“The Cavern”, the one 45-minute song that makes up this EP, is truly worthy of the word “epic” and is a welcome addition to the pantheon of metal music.
The release week of October 14, 2014, for metal albums has a consistent theme. It is the week of the long song. Pig Destroyer widely released their Mass and Volume EP, which features a 19-minute song. The Acacia Strain released Coma Witch which boasts a track that runs almost a half hour. However, Inter Arma has both of these groups beat with The Cavern EP. It just features one song, one very long song that runs 45 minutes and 46 seconds. It’s interesting that The Cavern is being dubbed an EP, even though it runs at an album’s length. This really questions the notion of the EP: what defines it? In an age where the Fiery Furnaces can release an album-length EP, and bands are now releasing proper albums that are less than a half-hour long, the aspect of what is an album and what is an EP is being constantly challenged. So, if The Cavern is an EP because it only has one song, one veeeeery long song, what does that make its antecedent, Sleep’s Dopesmoker, an album featuring one track that runs for more than an hour? Is that an EP, too? These are all questions to ponder, for sure, but that would take away from the music of The Cavern.
It turns out that “The Cavern” was originally written during the spring and summer months of 2009, but was never recorded and only played live a handful of times. It wasn’t until the band got the support of a staff member at Relapse, who found out about the song, that they decided to make an album out of it. While the song took nine days to record, the mixing lasted for two months – likely due to the track’s epicness and shifting parts. And “The Cavern” is certainly ambitious, owing a great deal to prog rock and less to “Dopesmoker” as it features multiple movements, and there isn’t a great deal of musical repetition until you get towards the end of the composition. And, this being dark metal, the song’s lyrical concerns are about wandering lost in life in a desert, until the protagonist meets a figure of death that pulls him into the darkness of sleep.
It is, in a sense, a song about making your maker, facing a figure that is a higher power, and coming to accept the inevitable that faces us all. The lyrics have the feel of an ancient poem, and this wouldn’t be out of place in classic Greek literature. It really is an Odyssey. Or, perhaps more apt in a sense, a Rime of the Ancient Mariner. While no albatross makes an appearance, the song’s protagonist is haunted by something seemingly supernatural as he faces the great beyond. Had this song come out when I was in high school, it might have been something to write a comparative essay to another work of literature about. There is much to chew on, even if the story told in the lyrics sheet does seem straightforward.
What makes “The Cavern”, though, is the music. Punctuated by violin, occasional female vocals, and bowed bass, the song starts off with a nod to classical guitar. Given its length, you can also expect extended instrumental passages of guitar noodling, which doesn’t come off as pretentious in one wit. There’s a particularly enjoyable instrumental passage that is almost Rush-like after the 30-minute mark, at least in its guitar theatrics. What’s particularly memorable is the pounding guitar riff that more or less opens and closes the album – it’s laden with a sense of doom.
However, “The Cavern” is notable in that it doesn’t stick to one genre of metal, instead employing a wider palette. It’s black metal and stoner rock. This sense of ambition works well for the band, showing that they aren’t willing to stick to the same thing, which is astounding within the context of a longer song. Even “Dopesmoker” is pretty stoner throughout its more than 60-minute runtime, so “The Cavern” really does seem like an attempt to break free of boundaries within the context of its length. But trying to put this all into words is a little like dancing about architecture; it is something that is meant to be experienced more than anything else. This is an album where you’ll want to sit down and make time for it. It’s thoughtful and quasi-experimental, and really requires all of your listening faculties at work to really get at what Inter Arma is doing here.
You have to give points to Inter Arma for their ambition. Even though “The Cavern” does boast multiple false endings, and you could argue that it could use a bit of a trim, you do have to marvel in the fact that this is grand in scope. Inter Arma is stretching out, doing something daring, and even if the long song isn’t exactly new in metal circles, it does still feel like something of a novelty. That three bands have decided to release longer material on the same week signals that something seismic is shifting in the metal community. Perhaps it is unconscious competition that so many are releasing long songs all at once, but there’s a palpable sense of raising the bar, of trying to stretch out and do something outside of the norm.
For all of that, “The Cavern” is truly worthy of the word “epic” and is a welcome addition to the pantheon of metal music. It isn’t perfect, but it is highly entertaining and one can enjoy the fact that the band is truly pursuing an arty path on this release. And it does raise the question of format: when does the line between an EP and a proper album get blurred and become one or the same? For that, The Cavern EP offers a lot to chew on, and succeeds as an intellectual exercise. But, beyond that, the song (or EP, or album, or whatever it is) simply rawks, and that’s all you really need to know.