a host of other metal bands who started off at some point and then shifted later in their career. This release seems obvious and we know what to expect from it.
But, and this is where the caution comes in, where we attempt to preserve this unique history in the face of the monolith of our expectations, Manes is not Ulver and Slow Motion Death Sequence is not The Assassination of Julius Caesar. It is unsettling all in its own ways. Instead of the dark-wave which Ulver have been channeling for years now, Manes channel a weird kind of dual approach to their avant-garde rock. On one hand, it’s filled with darkness and crisis. This sense of anxiety is created by the tension between the vocals and the rest of the instruments, especially in the beginning of the album.
“Scion” is a great example; the deep, deep drum and bass, accompanied by a creeping sort of synths, do nothing to prepare you for the shrill, urgent and cutting timbre of the vocals which quickly arrive on the track. The resulting sensation is of emotional breakdown. The following track, “Chemical Heritage”, continues this line of assault but injects it with more classic rock n’ roll sounds, adding more expansive guitars chords and traditional drums and song structures. The vocals are maintained however, as they are throughout the entirety of the first half of the album, contributing to the ongoing momentum.
Somewhere around the middle, with “Last Resort”, the second style is introduced more prominently. It’s also present on the first track to an extent but finally takes flight on the second half of the album. This is a more epic kind of sound, with delayed guitars and choir backing vocals which evokes none other than Anathema. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise; the timelines fit (if we allow ourselves a short relapse into meta-narratives) and the experimentation and growth of what was a funereal/goth doom band into a power rock band definitely resounds with Manes’ own tale.
Be that as it may, the soaring mode the vocals now take, the larger than life an ethereal synths and the structure which relies on hopeful crescendo works extremely well for Manes. It reaches its own apex on “Building the Ship of Theseus”, a beautiful and cathartic take after the darker “Poison Enough for Everyone”. In contrast with the more anxious sounds of the first half of the album, its powerful and evocative sounds are all the more effective.
The end result is an album that’s incredibly intricate and will probably take anyone a few listens to truly “get”. It defies easy stories of progression, rebirth, comebacks and official histories. It’s a more intricate thing, speaking in several voices and styles to several stories and perspectives. But this is exactly what makes it so endearing and powerful; in the refusal to be pegged down that’s also characterized Manes, there’s great allure and power. Forget what you know about comebacks, black metal, avant-garde or progressive rock and come to this album empty handed; it will reward you for it.
Slow Motion Death Sequence will be released on August 24th through the illustrious Debemur Morti Productions. Head on over to the Bandcamp link above to pre-order it. Stay weird.