Swedish post-metal collective Cult of Luna aren’t the first act to profess inspiration from Fritz Lang‘s 1927 classic expressionist film Metropolis. Indeed, they’ve just been beaten to the punch by Melencolia Estatica‘s Hel, reviewed here last month. But where that record took a literalist approach to almost be an alternative soundtrack to the film, the Swedes have taken on the concept more loosely, reducing it to perceived themes of “machinery, repetition and clear, linear structures,” according to Blabbermouth.
The result is Vertikal, the band’s first album in five years, and it’s a whale of a record, amounting to more than 73 minutes of music (counting the bonus track). Not that that’s unusual for Cult of Luna, who haven’t yet produced an album under the hour mark. Perhaps it’s even inevitable for a band with seven members in the line-up. Heaven knows what they all do, as I’ve heard smaller bands (even trios) make noises as big as this, but anyway. Sonically speaking they haven’t strayed far from their self-titled debut, originally released 12 years ago on the short-lived but brightly burning British label Rage of Achilles. Now as then, their scope is suitably panoramic; their guitar sound voluminous and packing a hell of a crunch. Alas, that’s where the praise ends for me.
Synth-based intro piece “The One” sets things off on the wrong foot; it doesn’t evoke Metropolis as much as it does the Vangelis score for Blade Runner. That cognitive dissonance continues with the sudden blast into “I: The Weapon,” a mid-paced sludge number that’s stretched beyond its means to fill its nine-plus minutes, an ultimately comes off more an Isis cover than an original composition.
Next up is “Vicarious Redemption,” all 19 minutes of it. It’s the longest track they’ve yet produced, not just on this set but ever, and unfortunately doesn’t do enough to justify that kind of commitment from the listener. Which is a shame as it’s potentially the most interesting song here, germinating from a noir-ish atmosphere of sinister synth growls and shadowy goings-on, clicks and tinkles and drifting minor chords. The middle section is more conventional, though still marked by the guitars’ distinct cracking burn, and even a brief swerve into wub-wub dubstep(!) before the ringing strings of the home stretch bring us back into Isis territory—save an oddly euphoric guitar solo—and the realization that there’s no need for this to be 19 minutes long.
It’s followed by the unremarkable “The Sweep” and the metronomically dull “Synchronicity,” and the crushing realization sets in that the band seem to have only two settings here: bleep-bleep synthesised soundscapes (which resemble ‘my first electronica’ noodlings at that) and walls of anonymous monster riffage. Add to that a self-indulgent sense of pace, or lack thereof, and you’ve got a recipe for boredom.
Tracks that show initial promise, like “Mute Departure” and “Passing Through”—both featuring clean (though heavily effected) vocals—devolve into overheated post-metal-by-numbers; ditto the near-10-minute “In Awe Of” and bonus closer “The Flow Reversed.” And half-assed efforts at changing things up like “The Sweep” and the music box plink-plonk of “Disharmonia” stick out all the more when one considers other similarly big-screen post-metal acts like Pelican have done the same thing before, and better. Even Cult of Luna themselves have integrated electronic elements at previous junctures to much more successful effect. I don’t understand where it all went wrong.
The album as a whole drags along at a monotonous pace, with a determined repetition that surely aims for trance induction but misses the transcendental qualities of, say, drone or psych rock. The tempo barely wavers if at all, echoing the absence of proper textural variety. Where’s the eclecticism that saved (or at least tried to save) the likes of The Beyond, Salvation and Somewhere Along the Highway from NeurIsis-derived tedium?
Maybe this listener is being too harsh, I don’t know. I can’t deny the odd headbanging moment when the sludgy riffs manage to hypnotize, but they’re few and far between. Unlike CoL’s previous material, where there was always something somewhere to grasp on to, there’s little here that compels. Above all, Vertikal is an exhausting listen, and not in a good way.
Stream “I: The Weapon”: