Innovative Swedish heavyweights Cult of Luna take the conceptualizing of their last effort, or indeed efforts – the album/EP combo Vertikal I and Vertikal II – out of the claustrophobic “Metropolis”-like cityscapes and into the heavens and beyond with their expansive eighth full-length Mariner.
The band counter the departure of founding guitarist Erik Olofsson with the addition, at least for Mariner, of Brooklyn-based singer Julie Christmas, whose vocals add a whole new dimension to the band’s otherworldly post-metal, and play out their tale of space travel in a steampunky manner that seems part old nautical yarn, part sci-fi adventure. Here, it’s not the technological concerns that matter so much as the voyage itself, and the sense of discovery that comes with it. And it makes for a pretty entertaining trip.
Mariner’s journey unfolds over five ever-more-epic tracks that eschew standard structure in favor of a series of movements that make for a compelling narrative thread and cinematic scale. Starting with the eight-minute opener “A Greater Call,” the songs grow progressively longer and more sprawling until building to the magnum opus finale “Cyngus,” which tops out just short of 15 minutes.
Yet despite its often droning, potentially suffocating sound, Mariner’s 55 minutes rarely drag, a testament to the band’s considerable skill at creating mood and drama and working with dynamics to craft something that not only holds your attention but is often downright mesmerizing. Christmas, the former Battle Of Mice/Made Out Of Babies frontwoman and now a solo artist, certainly helps in that regard.
From its gentle lilt to its shrill screech, her voice provides the contrast to counter the ursine roar of guitarists Johannes Persson and Fredrik Kihlberg. After the somber, even delicate keyboard and guitar strains that open “A Greater Call” yield to quaking chords and shuddering drums, Christmas is right there dueling Persson’s primal scream with her soaring cleans and remains a prominent presence throughout. She essentially takes the lead on both “Chevron” and the stirring “The Wreck of S.S. Needle” where her considerable range is perfect for the band’s calm/calamitous sonic back and forth.
“Approaching Transition,” fittingly, marks a turn here with its ethereal, Pink Floyd-like instrumentation and muted/distorted vocals – which I’m guessing are Kihlberg’s – following a deliberate, linear course a good way through its 13 minutes. Eventually, things do begin to simmer a bit as the underlying guitar lines ring louder and the vocals grow harsher and shoutier, but the seemingly inevitable crescendo never comes and the song’s close is relatively calm.
For many, “Cygnus” probably conjures images of Rush-like progressive gymnastics from its title. And after the comparatively chill of “Transition,” that’s almost what Cult of Luna delivers – minus the technical indulgence.
“Cygnus” is the most turbulent, involved track here, with a number of dramatic, even jarring turns. Its shimmering guitars are punctuated by hulking riffy bursts, the shuffling percussion takes on a Neurosis-like rumble and churn and the vocals – male and female – go from whisper to scream to back again. By the end, everything is piled on in layer upon layer and the crescendo here comes in wave after wave. It’s breathtaking.
Actually the same could be said about the rest of the album. Mariner is a virtually flawless, endlessly fascinating work – a grand experiment that pays off big time again and again. Whether it will be a one-off for Cult of Luna and Christmas I guess remains to be seen, but let’s hope it’s not.
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