As much as it remains a concept, post-metal has become a tangible, identifiable sound and genre. More and more heavy bands continue to push their music in wondrous, experimental directions: Mammifer, the new Cobalt, the heavy bliss of Deftones, and even the drifting death metal of Lycus. All these bands drift beyond easy classification, their aggression set against pleasant melodies and calming drones. Things don’t have to be harsh all the time. Sweden’s Cult of Luna helped shape this post-metal sound with 2004’s Salvation and 2006’s Somewhere Along the Highway. They proved that sludge metal could be poetic; a song could be 15 minutes long, both brutal and beautiful.
As post-metal enjoys its renaissance, hearing a band that sounds like Cult of Luna is more common, though there are few who can match that band’s level of compositional proficiency and tonal mastery. For their latest project, Mariner, they reach more for the post than the metal, dabbling in space rock and adding versatile vocalist and Brooklyn sorceress Julie Christmas to help color that vision. In a somewhat pedantic press release, the band describes Mariner as a figurative journey through the cosmos after the gritty reality that was their last album, Vertikal: “So, we left … Onward, forward. Like the old seafarers, we explored the vastness of space. Not bound by physical laws, we pass the speed of light and chase the expansion of space until we reach its limit. And then we continued on and disappeared. This is our story.”
It’s like something you’d read on the inner sleeve of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer LP, totally full of itself. For the most part, the music on Mariner follows suit, as Cult of Luna reach for the grandiose with giddy glee. This album is like a kid with an overflowing toy box, dumping it all out in a pile just because it’s possible. Or a painter with all the swatches taped against the wall — why not? Or a band with so many ideas that they end up writing them all into a massive 15-minute song (or two, as is the case with Mariner). Though it’s occasionally stunning, the album never has the effect of a space-faring experience or a Sagan-esque trip to the edge of the solar system. It’s too frantic, too sonically piecemeal (the band, Christmas’ vocals, the drums were all recorded separately).
Opener “A Greater Call” is a strong scene-setter. Cult of Luna sound as you remember, except with the harsh edges rounded off. The rhythm section of bassist Andreas Johansson and drummer Thomas Hedlund are still heavy, but the guitars mimic the rhythmic wash of keyboards and synths, which are also in abundance. Screams are placed against the looming, peripheral background vocals of Christmas, creating an unsettling dissonance. The Floydian buildup of synths has the effect of a stratospheric liftoff, but the band fail to maintain the trance of this moment.
Not that the songs are bad. Mariner’s five tracks are progressive workouts, testing every angle of Christmas’ voice, which shines as the highlight performance on the post-punk-tinged “Chevron” and the colossal “The Wreck of S.S. Needle”. The latter progresses through multiple movements — crushing intro to chilled out middle transition to violent climax — and Christmas keeps up, her voice moving from a cracked scream to a quirky falsetto to fit the theme of each transition. However, when the band gets urgent, louder, and more “metal,” something is lost. “Approaching Transition” opens as a spacey slow jam, lingering for seven minutes on a meditative mood reminiscent of Low. Then the tempo picks up, the screams come in, and the vibe changes — and not for the better.
As a clean, classy heavy album, Mariner gets by, but it’s too sterile and calculated to be the transportive cosmic experience intended. Anyone who is a fan of Cult of Luna, Julie Christmas, or complex heavy music will have much to appreciate. Songs like closer “Cygnus” are a crash course in composition; even the instrumental variation is on point. But there is a dissonance between what was laid down and the band’s lofty expectations for that they hoped the conceptual Mariner would achieve. Maybe the act of making the album was a trip through space for Cult of Luna and Christmas, but for the listener its a just above average post-metal album, one that could’ve delved even further into its astral eccentricities.
Essential Tracks: “A Greater Call”, “The Wreck of S.S. Needle”