Label: Fragile Branch Recordings
Heartworn is perhaps one of the most ambitious records to have come my way recently, and it’s also one of the more successful. The new album by one-man act Mur combines raw, atmospheric black metal with North American folk music and more besides, to create something very distinctive and captivating. The press release for the album describes it as being centred upon the themes of migration, loss, and rebirth inherent in North American fauna. As pretentious as that may sound, it makes for a remarkably powerful listen, successfully merging different genres to striking effect, resulting in one of the most exciting records of the year.
One aspect of Heartworn that took me by surprise is how immediate it is. Records of this musical and thematic nature normally take a few listens to really click, but Heartworn sinks its hooks in to you early. Opener “Hollow Bones In The Millstone” starts the album off at a crawl, with several minutes of crushing funeral doom eventually giving way to morose, spacious folk. This is merely the calm before the storm, though; guttural roars replace softly chanted incantations, and the lumbering, bludgeoning chords and drum hits move like a behemoth; slow, powerful, destructive. It’s easy not to notice that the track is almost 8 minutes long, such is its entrancing nature. Following track “Cold Mountain” highlights the diverse nature of Heartworn, essentially being a bleak folk song, albeit one steeped in the weight of history and nature. Sparse as it may be, its emotional impact ensures it is heavier than most metal bands could ever be.
It’s with third track “Wheel Of Ashen Limbs” that, for me, Heartworn really begins to showcase its full strength. The opening roar announces the arrival of the hunter, with the soaring, searching guitars striking with incredible power. It’s here that the combination of black metal and folk really comes to the fore, though not in the way most other bands do. Instead of utilizing traditional folk instruments or acoustic sections, the track instead carries the earthly spirit of folk music, amplified through evocative black metal that recalls the likes of Wolves In The Throne Room, Winterfylleth, and Panopticon – a diverse set of comparisons for sure, but all of them are valid.
It’s a strong opening suite, and Heartworn is able to maintain the quality from there. “Migration Incantation (As Fog, As Gold)” bristles with a punk-like energy for its opening minutes, before taking on a more Cascadian black metal character, and closes with sparse, atmospheric folk. The slow movements that begin “Wyeth Shroud” are full of that peculiar, dark grace only black can possess, and the shift in to faster tempos is handled superbly; and despite its instrumental nature, the track has far too much character and power to ever be mistaken for an interlude. It flows seamlessly in to “Snakeskin On The Lake”, which is an absolute masterclass in instrumental black metal, featuring some of the most superlative guitar work I’ve ever heard on a black metal album – not just in terms of technical proficiency, but in emotional impact. The lead that begins to take flight around the 1:40 mark is absolutely incredible, and no words can describe its power when it reaches its apex. It is the sound of crashing waterfalls, of autumnal forests, of hunting birds in flight, of wolves chasing prey. The way that it gives way to a carefully measured, mid-paced closing section, topped with primal screams, only emphasizes how excellent a track it is.
The musical intensity naturally drops from there, having reached its peak, with “Limbless Frozen Monarch” taking things in a more musically sparse direction, moving from bleak folk to crushing funeral doom towards the end as it moves in to closer “Go Beyond The Sea And Still Bring Light To The Underworld (You Overrich Star!)”, an instrumental journey worthy of its lengthy, evocative title that recalls Baroness at their adventurous best as much as anything else. It’s a fittingly unorthodox ending to an album that refuses to follow convention, carving out its own path, telling tales as old as time that risk being forgotten in our modern world.
There are lots of small touches to Heartworn that help make it such an excellent album, but to list them would do an injustice to any interested listeners. One aspect I will highlight, however, is the production, which is sympathetic to the music, allowing the more sparse sections to shine and granted the raw, heavier moments added force and power. Beyond that though, there is plenty to discover, but part of the joy of Heartworn is stumbling upon those aspects yourself, and I would be doing the album an injustice were I to attempt to write them down. As should hopefully be clear by now though, Heartworn is one of the most powerful, evocative albums of the year thus far, and deserves to be recognized as such.