Band: Cult of Luna with Julia Christmas
Album: Mariner (2016)
Where to buy: Bandcamp
Swedish metal band Cult of Luna collaborated with American noise rock and metal singer Julie Christmas to release Mariner in 2016. The five track album is nearly 55 minutes long, and I haven’t heard many albums where “sonic landscape” is quite so apropos. Cult of Luna is often dubbed as post-metal, and it’s easy to hear the influence of previous metal movements in the songs. That said, Mariner does a great job of inhabiting its own timing, so even the 15-minute finale feels well-structured and deliberate. In fact, Cult of Luna’s ability to take their time may be their greatest asset, and is showcased here in top form. The key element, however, is Christmas’s vocals, which lift the entire album up.
The songs are characterized by brooding, atmospheric drones, heavy and distorted guitars, reliable drums and bass, and intentionally juxtaposed lyrical stylings and verse-bridge pairs. Christmas does a fantastic job here, employing multiple vocal techniques to come off as sometimes wry, sometimes angry, always intense and self-possessed. Her melodic work soars alternately in front of and behind the rhythm guitar and synth combo. Occasionally she rises into screaming lyrics and it actually works for her, because she maintains melody throughout. To wit: she’s actually singing. In sharp contrast are the two male vocalists, who do almost nothing but scream. They remind me too much of screamo and nu-metal from the late 90s and early 2000s, lyrical movements that consciously eschewed musicality and are easy to make fun of for good reason. There are moments in Mariner where the screaming male voices work, but they’re overshadowed by the times when you simply wish they weren’t present at all. This is particularly evident on “Cygnus,” the quarter-hour final track, where the male voices simply repeat lyrics Christmas has already sung, only worse. Some people must like that sort of thing, but I expect they’re either really into screamo or in their fifteenth year of being fifteen. Here, there’s a sense the band wasn’t confident enough to let the heavy bridges do their work without distracting screaming on top, and the result is occasionally unfortunate.
But mostly it’s impressive. Mariner opens with ponderous, long and sonorous tones that set the stage for the hour to come. Extremely heavy riffs emerge with drum and bass support, and the layering of lyrical stylings begins. Christmas sings background vocals on “A Greater Call,” but dominates the vocals for most of the rest of the album. The drums are pounding and the bass is driving and even at times a bit funky, which was a fun surprise on a metal album. “Chevron” continues the surprise with the occasional provocative progression. Christmas’s lyrics are strong and raw and lift the melody with the guitars cohesively. This is the first track with distinct movements, the second longer and with more textures – a neat microcosm of the album itself. These first two tracks are the shortest, each under 9 minutes, but you can tell the band is enjoying taking its time in creating long, slow build-ups. Their preferred pattern is for a synth to lay down an ominous drone, then the string instruments add their riffs, and then the drums supply the beat. Once established, Christmas sings clean lyrics, there is a heavy bridge, and sometimes the male vocalists scream a previous verse. This is followed by more verses and bridges arranged in counterpoint, an element derived straight from 1980s metal. It works for Cult of Luna, and the songs never once come across as rushed or agitated. Apart from the male voices, there is a strong sense of control here.
The album highlight for me was “The Wreck of the S.S. Needle,” a 9-and-a-half minute opus that starts out so much like the opening notes of The Thing (1982) that I want someone to cut a music video for the track using clips from the movie. The song is supremely heavy and Christmas uses her full range here. A close second for me was the fourth track, “Approaching Transition,” which is by far the most pensive song on the album, and the slowest. This tune moves through lots of clean verses and bridges, creating a spooky and dramatic tone before, unfortunately, the male screaming comes back near the end of the song. But everything before that is great.
Sadly, the final track is marred by the already-mentioned male voices, and would be almost a perfect song without them. There are tempo shifts, synth trills, creative drum breakdowns and build-ups. The structure is variegated; the multiple movements echo each other like a progressive instrumental from the 90s. Again, the interplay of voices features strongly here. Mariner ends with a final screamed verse and every instrument playing its hardest, fitting for the work the artists have done here. Without Christmas, the album would be far less interesting. With her, Cult of Luna have elevated their work.