Band: Merlin | Album: The Mortal | Genre: Heavy Psych, Stoner metal | Year: 2019
From: Kansas City, (MO,) USA | Label: The Company
For fans of: Elder, Hawkwind, Pink Floyd
Buy: Bandcamp | Big Cartel | Apple Music
Merlin are one of the better examples of progressive stoner metal, and their last few albums have shown a clear musical evolution from dank groovemasters to artistically ambitious dank groovemasters. The saxophone which first appeared on 2018’s The Wizard now is more fully integrated, and with it, an injection of jazz influence. Blues elements are certainly present as well, but they don’t overpower, and many of the sludgy riffs are played with impressive restraint.
The Mortal appears to be something of a follow-up to The Wizard. Beyond their shared use of saxophone and similar titles, both close with an eponymous suite, and both those suites share musical and lyrical themes of magic.
After a brief opening instrumental, “Tower Fall” begins with a slow, sultry, sax-lead passage reminiscent of moments from “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” or “Us and Them”. The song’s languid atmosphere gradually becomes more tense as it progresses, eventually culminating in an artful guitar solo.
“Chaos Blade” follows with more immediate bombast. It’s a more-typical stoner metal song with slow, bluesy riffs, but the sax lends a unique character to the music. The band are not flashy musicians, but they’ve got serious chops. Just beneath the surface, this song is full of fills, runs, and flourishes that show they know how to add character without being overbearing.
“Mindflayer” is another strong example of the band’s ability to proggify what could have been an otherwise-generic stoner metal riff. The theme is given a hiccupping syncopation, and effects-laden guitar squeals fill in the space around the edges. Near the song’s end, the riff slows down, and a strange, somewhat atonal solo screeches over the top of it. This seamlessly flows into the downright-funky main riff in “Basilisk”, which is fueled by wonky slap bass and commanding sax. The rhythm isn’t exactly danceable, but it’s got a jumpy sort of kinetic energy. The outro has a wonderful, unexpected fusion of Latin rhythm, resulting in something akin to certain Mars Volta songs.
“Metamorphosis” provides some calm after the insanity that is “Basilisk”. Acoustic guitar, simple percussion, and flute provide most of this song’s backbone. The outro to “Metamorphosis” leads directly into “The Mortal Suite”. The title track takes less than 30 seconds to revisit a theme from “The Wizard Suite” off Merlin’s previous album. Here that riff feels rawer and is topped with biting, twisting guitar and sax lines. Coupled with the lyrics, this piece stands as something of a counterargument to “The Wizard”, with the non-magical narrator expressing anger at the wizard’s lack of empathy.
This new album from Merlin continues a general trend seen over their past few releases. The music has grown more complex, with the songs having more adventurous structures. Saxophone is both more prominent and better integrated. And on The Mortal, they’ve expanded into the realm of incorporating motifs from previous releases to give a sense of thematic continuity. I’m very excited to see where Merlin go and how they evolve on their next album.