Haunting Music for the Plaintive Listener
The Portland two-piece Muscle and Marrow mesmerized listeners in 2014 with their debut EP, The Human Cry and its haunting blend of distorted guitars, soothing vocals, dark electronic textures and punishing drums. Kira Clark (vocals, guitar) and Keith McGraw (drums, samples) effectively fashioned a sound that defies easy categorization. Their music has been described as everything from ‘experimental,’ ‘metal,’ ‘doom,’ and ‘avant-garde,’ to ‘dark,’ however none of these labels adequately describe the duo’s idiosyncratic sound. Muscle and Marrow’s music is simultaneously jarring and soothing, dense and vaporous, primordial and reflective, ugly and beautiful. These unique contradictions make it impossible to neatly pigeonhole the band within a specific genre, but they do allow Clark and McGraw to give us a distinctively spellbinding listening experience.
Muscle and Marrow’s upcoming release Love incorporates the same experimental approach and emotional brooding as its predecessor, while embracing an expanded vocabulary of musical timbres. Clark and McGraw build upon the more straightforward guitar/drum-centric compositional method of The Human Cry by adding a richer assortment of electronic elements. This new approach is made evident by Love’s digitally-inflected soundscapes. The opening track, “My Fear,” is driven by a blaring digital bass harmony, while Clark’s accompanying vocals are buried in reverb. “Black Hole” hears earsplitting synth drones synchronize with McGraw’s aggressive percussive performance to blast quarter notes throughout the latter portion of the song. “Sacs of Teeth” creates a discordant atmosphere using a wide range of disorienting digital textures. The entire album embraces an unabashedly raw, electro-industrial sound that – much like that of industrial rock juggernauts Nine Inch Nails and Swans – incorporates a unique blend of electronic textures and eerily minimalist vocals.
While Clark possesses impressive vocal range, she rarely grandstands. The album’s penultimate track, “Bereft Body,” sees Clark repeating the same single-bar phrase throughout its majority. She eventually adds a few more notes to the lullabic melody which continues to repeat itself as McGraw’s drums enter the fold. There is something strikingly minimalist about this track and about Love in general. Clark’s refusal to extend the vocal melody combined with her hypnotic ¾ guitar harmony and a growing cacophony of electronic textures, slowly captivates the listener in a manner similar to that of more traditional minimalist work. Whilst Muscle and Marrow undoubtedly embrace a harsher collection of instrumental sounds, their approach is similar in its firm emphasis on crafting mesmerizing soundscapes rather than offering extended melodies or histrionic vocal performances.
However, while Clark’s vocals never play an overly dominant role, their importance should not be understated. While the majority of Muscle and Marrow’s sound is characterized by highly abrasive textures, Clark’s harmoniously appealing voice offers a welcome counterpoint – establishing a sense of faint beauty to diffuse the overarching themes of despair and gloom. It also helps an otherwise abstruse and impenetrable work to capture a much more accessible sound.
Love is hardly uplifting – and its lack of melodic movement will undoubtedly repel some more casually-minded listeners yearning for a catchy musical hook. However, driven by Clark’s hauntingly charming vocal delivery, Muscle and Marrow craft a uniquely plaintive sound that is chock full of mesmerizing musical textures. Love is proof that beauty can manifest itself in the darkest of places.