Though not widely considered a tourist hotspot, Umea in Sweden is high on my “must visit bucket list” Not for any traditional reason but simply to investigate how this university town of just over 100,000 residents has managed to produce the remarkable trio of Refused, Meshuggah and Cult Of Luna. All three rate among my favourite bands, all diverse in nature, all brilliant in output and influence. If there is actually something in the Umea water then I want to bathe in it. Among these three bands Cult Of Luna stand alone in a musical sense with the only fair comparison to the other legends being their legacy and position of reverence among both peers and hardcore fan following.
COL has been peddling their dense post metal and experimental sludge wares since 1998 and there sound has been evolving along the journey. Initially they were more straight up doom-tinged death metal but they are a different beast these days. Now they are exponents of epic and expansive heavy music that is itself a journey.
Vertikal; the band’s sixth release, continues their evolution and maintains their standing as the preeminent artists in their genre. It has been five years since the group’s previous release and after a few listens to their latest opus it is obvious why. This music is painstakingly constructed, it is so deep and dense that it continues to expose it’s nuances and intricacies only with repeated listens. COL are rarely about instant gratification, they are about immersing you within the sound and unpicking the complex and detailed structure until the full majesty and brilliance are apparent. They are expert in dynamics and building a song with so many layers and subtleties that it is possible to discover completely new aspects after several listens. There are currently seven members in the band and I can’t help but be impressed by the discipline shown by the various musicians to take a place within the machine and contribute their part. All players are happy to sit in their niche and add their touch, even if minimal, until the inevitable, ultimate payoff comes. This is the release, the moment when you cannot help but be picked up and tossed around by the waves of sound, it is built on by the lead up and the fact each instrument contributes only what is required and only when it is required. This is particularly evident in the extended midsections of several songs on Vertikal. These passages are where the band displays expert ability to push repetition containing subtle addition toward eventual explosion.
To bring balance to the powerful perfection of these crescendos, the band excel at drip feeding you a song, forcing you to the brink with the musical equivalent of Chinese water torture, and just when it turns towards unbearable the levy bursts and you are swamped in the beautiful heavy sound. Despite being made up of seven members this is a band that understands the power found in restraint. The constructs can be so measured and slow that they become hypnotic, edging closer and closer to the inevitable crescendo of crushing noise that awaits.
The modus operandi may be the same for this band but the execution has differed enough from album to album to ensure renewed interest and again the band have found a way to include enough minor variations for this album to keep things interesting. Vertikal has reportedly been inspired by the classic 1927 Fritz Lang film Metropolis. As a consequence it has a sound that seems more linear and focused than most previous efforts, occasionally robotic and stark but also bright and energizing. This is the soundtrack for dystopia yet tempered with hope.
Another point of difference is the increased prominence of the electronic elements, adding an ominous quality to their already dark sound. Anders Teglund and his array of tech-toys and synths don’t dominate the record but his intros and segues add a new element of increased depth and occasionally a surprising melody within the heaviness of the tracks. When this newfound electronic prominence is coupled with the increased use of clean vocals it enables more depth among the atmospherics. Make no mistake COL are still ostensibly a guitar driven band, the power of the three axe attack when in full flight is unmistakable and largely unmatched. The space provided by the electronic elements allows the guitar to often build layer upon layer of aural ammunition. Fortifying the sound is the fact that a rhythm section including two drummers relentlessly and expertly drives the band. It is Cult Of Luna’s ability to incorporate all these elements without ever being self indulgent or audacious that separates them from the pack.
Vocally Johannes Persson takes centre stage after the departure of former fellow vocalist and founding member Klas Rydberg. His abrasive bellow is distinctive and powerful but rarely overwhelming. The musical interludes between tracks coupled with the occasional clean vocal; particularly haunting on ‘Passing Through,’ mean the aggression is never too harsh and avoids feeling like an album-long berating. Persson’s vocals sit perfectly in the mix and are the ideal accompaniment to the bleak lyrics and dark theme.
This is an album that can stalk you and creep up on you, like the eighteen minute ‘Vicarious Redemption’ or can punch you right in the baby maker from the get go like the opening salvo of ‘I: The Weapon’. It is extremely even in song quality and almost demands to be treated as a complete work, listened to as an album from beginning to end. Cult Of Luna once again prove to be expert at drawing the listener into a world of darkness before erupting into a heavy yet uplifting wave of exhilarating genius. It is another brilliant work by a band that continues to build an impressive legacy.
Summary : This album is like a long drive through mountains – long slow inclines with glimpses of incredible beauty just beyond the perilously close decent to the side. The apex is eventually reached before plunging down steep declines tinged with danger and excitement. And when the journey is completed you are left exhausted yet exhilarated, drained and yet fulfilled.