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Much anticipation was going on in the air as to when Cult Of Luna would return to present us with a new work. Their absence for nearly five years led most fanatics of the atmospheric and post-rock infused school of sludge metal into a state of hunger for a new musical fix. Being included in that group I then felt an overwhelming joy filling my heart and mind when Vertikal was announced. A sugary interview unravelled part of the album’s mystery, a concept album based on a classic movie that has an industrial dystopia for a background. As charming as the concept seemed on paper it did leave me pretty much unprepared for the radical shift in sound presented by this album, one that shows a different use of sound layers and presents some unusual techniques not akin to the band’s earlier roster. Industrial sounds of driving machinery, grey monotone landscapes that paint an image as abstract as the cover art, and even some electronic moments that should raise some eyebrows, all are now very present in the renewed mixture of sonic layers that compose this album. And it is a challenging experience indeed.
The weirdness in presentation is pretty stark and evident when analysing the number of actual songs, which amounts to five long tracks intertwined with several interludes and a final cut that serves more as an extended outro than anything else. The different stylistic composition appears from the moment the intro, “The One”, opens the album and further demonstrates this newfound tendency of electronic abuse, slowly and gently unleashing a beat that not farther after unravels a cinematic entrance into a bleak desolate city. “I: The Weapon” suddenly appears with a vocal trade off and weird distortion pedals being used on the guitars, followed closely by modulated vocals and boomy synths. As simplistic as the song may seem at first it does unravel much more than it apparently has, constantly twisting and turning for new dynamics that envelop you in a hazy coat of mist as the city is yours to roam freely. Structured like an emotional roller coaster, the song keeps going from climax to climax without any apparent build up, always maintaining a cohesive sense of tension. The airy break by the fifth minute is such a beauty, and it leads perfectly into a feeling of closure that introduces the next piece.
I could easily write this whole review based on how absolutely amazing “Vicarious Redemption” is. I admit to have been initially sceptic about its apparently overlong size, clocking in at a staggering 19 minutes of length. But then I simply couldn’t avoid getting lost in its five minute long initial repetition of beats and lightly struck chords that bring along this feeling of walking down a deserted assembly line of a decaying factory. Suddenly there’s respite beyond the choking smoke of the furnace, a temporary moment of hope that lets you breathe some fresh air before pummelling you down with this massive riff by the seventh minute, alongside the memory of all the laborious souls that perished there. Tension keeps building up as the machinal feeding ritual arrives to devour you, passing through a long conveyor belt that takes several minutes to unleash the dubstep break by the eleventh minute, an awkward moment that is rapidly tossed away for the most amazing guitar trade off that rises in a frenetic two minute long crescendo. But lo and behold as it ends and the sense of tension is again retained and weaved beautifully for another five minutes of blissful anger, proving that as cold as it may seem at first this album is also very humane and warm blooded.
And with that already half of the album has flown by, leaving the middle part of the story to be recounted through two major songs that are bordered by uneventful interludes in “The Sweep” and “Disharmonia”. This is definitely the weakest part of the album since only one out of two songs is really good, that being “Mute Departure”. I’m not trying to imply though that “Synchronicity” is a bad song, it’s just that it leaves me stone cold as it inhabits this sort of negative space to which I can’t really relate to within the band’s universe. It has again a curious use of airy synths and guitar layers, but I find much more interest in the follow-up, with its immersive keyboard driven beginning that relies on industrial beats. An angel’s voice suddenly appears, caressing your face with sweet lullabies as the world crumbles around you, leaving you in an ecstatic trance before you fall down with it. This song is emotionally crushing in every sense, being also the highest cathartic point of the album, and I have to say that it’s certainly one of the best songs of the band’s entire career. Ridden with atmospheric escapades and precise drumming, it bites you with ravenous fury at the lashing out of each abrupt vocal passage, releasing all the weight on your shoulders along with it. Shortly afterwards the album reaches its closing segment. “In Awe Of”, the only song present sharing riffing similarities with earlier works of the band, brings along a sense of apparent comfort, as if heralding quieter times that arrive in the lulling of your senses that is the soothing end unleashed by “Passing Through”.
As shocking as it may seem Cult Of Luna managed to stay fresh, and dare I say original, after a long recording absence. The time spent away from the scene and apart from each other has been kind and gracious, and it certainly brought a renewed sense of identity that was brilliantly transposed into the nihilistic sonic escapade that is Vertikal. Whereas other albums were always very emotional, this one dangles between feelings of inner coldness and a more humane warmth. In a way it feels like you’re constantly left balancing between the harsh mechanical life of today and the solace of feeling, the sentiment of actually being human. The not so strong middle part of the album averts it from being a masterpiece, but there’s such an immense degree of quality to be found within its remainder that it’s hard not to love Vertikal. Cult Of Luna certainly took a leap of faith into something radically different with this album, and I, for one, find the end result a marvel to revel upon.