Is progress always a good thing? That’s probably not an appropriate question to try and answer in an album review, so how about: Is it good when bands develop and change from one release to another? The reflex answer is that of course this is a positive thing; in any creative endeavour it’s important to push yourself and explore new boundaries, otherwise things can get stale and repetitive. But what if you liked the starting point and don’t like the direction that change takes? All very deep, I’m sure.
Anyway, to something more concrete. I was genuinely excited to see The Mortal come up on the list of things to review as Merlin’s last album, The Wizard, was one of my favourite releases of 2018. On that record Merlin, a five-piece from Kansas City, elevated what could have been some run-of-the-mill occult-themed proto-doom through a combination of excellent song-writing and… saxophone. Yes, you read that right: saxophone. Now, I’d be the first to agree that extensive use of saxophone on a heavy rock record isn’t something to generally encourage, but somehow Merlin made it work. It wasn’t used on every track, but when it cropped up it added an intriguing 70s prog flavour to proceedings.
The Mortal starts off promisingly. After a brief intro, the first track proper, the enigmatic Tower Fall, is an intriguing way to begin an album. It’s mellow and a little downbeat, replete with loungey sax and somehow laden with promise of awesome rock to come. The problem, from my perspective at least, is that this promise remains largely unfulfilled. This might well be a matter of personal taste – whereas I’d characterise their previous album as heavy rock with proggy overtones, Merlin have significantly upped the prog quotient on The Mortal.
The next few tracks have some interesting moments, but nothing really grabbed me and I found my attention wandering. Chaos Blade has a rocking final minute, but the previous five are rather forgettable. Ashen Lake is a pleasant enough instrumental; it’s atmospheric but feels a bit long and doesn’t go anywhere. Mindflayer brings some welcome straight-ahead rock, but even that feels a little underwhelming. That said, the final quarter of the track is actually pretty cool, bringing to mind the angularity of The Mos Generator and carrying a genuine sense of menace.
[Basilisk is] heavy on saxophone and dials up the prog-rock quirkiness, but still managers to be weirdly catchy and makes you want to move…
The final third of the album picks things up a bit. Basilisk is an excellent track and highlights what the rest of the album is missing. It’s heavy on saxophone and dials up the prog-rock quirkiness, but still managers to be weirdly catchy and makes you want to move. Metamorphosis starts of as a fairly standard moody acoustic track, before wandering off into some accordion-driven weirdness which almost, but not quite, takes it into sea shanty territory. I can’t quite decide whether that’s a good thing or not, so I’m going to be positive as it was definitely unexpected.
Album closer The Mortal Suite is fine on its own terms, but for me suffers comparison with The Wizard Suite (if you’ve been paying attention you might have guessed that was the final track on previous album The Wizard), which it directly references through a shared guitar riff. The Wizard Suite felt epic, building into a fitting finale for an awesome album. The Mortal Suite sounds like a band bursting with ideas, but none of them quite amounting to the knock-out punch you’re hoping for.
I’ll admit that I came to this album with high expectations and left feeling a little disappointed. What’s worse, I can’t decide whether it’s because Merlin are moving away from satisfying my Neanderthal taste for uncomplicated heavy rock or whether The Mortal is just lacking in quality tunes. If you’re in the mood for something genuinely different, give it a listen and let me know.
Scribed by: Liam Blanc