The superb, long-awaited III from the Danish band Sorten Muld ("Black Earth") is a collection of meticulously sculpted, post-modernized Nordic balladry. The core trio, featuring electronica wizards Henrik Munch and Martin Ottosen, and the dusky voice and presence of Ulla Bendixsen, work within a dangerous genre. Modern dance beats could easily overwhelm the stately, often tragic themes Bendixsen explores. However, it is clear that in researching their ancient repertoire, Sorten Muld are willing to exercise a certain amount of restraint in order to let the folk tales be told. Their sound is like the darkness on the surface of water, with each instrument standing sharply defined in the mix like the clarity winter air gives sight. So it is that the poetic advice offered on "Volven (The Fortune Teller)" is actually enhanced by the drum 'n' bass pyrotechnics; or the creepy ballad of "Ulver," killer of virgins, is made eerily theatrical by chattering beats overlaid by a plaintive bagpipe melody.
Most of Sorten Muld's themes follow this bleak vein. A mother inquires about her daughter's trysting; a jealous suitor slays his competition. My favorite track on III would have to be "Ramund," who has a spell cast on him by a female dwarf. The low piano notes, the percolating percussive beats, and the rising, swelling electronics are pure clubland. But "Ramund" also is indicative of a new maturity in this Danish act. For all its icy beauty, Sorten Muld have hit their stride in crafting great drama that spans the ages. -- Lee Blackstone
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