Arguably, one of the most underappreciated bands to emerge from the sluggish mist of the so-called ‘post-metal’ or ‘Neur-Isis’ ether would be the octet known as Cult of Luna. Since their inception, these noise-mongers from the Swedish town of Umea have been diligently releasing quality music on-par with the finest of their ilk. Inexplicably, Cult of Luna has always been eclipsed by their American siblings, obscured in the shadows of the likes of Isis and Pelican.
In 2006, Cult of Luna released Somewhere Along the Highway — a breathtaking extension of the traditional post-metal formula that evokes imagery like a Kerouac nightmare. It was a heavy-hearted journey through desolate roads and windswept hills, making unexpected detours to observe arcane rituals and discover rotting carcasses along the way. Although Highway earned them a P3 Guld award (an honour handed out by a Swedish radio-station) for Best Rock/Metal record, and fifth-position on Decibel magazine’s year-end list, searching for ‘Cult of Luna’ still returns zero matches in the databases of major major music sites.
On their latest full-length album, Eternal Kingdom, Cult of Luna leaves behind the traditional delay pedal-derived ambience and delves quite literally into the diary of a madman. The journal of Holger Nilsson, titled Tales from the Eternal Kingdom, was found by the band when they were rehearsing in an old building — a building that was once a mental institution that held Nilsson captive.
It is this disturbed perspective that the band summons throughout the record. The bleak soundscapes are a fitting counterpoint to the concept of a madman’s delusional netherworld where human-animal hybrids roam the woods, watched over by an evil owl-king. The opener “Owlwood” teems with dissonant, ominous riffs and tails off with skittering percussion. The title track, with its sustained trudging motif, beautifully textured refrains, and towering coda, certainly adds assurance to the claim that this is one of the heavier long players Cult of Luna has released.
If the most uplifting moments from Highway came from the song “Dim”, the track that parts the clouds on Eternal Kingdom is the wonderful “Ghost Trail”. Beginning with haunting reverb-heavy guitars and vocoder-funnelled screams, the song opens up in the middle with some stirring melodic guitar arpeggios before descending back into jarring tectonics that sound like rotor-blades cutting through dense atmosphere, spinning faster and faster as it nears the end of the song.
The great strengths of Cult of Luna reside in the subtle nuances and unpredictable songwriting of their music. Even the elegantly restrained interludes have fascinating embellishments — the horn accents heightening the sense of melancholy on “The Lure”, and the atmospheric feedback on “Ugin” reminiscent of Neil Young’s score to the Jim Jarmusch movie Dead Man, produce a feel that is quite alien to regular post-metal.
However, Eternal Kingdom is not without fault. “Mire Deep” begins promisingly with stammering samples and fluttering synth, but is bogged down in the latter section by the predictable heavy-stomp of the ending; “The Great Migration” is suspiciously middle-of-the-road metalgaze. Songs like “Thirty-Four” and “Finland” off Somewhere Along the Highway seemed to bristle in a throbbing, breathing glory, revelling in the space that was given for them to unfold. The concision on Eternal Kingdom does not afford these tracks the same slow blooming beauty, ultimately making it a less affecting listen.
But overall, Eternal Kindom is another strong release from a band that has evolved to a stage where it has almost outgrown restrictive genre tags. As the final song, “Following Betulas”, closes out with a marching tattoo, and the final screams intone the words “Swinging their tree trunks in the wind / The white birches are alive, they are marching”, we also hear the march of an undeniably singular band — a march that led them to the depths of a disturbed mind and hitherto undiscovered heights. Hopefully, it’s a journey that will be detected by the telescopes of those who are gazing across the post-metal skies, allowing them to finally discover the otherworldly prowess of Cult of Luna.