There’s such a thing as a regular Marduk album. Regular Marduk albums fit the template for the frosty second wave of black metal and are usually pretty good. There are twelve previous albums and, even if guitarist Morgan is the sole remaining original member, the band has a sound and a developed quality. They’ve remained steady in crafting suffocating, storming slabs of blasting, riff-focused, icy-cold, blasphemous black metal. It’s a style Marduk do consistently well, and their discography boasts the evidence of whole albums of fast-as-hell Satanic riffing with non-stop machining drums beneath. Number thirteen should follow suit; but it doesn’t.
What happens instead is that Marduk leaves their focus on the Satanic behind and wholeheartedly adopts the WWII German front line military tropes with which they previously only toyed. This changes and expands their black metal as they’re working with a whole new palette of ideas and a different purpose for their sound. While before they blasted against Christianity, here they’re against life itself. That’s not just in the lyrics, but also in the music. Again and again it comes up: crush it all beneath the tank treads and reduce everything to ashes, even what we did before. It’s audacious, it’s varied, it’s reprehensible, and it’s disturbingly fun.
They’ve used the German front line theme before, just not to this extent. 1999’s Panzer Division Marduk is a regular blasting Marduk album, albeit with a satanic infantry theme and vague references to WWII. It’s good, in the blurry, regular-hating way. In 2011 the Iron Dawn EP repeated the German military theme, right down to using a tank on the cover, yet the songs displayed a deeper fascination with WWII German military history and a willingness to revel in any discomfort of the subject by slowing down and lingering over details. There’s time to appreciate the horror on display, and that’s only enforced during Frontschwein. The dirt and chaos of the front are reflected in the music, as well as the casual brutality of senseless violence. The blasting is just one aspect of Marduk’s music this time, which means a more ferocious approach.
Now Marduk are switching their focus to WWII Germany, but it’s not to Nazism necessarily – though that would be par for the course for black metal, and they would have company. When you switch the focus from Satan, a fictional character, to a heinous regime which actually existed and is a part of our view of the world, then you are invoking something much more volatile. Despite featuring a sepia-tinged soldier’s weapons and an iron cross on their album cover, Marduk manage to circumvent much of the volatility that would lead to accusations of hate-mongering and fascism. As explicit as their Satanism is, Marduk’s treatment of WWII Germany is mostly vague, always focused on the immediate emotions of soldiers and their fantasies of a scorched earth. No mention of the Fatherland, or Jews, or racial purity, or any other overt Nazi ideology. Frontschwein literally means ‘front pig’, a soldier destined for the front lines, and that perspective of carnage, of war engulfing the earth, is revealed in venomous riffs, tortured refrains, and song structures that sink sections into your skull — hard. In many songs, Marduk’s vocabulary of war is as explicit as what you would find on a Bolt Thrower record but with the obvious nihilistic vibe. They have neutered just enough historical terror to create some great metal. The music matches their descriptions of burning lands, bloodying ‘their’ flesh, and vultures circling overhead. In these songs you could swap out Marduk’s protagonists for Amon Amarth’s Vikings, Immortal’s Blashyrkh warriors, or even Hypocrisy’s aliens, and the music would still fit.
In a few songs, and the ones that make this album an irregularity, Marduk draw on a deeper intimacy with their chosen subject. Again, nothing is explicit, but the confidence and ease of the songs change them from being ‘about’ to being ‘of’. These are the ones where the band has succeeded in doing something new but disturbing. They stop acting like the monster and simply become.
Even in the more regular songs the theme immediately starts to reap dividends. This a band that can do full-tilt, maximum BPM with ease, so the truly impressive and disturbing moments are when Marduk slow things down and let their instruments ring out. The blasting of the title track starts out with all that great noise but also has a riff with the space to hold your attention, and it’s the first indication of the variety of tempos and structures used here. Sequencing “The Blond Beast” directly after is a curveball: a jackbooted 4/4 dance beat and Mortuus’ caressing croaks push the song into black metal “Du Hast” territory. It’s addictive enough, but also happens to be about Nietzsche’s predatory supermen. It’s the first example of that edge that doesn’t just make the theme window-dressing. From the front to decadent Berlin nights and their can-canning frauleins, it’s a short trip to the frantic “Afrika”. This song ditches any goth-industrial echo for a whip-cracking riff that’s a minute too long for grind, but the perfect lead in for “Wartheland” and a joyful contemplation of the carnage.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of blasters available — Marduk wouldn’t totally abandon their hallmark, but those fast songs, like “Rope of Regret” or “503”, act almost as a reprieve from the oppressive atmosphere that’s pervasive. That’s where the monster comes out: in the desperation at the bottom of the shell crater and in the tangle of barbed wire by the dark woods, in guitar screams and drums that ceaselessly pound like mortars. “Wartheland” builds on a mid-tempo march that becomes more devastating it speeds up, a wretched dynamic that’s effective because there’s space for the shrapnel to fly. Other songs also drag out before plunging into blasting depths. “Doomsday Elite” may be the most involved track on the album, as it features recurring tremolo build-ups between escalating switches in tempo. At over eight minutes, it’s a master class in tension and release. “Nebelwerfer” may be the highlight here, as it crawls along at a doomish pace, never breaking free, never blowing up. Each of these songs also approaches that dangerous fascination with mass extinction. It’s not celebration, but it’s an experience of acknowledgement that the music reflects.
It’s true that the ghosts of the Third Reich are in the background in this one, and they may not be far enough for some people. There are more than a few moments of unease due to a commitment to the subject matter, but listeners will have to decide for themselves to what extent they want to pay attention. While that’s an unavoidable fact, the black metal in the forefront is some of the most exciting Marduk has produced.