There’s nothing wrong with this album. It is not a bad album. It’s important to say that clearly and upfront because, without that caveat, what comes next might wind up being read that I feel and think differently. Fundamentally, at their core, Cult of Luna is a band that knows their sound, knows their strengths, and knows their weaknesses. They know, when crafting a song, what makes something a Cult of Luna piece and what would be substantially outside of their wheelhouse. And, to that metric, they have never failed to execute on a high professional level.
The issue is that, this time, there’s something missing, that indefinable spark that lifts something from good to great. They’ve had it in the past; Salvation is the best post-metal album by a band that isn’t Isis or Neurosis and comfortably is a peer to some of the better work by those two bands. Vertikal and its followup companion EP provided a wonderful electronics-driven reinterpretation of the band. Mariner is a modern masterpiece, a collaboration that is so obvious on paper that it’s surprising it took that long to get together and even more surprising they haven’t done again. Even their most recent record A Dawn to Fear, simply by changing the keys to warm and lush organs, gradually changed my mind between my first listen when taking notes for a review and the end of the year, now comfortably sitting as routine evening listening for me when taking coffee and reading denser books with my partner, my now-ideal record listening time. Even their lesser works are only lesser in a notional sense, still interesting and aesthetically valuable but simply less likely to strongly turn the head of someone that doesn’t already consider themselves a fan of either this band or this style of metal, of which I’m a fan of both.
It’s actually left me in a rather befuddling position. In truth, this review was due some time ago, but even with listen after listen to the record, it failed to produce that epiphanic moment in me where the emotional contours of it lock into place, impress themselves upon my heart and, typically, leave me crying at my desk. I’m an emotional listener, especially with headphones and the right evening headspace, so The Long Road North‘s failure to elicit this state in me would typically signify a dud of a record, with me either emailing my editor to officially pass on it or else writing a rare negative review. But that didn’t feel quite right either; in isolation, these tracks are certainly powerful, evoking that welling sense of emotionalism in my chest. In short sequences, I can feel myself being brought to that moment of breaking. But for some reason as the pieces assemble into the structure of the fuller length of the album, something is lost, and formerly moving tracks feel instead like competent but ultimately unmoving passages of sound. If I were less diligent in ways, that would be easy to account for; call it a bad record and move on. But that’s also clearly untrue. This is quite obviously not a bad record.
Perhaps it’s the length of the record, stretching to roughly 70 minutes with little in the way of major mood shifts, where even mellower pieces like “Into the Night” and the two shorter “Beyond” pieces feeling still commensurate with the overall timbres of the record. Perhaps it’s the sonic similarity here to the group’s recent as well as historical work, feeling neither like a subtle readjustment the way A Dawn to Fear did with a slight instrumental refurbishment nor a fully satisfying return to form of the days of Salvation. Perhaps it’s the brief span between the release of this and their previous EP, which exceeded 30 minutes of material that felt much like this but in that more concise package was able to land more resolutely and with greater heft. Perhaps it’s a lot of things.
Ultimately, however, it feels more indicative of the cost of this kind of music, playing in any genre that is by its definition highly iterative. Doom metal, black metal, drone, ambient, post-metal; these all have the same inherent risk involved, where the difference between a great record and a good record is more one of alchemy than of obvious choices. What makes one 30-minute prog epic a tedious slog and another a brilliant tear-jerking masterwork? On some level, despite parsing music like science, it remains obstinately an art first and foremost, the magic of the circuitry of aesthetics and psyche. There are moments here of adventure that suddenly spark the heart, such as the soaring and emotionally searing lead guitar on the opening track, the interpolation of Colin Stetson’s saxwork intermittently, the tasteful and rich use of keys and the occasional juxtapositional roughness of the guitars cutting against the chromed cinematic sweep thats endemic of so much of this album. They’ve played with blues, country and folk timbres before on records like Somewhere Along the Highway and The Eternal Kingdom; perhaps those would spruce things up and make this work suddenly come to life the way it threatens to do. It’s not a bad album by any means. I can’t imagine taking someone seriously if they said that about The Long Road North. But it’s missing that essential magic, even if I don’t know precisely why.
Label: Metal Blade
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.