For all of the acclaim thrown at Cult of Luna, not enough is said about their visual and sonic skills. Their last two albums, Eternal Kingdom and Vertikal, follow one another chronologically, but more than just containing different songs, they look and sound like a world apart. Eternal Kingdom uses clean tones to represent the rawness and natural-feel of its setting, while the cover image shows the otherworldly and familiar beasts that roam its maddening land. Vertikal has tones so fuzzy and sharp they could only be factory-made – a piercing synth drives passages in ‘In Awe Of’ and ‘I: The Weapon’ that never existed on Eternal Kingdom. The black and grey columns of its cover art represent the smoky metropolis, a stark comparison with the breathing and marching life found in its predecessor.
With Mariner, and with Julie Christmas by their side, Cult of Luna combine their last two excursions. This astral setting was heralded initially by the reintroduction of colour to their artwork, using fluorescent hues to set apart this technology from the monochrome of the city. As the band themselves then said, as a reaction to a dying home and a leaking ship, the “vastness of space” called. The electronic dominance of Vertikal remains, but it is full of life rather than covered in smog. The riffs march like they did on Eternal Kingdom – there is a purpose, there is a heartbeat, and there is an exploratory feel compared to the claustrophobic dankness of last time.
Julie Christmas’s involvement is what hits you first. On ‘A Greater Call’ she delicately acts as a counterpoint to Johannes Persson’s shouting. Plenty of bands have explored this beauty-and-the-beast type of vocal delivery, but as Cult of Luna themselves said, ‘A Greater Call’ is not indicative of her involvement on this project. It acts as a go-between, leaving the city for the stars, with the most immediately recognisable structure of Mariner’s five tracks, and introduces Christmas’s vocals to the mix before she takes charge with ‘Chevron’ and ‘The Wreck of S.S. Needle.’
And take charge she does. She steps forward as ‘Chevron’ begins, singing over the top of a singular bassline in a way Cult of Luna could never do on their own. Her expressive voice, switching between effortless grace and out of control lunacy in an instant, is as unpredictable as post-metal instrumental dynamics. Her vocals are both beauty and the beast.
Indeed, Mariner is an incredibly vocal-heavy album when compared to their other outputs. ‘The Wreck of S.S. Needle’ has more than one catchy hook that sticks in your head, but never compromises that feeling of teetering on the brink of one thing or another; a beautiful and hypnotic passage, or an earth-shattering (in this case, ship-shattering) riff.
This means there are vocal traits that are completely new additions to Cult of Luna’s catalogue. Persson’s vocal delivery is typically fierce and aggressive, but the nuances that Christmas brings could only be done by her in this situation. The chorus to ‘The Wreck of S.S. Needle’ is genuinely infectious; the way she sings ‘star dust’ on ‘Cygnus’ is personally satisfying; her melodic and howled aggression on ‘Chevron’ could be used as a statement towards the male-dominated metal genre that shouts women can hang just as well as the guys. Christmas’s addition does not make Cult of Luna any more or less beautiful than their music already was, and to assume that that was her role is naïve – what she allows the band to do is widen their palette, and collectively they expand into their astral surroundings and fill them with characteristic magnificence.
The quiet/loud dynamic still exists, but it is rolled out in a longer game. ‘Approaching Transition’ has a first-half that would fit comfortably on a Khoma album, while the final five minutes of ‘Cygnus’ is one repeated riff that builds and builds with more percussion, more vocal lines, more layers of all-consuming hypnotic aggression. Much like Somewhere Along the Highway, this is an album that benefits from being listened to in one sitting – after Christmas has made her mark, ‘Approaching Transition’ slows things down with a deliberate pace, before everything culminates for the 15-minute ‘Cygnus’ which passes in what feels like an instant.
Mariner may only be five tracks long, but it clocks in at just under an hour. Fans of Cult of Luna and of Julie Christmas will be delighted that everything comes together to make one epic piece of work. It sounds massive, and it is appropriate that it does so – after the confines of Vertikal, this is the band breaking free to explore uncharted territory, and Christmas being on-board for the ride allows them to hit peaks, both musically and emotionally, they have never been able to go near before. An exceptional piece of work.
[Scott Wilson – @HeartofFire]