The Porcelain Throne: Cult of Luna

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I usually don’t enjoy when people break The Official Porcelain Throne Guidelines, especially the word count rule, but this one was so good that I had to allow it.  Check out Stanley‘s in depth analysis of a great band.

As a quadragenarian, I have fond memories of patiently awaiting the arrival of the morning post, hoping and praying that a new edition of one my metal subscriptions would flop onto the doormat. On one such cold and rainy spring morning in 2003, Terrorizer Issue 107 arrived. At the time, it was quite popular for magazines to include a free CD featuring music from artists featured in the current edition. Bookending that month’s CD was a track that left me perplexed and, by some paranormal power, made me hit repeat, over and over again. How could a song that lacked razor sharp riffing, double bass drumming and emotional soloing (in short, all the things that drew me to heavy metal) have that effect on me? The band was Cult of Luna. The song, “The Watchtower”.

Birthed from the Umeå hardcore scene after the demise of Eclipse, Cult of Luna was formed by Johannes Persson and Klas Rydberg. While the band originated as a six-piece, over the years the membership of the cult has fluctuated and has been as high as eight when Somewhere along the Highway was recorded. At that time, they had two drummers, three guitarists and three vocalists. Cult of Luna generally fall into the sludge/post-hardcore/post-metal genre, but as they have matured, they have incorporated a lot of post-rock and atmospherics.

As is the case when most bands form, Cult of Luna’s sole focus was writing songs and playing to the local scene, but after being witnessed performing at a free festival in Skellefteå, they were approached by the Rage of Achilles label to record a mini-CD. The band was eager to get their music out, and somehow they were able to record all their songs within the meager budget set aside for the mini-CD. These recordings became the self-titled debut album.


 

Cult of Luna – Cult of Luna (2001)

Unsurprisingly, their debut album contains a raw and aggressive quality. The aural bombardment is so intense that by the time the vocals begin in the opening song, “The Revelation Embodied”, it feels like you’re stuck in a boggy trench with orders to go over the top: oil your rifle, sharpen your bayonet, count your grenades. This is war! It’s a savage opening salvo that doesn’t let up until there is brief moment of clean, plucked strings at the start of the instrumental third track, and that’s eighteen punishing minutes in. During the longest song on the album, “Sleep”, we are provided a very small glimpse into the soundscape that Cult of Luna would later develop, and ultimately perfect, over the next five albums. The opening melancholy guitar riff coupled with the haunting sounds of a cello provides momentary respite, but it’s not very long before the hostility ratchets back up, albeit with a much slower tempo than the earlier songs. The alternating light and heavy provides some needed dynamism, and you realize how these opposing forces are actually complementary and very powerful. “To Be Remembered” is the highlight of the album. The shear vehemence expressed through the larynx shredding vocal delivery is astonishing. While Cult of Luna rarely incorporate clean vocals in their sound, in this song they offer some counterpoint to the trade-off barks of Johannes and Klas. Cult of Luna contains minimal keyboards or electronic samples, but they are subtly used with some effect at the start of “Beyond Fate” and during the spoken word atmospheric interlude “101”. The album closes out with the ominous sounding “The Sacrifice”, which alternates between crushing chords and a simply plucked four-note motif before finally laying you to rest with a gentle acoustic passage. Cult of Luna is a strong debut that relies more on long passages of unrelenting riffs and bass lines than it does on finesse, which make it a challenge listen to sit through in its entirety.


 

The Beyond (2003)

The Beyond brings the sludge, and it brings it hard. Listening to this record is like being dropped off by helicopter in the middle of Pantanal with only a compass and a machete in your knapsack and then, standing waist deep in sediment, being asked to find your way out. The album kicks off with a short drone synth intro to set the stage, but almost immediately the clanging guitars of  “Receiver” start to reverberate and shake the knick-knacks off the mantelpiece. This record is the soundtrack to the razing of a derelict inner-city slum and while it is chock-full of wrecking ball battering riffs, steel girder bending bass lines and pneumatic drilling drums, there are moments of calm as each building collapses and the dust settles. “Leash”, arguably the heaviest song on the album, illustrates this perfectly.  As previously mentioned, “The Watchtower” was my first introduction to the band and after all these years, it’s still my favorite track on “The Beyond”. The loose but thundering opening bass riff, coupled with the melancholy guitar lead, provides an emotional weight that is only fully realized when it is abruptly interrupted by the crashing guitars and drums of the pre-chorus. While the album as a whole drips with suffocating intensity, its deftly positioned interludes and moments of relative tranquility provide adequate breathing room. Of particular note is the country-flavored slide guitar in “Circle” which initially seems incongruous but ultimately works to add another dimension to the mix. Clocking in at over seventy minutes, The Beyond is more than a mouthful but will handsomely reward any listener willing to indulge in a little mastication.


 

Salvation (2004)

One of the things that I enjoy most about Cult of Luna is their maturation from record to record. They have never been content to just make the same album over and over again, instead choosing to expand upon their previous output by incorporating fresh ideas with experimentation aplenty, and this is immediately apparent upon hearing Salvation. The pummeling percussion has progressed to incorporate delicate patterns that twist and turn throughout the extended compositions. The heavily distorted guitars and throbbing bass have mellowed into cleaner overdriven tones. The vocals are the only real constant in the sound, and although used more sparsely than on previous albums, they are now the focal point for intensity and aggression. Don’t get me wrong though. There are still huge, smothering walls of sound present, but they are more refined. Couple this with a crystal clear production, and it allows the listener to experience the workings of just one instrument at a time should they choose. The whole record is a master class in how to develop mood and intensity by layering one instrument upon another and then, by subtly evolving riffs and beats, take you on a journey of no return. The build-ups are long and the drop-offs precipitous. Take album opener “Echoes”. The almost soothing introductory interplay between the delay-ridden clean guitar and organ slowly evolves with the addition of each instrument. First, a tribal drum beat. Next, an overdriven guitar and bass. More guitars. More keyboards. Last, the vocals. Layers are added. Layers are stripped away. “Leave Me Here” is probably the most accessible song on display, so if you’re just dipping your toe into Cult of Luna’s waters, you can start here. I won’t be offended as it does encapsulate their essence of balancing light and dark in a perfectly formed little package. For the more adventurous, check out the mostly instrumental “Waiting For You” which begins with a wonderful mellow passage before morphing into an absolutely banging riff. The song’s climax needs to be heard, much like the entire album.


 

Somewhere Along the Highway (2006)

For the recording of Somewhere along the Highway, the band relocated themselves to a repurposed barn in the Swedish countryside and, apparently, the change in geography had a huge impact on their inspiration and creativity. Shifting direction from the highly polished and meticulously crafted Salvation, the band opted for a more organic and earthy tone, and it sounds like much of the album could have been recorded live. The songs are flowing and expansive. They start on one continent and end on another. The formless progressions are conspicuously absent of hooks, instead relying on sonic evolution to take the listener on an aural adventure. Cult of Luna treat their art much like ironworkers treat ore: firing, forging, hammering, cooling, forming, reforming. The colossal “Finland” starts by pounding your weak body flat, and just when can’t take one more blow, you are dunked into a calming water bath. Then your malleable remains are slowly fashioned into something bigger, something better, something stronger, something unrecognizable. One of the more noticeable changes on this album came in the form of new recruit, Fredrik Kihlberg, who not only filled the spot of third guitarist but also third vocalist. His contributions are profound, especially on album opener “Marching to the Heartbeats” and album highlight “And with Her Came the Birds”. The song reveals a more tender side to Cult of Luna, but it still carries a substantial weight. Never have I heard a banjo (that’s right, a banjo) sound so mournful. Another album highlight is Andreas Johansson’s melodious bass line that originates about a third of the way into “Dim”, as it’s unlike anything you would expect to find on a metal album. It takes me by surprise every time. “Somewhere Along The Highway” is a heavy album, not necessarily in the traditional sense, but in the bleak atmosphere that it conveys. It is, for the most part, extremely forlorn and as such, best enjoyed alone. Just make sure that you have the Samaritans’ phone number handy.


 

Eternal Kingdom (2008)

After the release of Somewhere along the Highway, Cult of Luna felt that they had taken that incarnation of their sound to its logical conclusion. They saw the scene stagnating by becoming more mellow and atmospheric and so they made the decision to go in the opposite direction. The songs are more concise and do not necessarily rely on the long atmospheric build-ups or crescendos previously utilized. The band seems confident to let the atmospheric interludes stand alone rather than be incorporated into lengthier compositions. Since inception, Cult of Luna have always employed two percussionists (Thomas Hedlund and Magnus Lindberg) and on Eternal Kingdom they hit their stride. There are some monstrous passages of their innovative brand of dual attack that can only be achieved with eight limbs. Look no further than album opener “Owlwood” and you’ll notice the progression. The best song on the album, which also happens to be the longest, is “Ghost Trail”. It’s a real shape-shifter offering a slow building intro, some delicate leads, dense guitars and even a country-esque mid-section. The icing on the cake is the granite-grinding finale, which delivers one of the biggest climaxes in their entire repertoire. One of the more progressive moments on the album is the peaceful horn segment during “The Lure” which is much needed after the battering dealt by “Ghost Trail”. The album then settles into a groove (which is not necessarily a good thing) with the next few tracks alternating between hefty songs and lighter interludes. They are good songs, just not great songs. Fortunately, the album closes with a bang with the two-fer “Following Betulas” which starts off as one song and ends as another, both sections being complete head bangers.


 

Vertikal (2013)

Having spent the last few albums taking inspiration from the nature of the northern Swedish countryside, Cult of Luna wanted to take their sound into the city and into the future. They quickly realized that a lot of the concepts and images that they were discussing corresponded with the themes presented in German expressionist Fritz Lang’s pioneering movie, Metropolis. Cult of Luna took these influences to heart and made wholesale stylistic changes with everything from the riffs becoming more monotone and artificial sounding to the album’s overall arrangements, presentation, and art work. There are a lot more electronic elements present throughout the entire album, and it’s immediately apparent that keyboardist Anders Teglund was more heavily involved in the song writing process this time around. While there are the obvious synth driven intros and interludes like “The One”, “The Sweep”, and “Disharmonia”, it’s the moments where they actually form the songs’ main melodies where they shine, such as in “I: The Weapon” and “Mute Departure”. Another item of note is the return of Frederik’s clean vocals (which were noticeably absent on “Eternal Kingdom) on the despondent “Passing Through”. It’s a magical song, and although it seems like it’s already utter perfection, the live acoustic version of the song is remarkable. No discussion regarding “Vertikal” would be complete without mentioning the drumming. This might be my favorite percussive album of all time. You won’t find any blast beats or double bass rumblings, but what you will find are highly original mind bending rhythms that twist in and out of the riffs, slowly metamorphosizing. Just listen to “Synchronicity” or “In Awe Of” and you’ll experience expertly constructed arrangements that fly in the face of the traditional metal manifesto. If you only have time to listen to one album in their catalogue right now, start here. To my ears, the artistic “Vertikal” is the pinnacle of their output.

On December 17th, 2013, Cult of Luna announced on Facebook that they would be taking a hiatus, but they quickly followed it up with a clarifying post – “We are not quitting”. Instead, they stated that in the future they may put out records and play shows, but they do not have timeframes for any of these activities. “Cult Of Luna will not die”. True to their word they continue to play live and although they have just cancelled their US Festival and mini-tour due to visa issues, they are planning on playing more US/Canada dates in September. Catch them if you can. It may be your last time to see them. Or maybe not.

(Photo taken by Stanley)

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