Review Summary: Eerie and deliberately plodding, Mrtav is a lot of album to digest, but well worth it for fans of dark post-metal.
Right up front, I should probably say that I'm a sucker for albums LIKE this. Vaguely mythical and dark band name? Check. Somber album cover? Check. Long songs with episodic titles? Check. Music from the darkest recesses of "post-metal"? Oh that's a big check. As soon as I started Mrtav, I had a feeling I was going to like it, and I was not at all disappointed.
In the development of post-metal, one aspect of the NeurISIS sound that gets ignored is darkness. Post, both in its rock and metal variants, has grown artistic, often gorgeous, in creating sweeping soundscapes and introducing emotions into the music that aren't usually there. This is most typified in the post-black or "blackgaze" movement, which sees the usual icy bleakness of black metal married with more uplifting melodies. Hesperian Death Horse comes from the Amenra school of thought, which is to take the Neurosis sound and make it even longer and even more grim. This is post metal that doesn't forget that it's metal.
Unsurprisingly, Mrtav is not an album to sit down and toss on the stereo while having a few beers with friends or when you want to jam out. This is artistic sludge/post metal, the kind that stabs at your heart like a Zdzisław Beksiński painting. That isn't to say it's pretentious or haughty, but rather that these compositions are layered, dense, and benefit the most from full digestion. Songs build and develop, not in a "let's add instruments one by one" fashion, but melodically grow and evolve.
I need to say, before even talking about the music itself, that the production on Mrtav is immaculate. I mean just flawless. The guitars grate, the bass rumbles, the drums reverberate from side to side, vocals are just where they need to be in the mix, all the textures are right and the spatial positioning lets music swirl around in all the best ways (I am, in fact, listening to this through headphones).
Mrtav is an album where melodies have no interest in amazing you with technicality, but build the atmosphere through effective composition and layering. These are minor key dirges that know why certain notes are to be played over hoping to razzle dazzle the listener with arpeggios and chromatics. The main riff of opener Part 1 takes over three minutes to rear its head before it lumbers along with a pleasant stomp, lacking the bluesier aspects of sludge in favor of the machine grinding variety. Listen around the 8:45 mark of Part 1 for the riff to dance beneath not guitar solos per se, but additional layers that settle atop it, screaming in the background or snarling just to the side. All the while the bass never simply mirrors the guitars, but truly adds to the sound instead of simply filling up that area of the frequency spectrum.
Many an album that claims to be heavy lacks that atmosphere, instead believing that heaviness can be quantified in beats per minute or notes per measure.
Again, Mrtav does require patience. Although it has four "tracks", this is really one giant composition split into for sections for, I assume, convenience's sake. As such, there is one tempo for the entire runtime and listening to it with a gapless playback makes it difficult to really know where one track ends and another begins. There are no verses, not choruses, no clear intros and outros. You can't count measures and expect to know when one section will transition to the next. Part 3 even throws in one of the rare spoken word sections that works, as heavily echoing and eerie guitars strum beneath words I readily admit I cannot understand. He might be delivering the most trite and cliched lyrics imaginable, but I'm a lowly English-only speaker so I choose to believe they're as profound as the music that surrounds them.
The primary flaw of Mrtav is really that it has all the flaws of an "epic" post-metal album. Although it goes in the bleaker direction of post-metal, it is very rooted in its style. Its lineage is front and center. The build ups progress as they should, three of the four tracks use the trick of having all the instruments dropping away for a quiet section before it explodes into a climax that leads into a denouement, the Parts 1 and 4 both give roughly three minutes of clean guitar before delving into the meat of the song. It's a case of having heard it all MOSTLY before, but not done quite in this fashion.
Mrtav is one of those albums that will land on a favorites list of those who are into the style and will emphatically not convert those who are not. If you have a feeling you'll like this, you very much will. Lie down, turn it on, and just let it all sink in.