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Cormorant

Dwellings

(Self-Released; US: 7 Dec 2011; UK: 7 Dec 2011)

In early December 2011, Californian metal band Cormorant released its stunning sophomore album, Dwellings. Unfortunately, because it was so late in the year, the album missed a place on many annual ‘best metal’ lists. However, a groundswell of critical and fan acclaim has sought to redress that error, with Dwellings being rightly hailed as one of the most astute and creative metal releases heard in many years. The four-piece is well deserving of all the accolades, and the praise is not based on its musical accomplishments alone.


Cormorant’s decision to self-release Dwellings, as it did with noteworthy ‘09 debut Metazoa, has been applauded. Not only as a wonderful illustration of dogged determination and self-belief, but also because it has allowed the group to craft albums strictly on its own terms—a fact evidenced by Dwellings’ adventurous and nonconformist character.


‘Blackened’ and ‘progressive’ are the two terms most commonly used to define Cormorant’s particular style of metal. But simplified descriptors don’t really do justice to the rich rewards found on Dwellings, nor do they capture the band’s overall aesthetic particularly well. The album is shaped by an interweaving array of metal (and non-metal) influences. While many of these are faint silhouettes, reflected sporadically, others are more corporeal, underscoring the album’s traditional metal substructure.


The unmistakable presence of black metal is keenly felt, particularly in the harsh vocals of bassist/vocalist Arthur von Nagel. However, Cormorant does not share the philosophic bent of the genre’s founders. So, while frenzied tremolo picking is utilized, and a funereal ambience pervades many tracks, the black metal accoutrements exist more as an extreme finish, serving as launch pad rather than linchpin. The band takes just as much inspiration from the rough-hewn exuberance of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, nimble-fingered prog, fiery thrash and doom, along with splinters of jazz and folk.


Darker and more sonically piercing than the band’s debut, Dwellings is a bricolage of influences. But Cormorant does well to take what is needed and nothing more, ensuring the album isn’t overwhelmed by unnecessary musical detours. The intertwining of so many threads could have easily gone awry, but Cormorant weaves them together adeptly, allowing each song to serve as a scenic stopover on a grand overarching journey. There’s something distinctly nostalgic and reverential about that; it harkens back to a time when albums were complete packages. And with Justin Weis’ warm and organic analogue production, Dwellings has a distinctly mid ‘80s tonality and flavor.


In the past, Cormorant dealt in narratives with mythological and environmental themes. But lyricist von Nagel tackles intimate and sociopolitical issues on the new album, with a decidedly erudite bite. Blending abstract, poetic and brutally direct lyrics, he spells out unvarnished truths, illuminating humanity’s failings. “The First Man”, for example, deals with the atrocities committed against the Aboriginal people of Australia. “A Howling Dust” tells a woeful tale of lynch mob justice, and “The Purest Land” expounds on spiritually justified atrocities. There are no hackneyed odes to swords and Satan here, and the lyrics are framed by blasting bites of fury and gloomy-toned respites. This allows for points to be pressed home or provides breathing space for much-needed contemplation. 


Cormorant uses plenty of fluctuating dynamics. Obviously that’s to be expected from a band with progressive inclinations, but textural intricacies and dexterous musicianship always come with the risk of smothering the point. You might be suitably impressed with the technicality, but self-indulgent expositions often render important messages mute. And Cormorant has something to say.


There’s certainly plenty of impressive interplay between the band members. But drummer Brennan Kunkel tempers his versatility appropriately, and von Nagel’s bass work, which has a prominent role on the album, is placed front and centre when needed, drawn back deftly when not. The guitar work by Matt Solis and Nick Cohon—which ranges from mournful to raging—is never overplayed. Their frequent solos and propulsive rhythms do not come at the expense of the songs. With zero tolerance for overindulgent pursuits, the band’s use of odd time signatures and multilayered arrangements accentuates the poignancy of the stories told. 


Take the case of “Unearthly Dreamings”. This song chronicles the consequences of man’s desire to escape the earth. Its cosmic orientation is reflected in the solar hues of its intro, while the detrimental effects of sending individuals into space, and the melancholic realization of the enormity of the universe, is emphasized by its elliptical solos and gravity-crushing weight.


The band’s ability to tell such involved tales by seamlessly coalescing the lyrics and music creates an evocative atmosphere. “Junta”, a distressing tale of the bloodbath of Guinean politics, is structured to accent the horror. Its nihilistic abrasiveness emphasizes the moral vacuum in which the perpetrators operated, yet brief flickers of calm call to mind the anguish of victims. “Funambulist”, which weaves a story of tightrope walking, is laden with the tension and escapism of the act. Bursts of furious riffing and von Nagal’s caustic phrasing is counterpointed by cleaner harmonies and moments of serenity, adding layers of sublime introspection. Both of these songs underscore the band’s ability to assemble multifaceted tunes that are never burdened by their length. 


Cormorant’s amalgamation of differing genres—both literal and musical—makes for a heady brew, and Dwellings is a vibrant and deeply heartfelt album. A magnificent reminder of the imaginative power of genuinely independent music, the album’s success rests on its superb synthesis of intuitive music and smart lyrics. Much like similarly ingenious bands Agalloch, Hammers of Misfortune, Opeth, and the late and lamented Ludicra, Cormorant’s poetic vision is reinforced by the multi-genre extremities of its sound. Dwellings really is the complete package, from the beautiful artwork that adorns the album to the savage and articulate bounties found within. It is, unequivocally, a classic, and is assured a place in heavy metal’s hallowed canon.

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Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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