An underrated quality of metal is in its tendency toward collaboration. That sometimes works out in dubious ways, like when acclaimed bands end up backing problematic artists, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule. The spirit of collaboration challenges artists to get outside their comfort zones and to break their habits. Last year, the merging of ideas between Dark Buddha Rising and Oranssi Pazuzu as Waste of Space Orchestra saw how far either band’s ideas could go when pushed into unexpected places, while a band like The Body essentially makes it their mission to invite new voices into their music to help reshaped it and restructure it—which is why they rarely release an album that sounds much like one that precedes it. Sometimes it takes the input of an outsider to help find the right creative path.
Greek black metal band Spectral Lore and California’s Mare Cognitum are no strangers to this idea. Back in 2013, the two bands began their first collaborative into darkest space with Sol, an album cycle inspired by the sun that featured three massive tracks, radiating the kind of engulfing heat its name implies. And if it worked once, it certainly could again, which is what brings us to Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine. Similarly informed by the solar system—the planets in particular, here—Wanderers takes an even bigger and more ambitious approach, the two bands dividing up duties on eight of the nine planets, and tackling “Pluto” in two parts as a collaborative entity. It’s a concept-rich work, exploring the mythology that defines our planetary system, yet it’s delivered in such a stunningly cohesive whole that the combined effort outshines two already remarkable halves.
What Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum share in common is their ability to create music that’s identifiably black metal, but doesn’t fall prey to the rote genre tropes that make it feel stale or ordinary. In just the first two tracks, Spectral Lore ignites a lengthy build into epic triumph on the hard driving “Mercury (The Virtuous)” while Mare Cognitum ramps up the aggression and darkness on the razor-sharp “Mars (The Warrior)”, a track both technically sharp and unrelenting in its intensity. Were these two tracks relegated to a more concise 12-inch EP rather than an hour-and-a-half-long album, it’d still be one of the best metal releases of the year.
It’s fascinating to hear how the two bands interpret each wandering sphere. Spectral Lore’s “Earth (The Mother)” has a more graceful and gentle aesthetic at the heart of it, its atmospheric intro showcasing the band’s tendency toward great beauty as much as it does their harnessing of a visceral power. Mare Cognitum’s “Venus (The Priestess)” is more commanding, more stoic, graceful yet immense, while the 15-minute “Jupiter (The Giant)” is dense and awe-inspiring, slowly and ethereally converging into an emotionally powerful yet sonically expansive whole. Yet while the differences between the two bands are tangible, they each have complementary approach that makes the transitions and sequence fluid. In short, they sound like they belong on the same record.
Individually, both bands are creating some of the best black metal today. When both Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum share space on the same tracks, Wanderers becomes a sublime testament to what a collaborative approach can accomplish. The first installment of the two-part “Pluto” suite is mostly a dark ambient exercise, an eerie tone slowly emerging from the distant darkness. Yet its second half is a towering closing statement in a mesmerizing journey, simultaneously massive and melodic, with subtle electronic elements underscoring the sheer muscle of the arrangement. It feels natural, the work of one solitary unit working together rather than two disparate elements attempting to find a common ground. It’s what happens when two great metal bands are allowed the space to stretch out and deliver a unique, collaborative vision.
Label: I, Voidhanger
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.