You may find on your first several passes of the new Cult of Luna record, like I did, that it does little to move you. The keys have been swapped for organ this time around, giving an intensity and a sense of time-collapse, eras of rock from the ’60s forward to now being fused to a singularity. The songs are lengthy but compelling, having decent sense of movement and development. The riffs are fairly traditional post-metal riffs, feeling like affirmations rather than any kind of radical reinvention, delivered in a year when Sumac has been delivering a free jazz reinterpretation of Isis’ legacy and Pelican has rejiggered themselves for immediacy. It feels backward in a way, though not bad. Just sort of… there.
But then, perhaps, you will find yourself, also like me, reaching to press play again later that same day. Nothing greatly compelled you that you can recall. You aren’t returning to the record to hear a specific song or a specific riff wash over you again, not seeking to relive the goosebumps you get when that part erupts from the ether or else congeals from constituent parts spread out over the course of the song. No, it’s something subtler, so subtle it almost doesn’t register; you just want to hear it again. And then, hours later, you play it again. The next day, you listen to it twice. The following day, you listen to it on the way to the grocery, letting it continue playing as you pace the aisles; it’s in your earbuds as you sip your coffee on the metro in to work; it’s playing from your phone as you tuck in for a brief nap; you lower the volume of a video game to play it instead.
And suddenly you realize you’ve heard it dozens of times, know all the riffs by heart. You might search your heart at this point and ask yourself whether it roars over you, whether there are any bright and brilliant colors of components inside of it that speak to you and demand to be named. There aren’t, not really; Cult of Luna have been a band of refinement over revolution since their second record, the still-solid The Beyond with each release that followed staying in the same bracket of quality, neither roaring past nor dipping below. Vertikal at the time of its release was hailed perhaps as greater than it was, not because the album wasn’t a solid release but because the language involved seemed to place their other records further below it than they deserved. The same can be said of Mariner, their collaboration with Julie Christmas, an excellent record that is not miles beyond their other work but instead a fine peer. A Dawn to Fear lives in this same world, a peer in a collective rather than an ubermensch roaring above the cold masses of the world.
But then moments like the opening of “Lay Your Head To Rest” happen, where doom, post-metal, symphonic rock and an almost trip-hop/downtempo drumbeat coalesce into a rich, organic gel, one you wish would swallow up your world in yellows and oranges. There is an organic sense of joyfulness to these songs, miles from the cold blade of their earlier work. A Dawn to Fear wants to sit among Somewhere Along The Highway and Eternal Kingdom rather than Salvation and Vertikal, its affects of doom, downtuned guitars and that great hardcore bark feeling more like symphonic tools in longform composition rather than, say, vehicles for starting a mosh-pit. The entire proceedings here take on a much more symphonic affair, feeling orchestrated and directed rather than necessarily a rock band trying to throttle the life out of you. But then you remember it’s six men, not 30, and their ambitions are to make music that would fill and consume your whole world, that post-metal’s ambition was always less about challenging metal’s standard compositional forms (although that is part of it) but instead challenging its psychic ambitions, wanting to be the film soundtrack of the whole of your rotten heart.
It’s hard then, in that context, to not view A Dawn to Fear as a good album; a great album, even. It compels you to return again and again even when you don’t necessarily know why, not yet. The most important aspect of a record is not that we can name its charms but that we feel them, not that we can describe the emotional and spiritual vistas they induce in us as listeners but that we feel them. Cult of Luna was long treated as an also-ran in the post-metal world but, when it comes to practicing that traditional form of the style, they are one of the few remaining; beyond that, they have now an unbroken seven album streak of excellent work in the style, discounting their still-developmental debut. A Dawn to Fear doesn’t just grow in a manner that reaffirms its own value but the band’s as well, showing why so many fans, bands and critics alike fell in love with this style of atmospheric post-rock/sludge metal.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.