Review & Track Premiere: Motorpsycho, Kingdom of Oblivion

motorpsycho kingdom of oblivion

[Click play above to stream ‘The Waning Pt. 1’ from Motorpsycho’s Kingdom of Oblivion. Album is out April 16 on Stickman Records and Rune Grammofon.]

The heavy prog Kings in the North — Trondheim isn’t Tromsø, but it’s far enough up — Motorpsycho return on the relative quick after wrapping up a trilogy between 2017’s The Tower (review here), 2019’s The Crucible (review here) and 2020’s Spellmannprisen-nominated The All is One (review here) with the new 70-minute 2LP Kingdom of Oblivion, a record that seems to speak to current times without necessarily being of them stylistically. Also without not. Trust me, it makes sense.

Now, to be sure, Motorpsycho are beyond review. I could say anything here and it doesn’t matter. To new listeners, their massive, decades-spanning discography might seem insurmountable, and indeed it might very well be a lifetime project of listening. Even their post-Heavy Metal Fruit (2010 and on) catalog is a mountain to climb, and perhaps an intimidating prospect.

More than that, though, Motorpsycho know what they’re doing and they have for some time. Kingdom of Oblivion enacts this massive span of work, but also makes it genuinely digestible with each side functioning as a piece of the whole. But with Motorpsycho, there’s just about no way founding members Bent Sæther (bass, lead vocals) and Hand Magnus “Snah” Ryan (guitar/vocals) as well as Swedish import drummer Tomas Järmyr, with the band since 2017, aren’t going to deliver the album they wanted to make.

Even as they’ve consistently explored varying textures and sides of alternative rock, indie, classic heavy riffs and vibes — dig that solo three minutes into “The United Debased” — and keyboard-laced progressive serenity, among others, they’ve carved out an identity that is wholly their own and is maintained on Kingdom of Oblivion. Motorpsycho said they wanted to make a heavier record. So guess what? They did.

Of course it’s not that simple even on its face, but with any new Motorpsycho release, the assumption going into it is that the listener is being placed in the hands of masters, and that’s basically how it works out across Kingdom of Oblivion‘s span. These players are not fools and they do not make foolish decisions in terms of craft. They cast purpose across the punchier beginning the record gets in “The Waning Pt. 1 & 2” and “Kingdom of Oblivion” and the folkish harmonies of the subsequent “Lady May 1,” the experimental atmospherics of “The Watcher (Including the Crimson Eye)” and “Dreamkiller” after “The United Debased” (which, yeah, fair), as they make ready to dig into the post-jazz “Atet” and revive the more rocking progressions on “At Empire’s End,” offsetting with acoustic stretches as they careen between styles and motivations.

Kingdom of Oblivion, which on headphones functions with a smoothness that’s outright beautiful in how it uses bass to emphasize melody as well as rhythm alongside the guitar and drums, is patient in its execution and refuses to go anywhere it doesn’t want to go, but that doesn’t at all mean Motorpsycho are doing only one thing throughout, because they’re simply not. Even in the earliest going — which is unquestionably where the harder hitting material lies and is the first impression the band wanted to make as a lead-in for all that follows — the songs aren’t entirely singular in their purpose as the second part of “The Waning” picks up motorik in the second half of that 7:30 track and the title-track meets its early fuzz with later wash of keys ahead of the guitar solo that borders on orchestral.

motorpsycho

None of these moves are particularly unexpected for Motorpsycho, but that doesn’t make the journey less thrilling, and their embrace of a heavier push early gives the subsequent semi-extended pieces like “The United Debased” (9:04), “At Empire’s End” (8:36) and “The Transmutation of Cosmoctopus Lurker” (10:56) — each one featuring on its own side like the showcase work it is — all the more of a dynamic range to work from. Same goes for the acoustic work throughout and other more classically progressive moments.

“Lady May 1” feels like a nature-worshiping take on Simon & Garfunkel (that’s a compliment) and though “Dreamkiller” surges from its minimal beginning to striking heft, it flows easily to the wandering guitar of the two-minute “Atet” ahead of the grooving volume trades and engrossing payoff that “At Emipre’s End” provides, backed by “The Hunt,” a folkier jaunt that teases Tull-ish storytelling without going all-in with the flute and leg kick. Fair enough.

The softest and quietest Motorpsycho get on Kingdom of Oblivion is on side D, where the subdued “After the Fair” and the closer “Cormorant” surround on either side of “The Transmutation of Cosmoctopus Lurker.” As for the quizzically named longest cut on the record itself, it is duly dizzying in its riffs and solo work and melodically grand, vocals hitting an apex in the midsection leading to a guitar-and-keys chase that is, yes, head-spinning in King Crimsony tradition. They bring it down, threaten to build it up again, then leave it to quietest bass and ambience to cap, with silence as prelude to “Cormorant”‘s avant, far-off marching finish. An epilogue well earned, and they know it.

Here’s the thing. Yes, Motorpsycho put out a lot of records. Can’t be denied. I won’t pretend to have heard all of them. Yes, they have a history that goes back to 1989. Yes, it’s a lot. What matters more than quantity of the work they’ve done/do, however, is of course the quality of that work, and with Kingdom of OblivionMotorpsycho emphasize that the most essential moment is not the past but the present.

Motorpsycho are creating pivotal heavy progressive and psychedelic rock right now. Not in 1989. Not in 2015. Now. Before you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of taking on listening to them, not knowing where to start and so on, stop for a second and take it one thing at a time. Kingdom of Oblivion, oddly enough since some of it was recorded at the same time, works as an entry point even better than the prior trilogy because while one can hardly call it restrained across its run, it nonetheless brings to light so much of what makes Motorpsycho the crucial and influential band they are. I’m not saying ignore history and context altogether, but Kingdom of Oblivion stands on its own and is worth experiencing in that light.

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