Review Summary: no splish-splash, nothing but the best (please)
What do you do when you’re at the top of your game? Where do you go if you’ve supposedly been there a while? How do you cope if, say, you’re a band riding high from a universally acclaimed work a couple of years back and all anyone wants is more of whatever that was, but
you play a style of atmospheric post-metal slow and spartan enough that anything bordering on a rehash or lack of innovation is instantly shown up like an inauspicious moon phasing on clean sheets? Damn. Is it any wonder that few bands in this genre have managed to keep a hot streak going for as long as Cult of Luna? I don’t envy them one bit; with every solid release, the pressure on their quality standard has increased; with each fine-tuning or alteration they’ve made to their sound, the conceivable possibilities for their next step have only grown smaller. For the most part, they’ve dealt well with this: 2008’s murky Eternal Kingdom
and 2013’s dystopian Vertikal
were both interesting as minor departures, yet 2019’s A Dawn To Fear
trotted out all their familiar strengths in a display equal parts impressive and thoroughly familiar. In this sense, it reminds me of The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Dissociation
, a passionate showcase of proficiency that confirmed everything everyone already knew about that band and challenged none of it. Dissociation
was an appropriate final statement because of and in spite of how it hinted that the Dillinger Escape Plan were finally running out of things to say, yet Cult of Luna likely (hopefully!) have a long career ahead of them. On this basis, A Dawn To Fear
gave me a slightly ominous aftertaste; with the band's legacy secured several times over, the expectations for their future output are more overweight than ever. What happens next?
Well, their new EP (read: minialbum) The Raging River
does! How exciting. It squares up to these misgivings over The Tightrope Of Cult Of Luna’s Future Prospects, and addresses and reinforces them in equal measure. On the one hand, the band are as watertight in craft and steadfast in performance as ever, and they set their sights on their darkest atmosphere since Eternal Kingdom
. This is very much welcome, but the motions that carry them in the opening tracks are somewhat conservative. “Three Bridges” teases strong melodies and accentuates its final buildup with accompanying chimes, but its shape and scope feel overrehearsed, almost stiflingly dutiful to the band’s precedents for peaks and valleys. “What I Leave Behind” suffers more gravely from the same pitfalls, as it avoids the same clear-cut climaxes and mires itself in a single-wavelength sludgy onslaught that evokes the more tedious parts of Eternal Kingdom
. There’s nothing misgauged or bad
about these tracks, but they come off as old-hat and a little underwhelming from a band who’ve repeatedly hit greater highs with a near-identical toolkit - and underwhelming
is perhaps the most ill-boding of descriptors for the all-crushing immersive atmosphere this sound lives and dies by.
Things get more interesting in the midway lull “Inside of a Dream”, less of an interlude and more of a full reset. Although vastly subdued and bitesize compared to the rest of the EP, it is fleshed out with similar depth and actively resists the segue value that might usually apply to another track in its position. Ex-Screaming Trees soloist Mark Lanegan’s surprise vocal feature reflects this; he’s a little incongruous with the EP’s wider murk and very much his own character, so much so that his inclusion doesn’t so much bridge the gap between the first and second halves as it exaggerates the space between them. I am personally a big fan of this decision, because the final two tracks boast easily the strongest ideas on the EP and benefit from a tastefully partitioned space to show this off. “I Remember” is quick to reassert Johannes Persson’s vocal presence, kicking off with brutish heaviness before panning out into a highly dynamic showcase of tension. For the first time, there’s a real unpredictability over which direction the band could take from section to section; Cult of Luna are masters of the good ol’ post-metal ebb-and-flow, but many of their finest cuts thrive off a middle-ground suspense where things could blow up or simmer down at any moment (think “Finland” for the clearest case study). “I Remember“ has this in spades; its momentum is thunderous throughout, but the band are guarded in their tells, constantly seeming as likely to draw back for a few bars as they are to dish out a no-holds-barred knockout. There’s a real sense of stakes and danger
here, and so when they finally go all out (and phowar boy, doesn’t they just), the payoff feels electrifying and entirely well-earned. This is how it’s done.
But that’s not the end of it. If “Three Bridges” and “I Remember“ are respectively predictable and riveting takes on the model Cult of Luna song, closer “Wave After Wave” is the EP’s clearest step forward. An absolute monster of an epic that stands as their finest track since the now-classic “Dark City Dead Man”, it embraces an obsessively dark tone, restructures the band’s arrangements, and churns through a twelve-minute runtime with the force of one breathtakingly elongated moment of seamless confidence. I don’t think there’s any other track in their discography that rolls quiet like this one; its oppressive doomscape and two-phase verse/chorus approximations have common ground with “Into The Beyond“, but the band expand their vocabulary with hi-hat heavy beats and pulsing synths that fill the space whether the rhythm guitar would typically be, all while launching their guitarsenal into e-bow heavy eeriness that earlier work has only teased at. It’s an inspired switch-up, matched by some of their most compelling atmospheric work to date; the song nails down the specifics of its bleak tone within moments, and the band tighten their veteran grip around it with merciless increments of intensity, firing on all cylinders with unwavering focus. Whatever reservations I had over how Cult of Luna might raise the bar for themselves, this track is resounding proof that they’ve got what it takes to keep that sweet, smokey trail blazing for the time being. Some of The Raging River
might pose a cautionary tale of a band vulnerable to their own standards, but at its strongest, this EP is a firm reassertion of why it’s become quite reasonable to accept nothing but the very best from them. Live and let live.