Hi everyone. Sorry about the gap yesterday, the past few days have been positively grueling, as I’m trying to organize a creative writing workshop under the patronage of the magazine I write for. Whenever multiple people are involved in a project, I’m sure you’ll agree, all hell breaks loose. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it unfortunately means I can’t always find the energy and time to pursue such a personal endeavor as this blog. In any case, I hope one day late is better than never.
Yesterday I wanted to write therapeutically, since I woke up with the sound of my neighbors dropping some sort of lead ingots or dead bodies on their floor, my absolute favorite morning alarm. It was a desperately bleak day (there’s nothing quite as dark and soul-draining as December rain) and I thought Cult of Luna’s “Eternal Kingdom” would be the perfect album to ride through the day. This is probably the “hardest” music I’ve chosen to write about so far, uncompromising, harsh, completely furious, with veins of serenity and breathtaking beauty irrigating it every once in a while. This gives me the chance to tell you a nice little ghost story and talk about one of the principles which governs my taste in music generally.
Cult of Luna are a Swedish band treading the threshold between metal, hardcore, progressive rock and shoegaze, with remarkable relentlessness and predatory grace. Save for the mighty ISIS, I’ve never heard a band compress so much anger, so much intensity into their music, thereby transcending these emotions and offering an intense cathartic experience for a listener such as myself. In fact, Cult of Luna, ISIS, Callisto and a very select few others are playing in a league of their own on such a level that critics have felt the need to invent a new genre to describe their particular brand of music. I’ve heard the term post-metal arise about these bands, and this is a discussion which I don’t really want to get into, since the semantics and musical history behind such a debate would boggle the mind. Suffice to say “metal”, the genre which built itself around the concept of expressing intense emotions ranging from fury to brotherly closeness between friends, doesn’t quite cover this level of expression, but provides the roots, mainly through the sludge-metal and doom-metal sub-genres – that is to say repetitive, heavy, downtuned, atmospheric, gloomy and drone-driven metal focused more on rhythmic complexity and/or subtlety than on technical prowess and showmanship.
This background, with the inspired addition of harmonic layering and modular, progressive structure gives birth to the sound Cult of Luna employ. They wield sound as a protean weapon, both sharp and blunt, crushingly heavy and dazzlingly elegant at the same time, tantalizing for the mind and overwhelmingly energetic for the heart. The successive peaks they reach in most of their songs, the unrelenting ability to escalate again and again, until there seems to be no more space to increase the onslaught and tension, only to step it up another notch, this is the kind of thinking which defines Cult of Luna and places them, for the moment at least, at the forefront of this nascent genre.
Eternal Kingdom is an album born out of a certain serendipity. The band had secured a rather unconventional rehearsal and creative space – an abandoned insane asylum. It is there that they found the journal of one of the patients, a schizophrenic man who had written down some of the visions and perceptions his mind was generating. Reading these, trying to make heads or tails of them while surrounded in that particularly eerie atmosphere inspired the band to create this album and, a bit later on, an audiobook. Eternal Kingdom is without a doubt their most cohesive and impressive effort, reaching levels of expression their previous albums had only hinted at. The album feels somehow unhinged, unbound, disjointed and strangely coherent all at the same time. The quiet is always a bit quieter and eerier than one would expect and the “noise and the fury” are always a bit too intense for comfort. But it isn’t always about comfort, is it? If the goal is to express the panicked, paranoid, shattered mirror of reality an ill man had to live through, comfort has nothing to do with it, does it? And Cult of Luna pull it off splendidly.
This kind of music illustrates one of the things which draws me so much towards this particular brand of metal – the scintillating contrast between brutality and fragility, between asperity and elegance, between noise and harmony. Managing this kind of duality is tremendously difficult in general, and a particularly successful attempt, I think, stands as the definition of the word “grotesque”, which I find to be one of the most fascinating concepts I can discover in music.
The Tiger Lillies achieve their own brand of grotesque by contrast between scathing social satire and child-like melody and harmony. There, the grotesque lies in the contrast between the lyrics and the music more often than not. Here, the lyrics are mostly inaccessible to the ear, as the growls make it very difficult to distinguish words – the source of this odd feeling is the unbelievable superimposition and succession of the raspy, harrowed voice and guitars with the smooth passages, airy, dark and colossal. The music shifts from claustrophobic, frantic riffs of positively intimidating weight and might to roomy, captivating areas of calm, misty weaves of sound, to such an extent that it feels like every other song on the album is a trip through the walls of a hurricane, through the “eye of the storm”, and back out again. For me, listening to this music feels like dousing myself with water – scalding, then ice-cold, then scalding again, awakening every pore, every sense, keeping me on my toes like nothing else, provoking me, enticing me, infuriating and purifying me to no end. It’s the music I turn to when I need to punch through a rut, to clear my head of all distractions and fight for focus.
I realize Cult of Luna won’t ever be everyone’s cup of tea. This is a kind of expression with a sort of uncontrolled, frothing-at-the-mouth passion behind it which can drive a lot of people away. If someone had presented me with this band ten years ago, I would’ve ran screaming. In spite of this, however, Eternal Kingdom has become one of my favorite albums and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone with a harder edge to their musical tastes. Thanks for listening and see you tomorrow!