CULT OF LUNA’S ETERNAL KINGDOM IS EXPANSIVE AND EMOTIONAL
It’s hard to apply the word “beautiful” to metal without drifting into “Silent Lucidity” territory. And perhaps it’s not fair to expect to, either; the reason many of us love the extreme side of metal is to admire its ugliness and/or revel in it’s harsh edges and moldy undercarriages, using it to soften the frustrations of a shitty job, miserable relationship/lack of one, a deficiency of money or respect, or all of the above, if not more. Its jagged darkness can perhaps be justified as a way to make the beauty of life more veritable, projecting your frustrations on a fury of blastbeats and screaming in order to have them tucked away for when things are good. But the juxtaposition between light and dark, murderous and philanthropic, savage and serene makes the edges sharper. Though in the last few years this ugly/pretty thing has become too gimmicky (Decibel’s coining of the term “Good Cop/Bad Cop vocals” is still too ingenious for words), it’s still capable of being done right. And even amidst the now-approaching-overkill flood of post-metal/metalgaze/what-have-you bands, there are still gruff-throated dudes with the ability to subtly marry melody, melancholy, and brutality in ways previously thought impossible. Cult of Luna’s latest, Eternal Kingdom, is an excellent example of the expansive and emotional potential of metal that manages to stay tasteful and sidestep histrionics.
In the Big Three of post-metal – Neurosis, Isis, and Cult of Luna – CoL always were the anomaly (perhaps the equivalent of Anthrax in thrash’s Big Four): they were adequate, had good ideas, but never struck the same powerful chords that Isis’ Oceanic or Neurosis’ Through Silver and Blood did. Their last album, the great Somewhere Along the Highway, did its job, but never justified its existence as a classic. They seemed to be a band getting much more credit than they deserved, but also disappointing in that they seemed to have the potential to be envelope-pushers instead of envelope-lickers. Eternal Kingdom, almost every lush note of it, is the sound of Cult of Luna’s justification.
The first thing about it is that it’s enormous. Its running time is reasonable, but the density of the material is that of several lesser records. The guitars shimmer likes lakes and crash like waves, the drums sound huge, and everything is properly ornamented with decidedly non-metal instruments. There’s not a speck of silence left unfilled; Eternal Kingdom manages to be compositionally epic without sounding bloated. With an attention to gargantuan detail usually reserved for Phil Spector or the Polyphonic Spree, Cult of Luna redefine dynamics for the metal vernacular. The album eschews melodrama in lieu of sounding dramatic. The closing notes of “Finding Betulas,” the album’s final track, are played in part on trumpets. While many orchestral black metallers often rely on expensive keyboards to sound epic and regal, Cult of Luna go straight for the source – the instruments themselves. Though a luxury not affordable for many, the band utilizes this luxury both effectively and tastefully.
This is not to say the album isn’t heavy as fuck; it’s just approached in a manner barely-to-never explored in metal. The guitars, all wrapped in the warmth of reverb, explode and light everything around them. Their panoramic ambitions dwarf the crunchy, compressed tremolo picking of their peers, floating in the air like they were peeled off a Cure record then firebombing the landscape: the eruption after the jerky stop-start march of the title track and the devastating blows of the final minutes of “Ghost Trail” are perfect examples.
And speaking of “Ghost Trail”, without sinking into unnecessary hyperbole, it’s easily one of the most remarkable metal songs of this or any decade. Though the portions of the record that come before and after it are still stunning, “Ghost Trail” manages to be Eternal Kingdom‘s epic centerpiece. Its 11 minutes are a slow but purposeful journey through a haunting melody, revisited through the course of the song in different variations. After a spectacular guitar buildup that piles luscious, raining arpeggios over a steady chord progression, all with a subtle sadness and beauty that adds a sturdy emotional base, the song drops out and tinkers around quietly, accented by – the album’s most surprising element, which is saying a lot – jaw harp. Its use is so effective, though, that only on a second or third listen is this bizarre choice of instrument apparent. After a few minutes of tip toeing, the song blasts back with its brontosaurus-sized stomp, with the same guitars from earlier violently reimagined, moving steadily from a menacing doom march to the velocity of a rolling bolder. Though the same effect has been used before (most noticeably on Converge’s “The Saddest Day” and… well, hundreds of classical pieces), Cult of Luna own it in that moment, making something as simple as a gradual increase in tempo sound innovative. Then the songs stops– no pretentious feedback, no fadeout, no soft outro, nothing. “Ghost Trail” is less of a song than it is an event.
Eternal Kingdom is supposedly based on the journals of a mental patient who resided in the abandoned asylum where CoL wrote the record. Whether or not this is true (though they supposedly turned the diaries in to the town’s historical society after the album was recorded, so perhaps there is physical proof), the album feels like a whole universe aside from what we know. Though it doesn’t necessarily supply tangible imagery, the album is one of the most evocative metal records released in recent memory. Even vocalist Klas Rydberg, who spent their last album sounding like clone of Isis‘ Aaron Turner, varies his barks and shouts to suit the music churning behind it. But he never resorts to clean singing, despite the overall beauty of the record. Cult of Luna play within the rules of metal, yet manage to do something completely different with them. Beauty exists within its abrasiveness, both working perfectly in tandem. They’ve earned their right to be mentioned in the same breath as Neurosis and Isis, for sure, as well as other against-the-grain metal bands bucking the silly trends that have ruined metal for many. Eternal Kingdom is a deeply affecting, deeply moving, but also the possessor of a deep, deep heaviness that rattles the deceptively shallow foundations of metal.
(4 1/2 out of 5 horns)