Review Summary: Sweden's post-metal stalwarts have put forth yet another droney, powerful effort. A little repetitive, but definitely worth a listen.
Since the release of their self titled Earache debut in 2001, Cult of Luna have been Sweden’s answer to the “Neur-Isis” head nodding, post-hardcore school of music. Coming from a country mostly known for its burgeoning melodic death metal scene (Opeth, At the Gates) and from a city, Umea, mostly known among musicians for tech metal masters Meshuggah, Cult of Luna have a more than ample background to succeed and be recognized in the competitive metal community. 2003 saw their sophomore album, The Beyond, come and go, the band still not being recognized by more than the elite underground crowd. A mere year later, the breakthrough finally came in the form of their third full length, Salvation. A sprawling, epic album containing crushing riffs interspersed with moments of contemplative ambience, Salvation brought the band to as much recognition as one can have signed to Earache and being from a small town in Sweden. The only thought in people’s minds was: how can they even attempt at creating a successor to this amazing work? The answer: rescind their highly produced, spotless sound and record in a barn on the outskirts of their hometown. This might sound ridiculous, following up the beautiful production on Salvation with a completely rough, no frills approach to tracking. Surprisingly, it works quite well and lends a certain eerie atmosphere to the whole recording, making you feel as if you’re in that creepy barn with them.
Somewhere Along the Highway is a compilation of sorts, an amalgam of the band’s past sonic experiments with a healthy dose of new approaches to the somewhat repetitive formula. The massive, speaker destroying riffs are still here, as are the moments of introspective ambience and echoing plucked strings. The sludgy, chugging basslines honestly never get old, neither do the tightly controlled drum rhythms of their older sound. Their new sound, however, is the reason why this album will not be another casualty in the “lets top Isis at their own game” crowd of drone/hardcore bands. The haunting melody of the first track, “Marching to the Heartbeats”, serves as a somber introduction to an even darker incarnation of Cult of Luna than in releases past. Vocalist Klas Rydberg even sings in his raspy, melancholy voice instead of his usual scream. The slow, plaintive banjo (yes, you read that right) picking of “And With Her Came the Birds” acts as a nice intermission between the ten minute exercises in churning riffs and throat ripping vocals. There are some downright beautiful moments, however. The repetitive snare pattern and haunting choral vocals in the latter part of “Thirtyfour” comes to mind, as does the simple repetition of chords and arpeggios at the beginning of the next song, “Dim”. “Dim” just might be Cult of Luna’s most achingly beautiful, driving piece of music yet. With it’s bassline tucked neatly in the background and the interplay between the guitars pushed to the front of the soundscape, the track’s excellent kick snare pattern moves it through nearly twelve minutes of Explosions in the Sky-esque post rock, albeit with somewhat heavier riffs and a grittier overall sound. When the central riff finally becomes distorted and the signature yelled lyrics come in at the nine minute mark, the track explodes into an earth-shattering finale, then fades out with mellow electronics.
I could have sworn the band accidentally mixed in a Nine Inch Nails song at the end of their disc when “Dark City, Dead Man” began to pump through my speakers. My fears were put to rest nearly three minutes later when the song evolved into an organic, slow burning jam with a killer, head-bangable riff. The ambitious, fifteen minute track, the first for Cult of Luna, continues to build up steam as the riffs shuffle in and out of the soundscape until the six and a half minute mark, when the song collapses and is rebuilt with an excellent ascending bassline and droning guitars. It boils down again to a simple cymbal snare beat with delicate plucking and dreary ambience behind it. The track rises and falls numerous times in the last seven minutes of its existence, inhaling and exhaling like a monolithic, lumbering beast. It is beautiful, repetitive, and mesmerizing, just like the band that created it. Though slow at times, with some patience, Somehwere Along the Highway is a very rewarding album. Not as deep and moving as Isis’ Panopticon nor as tribal and innovative as Neurosis’ The Eye of Every Storm, but it’s as good and at times better than anything Cult of Luna has done in the past. If you’re into this genre of music, or either of the aforementioned bands, Somewhere Along the Highway is essential listening to hear the next step in dynamics within the style. They may sound a bit too much like Isis at times, but they still make beautiful and occasionally original music.