Times are dark in 2019:
Thirty democratic candidates all duke it out Royal Rumble style while liberal America crosses its fingers for Biden not to get nominated. Children are caged by ICE at the border, but popular news sources just want to steal your attention away towards vaping. And hell, the Amazon rainforest is probably still on fire as I type this. Yet what is ultimately more tragic than any of this…is the hard truth that the Middle of the Row’s music-content output is almost entirely dominated by Jon.
Don’t get me wrong, Jon has a strong taste in music (especially when you consider his age), but I just can’t remain idle during this drought of sonic diversity. That’s why I’m here looking out for the fine readership of this blog, as this year has seen many attention-worthy albums which are neither emo/post-hardcore/indie-folk-punk nor the latest Vince Staples release.
My original plan was to release a list of diverse albums from 2019 – representing a neat variety of genres and sounds with brief blurbs for each one. Then I tried writing brief blurbs, and let’s just say there would be a lack of integrity on my part in pretending that my writing has any brevity. So fuck it, we’re going with an individual post for each one.
Now my goal isn’t just to tease Jon. Truthfully, my genuine ambition here is to introduce someone (maybe you) to what are not only solid music releases, but examples of sounds and styles you might find entirely unfamiliar. And even if you don’t enjoy any of my recommendations, giving them an honest listen may still broaden your perception of music’s more unsung locales.
With that said, we’re starting off slow and heavy with A Dawn to Fear by Cult of Luna, the most recent release (September 20th, 2019) of the albums I plan on discussing. Other albums you can expect are Anoyo by Tim Hecker, Fear in a Handful of Dust by Amon Tobin, and Dump Gawd: Tha Divine Brotherhood by Tha God Fahim & Stack Skrilla.
You know that feeling of exploring post rock for the first time? When you hear a Mogwai Young Team, an F♯ A♯ ∞, and a Spiderland all in rapid succession? It really makes you marvel at the unconventional, yet profoundly moving music that can be achieved through traditional rock instrumentation. But then you dive further into the genre, and after getting through the Caspian/God Is An Astronaut/modern Explosions section, you might just find yourself a little weary of the typical post-rock-crescendo-until-release songwriting style.
Well at least that’s kinda how I felt. The music is as pretty and dramatic as it should be (most of the time), yet somehow it lacks that compelling secret sauce.
I was somewhat worried that a similar fatigue would infect the new album by famed post-metal masters Cult of Luna, but nope, I’m ecstatic to report that their music still slaps.
For the uninitiated – this band is essentially the valedictorian in the Neurosis School of Sludgy Atmospheric Post Metal. In the past they closely contended with the unfortunately named yet ever fantastic Isis – but considering that they have been defunct for several years now, I think it’s fair to say that no one else is capable of stealing Cult’s ranking.
With introductions out of the way, let’s dive into the actual album.
A Dawn to Fear is dense. Eight songs and only seven minutes shy of Tool’s new album. But where Fear Inoculum comes across as uninspired and sprawling, A Dawn seems gargantuan by some immaculate design. If the individual song titles don’t give you such a picture, then just listening to the music will inform you to the album’s primordial sound, featuring riffs that sound like they just crawled out of some prehistoric tar pit. Occasionally the monstrous charge forward slows down for a glimmering instrumental passage, but these moments still carry an atmosphere of deep unease. The guitar tone seems more reminiscent of a predator’s night-howling, and the occasional clean vocals serve as a warning passed down from the village elder.
The album’s greatest success, however, comes from the ambition of its sound. Cult of Luna’s output has always been distinct in theme or style, but the fingerprints of such releases can be found all over A Dawn. ‘We Feel the End’ sounds as ethereal as Salvation, yet the tempo speedup found around the five-minute mark of ‘Nightwalkers’ moves more like a violent machine from Vertikal. Even the naturalistic texture of A Dawn sounds like the ancient precursor to Somewhere Along the Highway’s movement across the wilderness.
Although not truly immaculate as I previously stated, this new sound was indeed designed to avoid typical songwriting patterns. In the album’s press release, vocalist, guitarist and lead songwriter Johannes Persson says: “For pretty much every album there’s been a very concrete theme. We’ve known from the start the kind of story we wanted to tell, and I didn’t want that to be the case. I’ve seen a lot of subtle changes and patterns in my own behavior and my own thinking the last couple of years, and I wanted this to be a completely spontaneous process. I just wanted to see what came out of me, and ‘A Dawn To Fear’ is the result of that.“
By avoiding any singular motif, Cult of Luna have crafted an album which naturally combines all their previous sonic explorations.
However, an album that is this long and punishing can potentially wear down its listener. Only after several listens do I personally see the winding layers of their leviathan presentation unfurling. If you want just a little taste of post-metal without committing over an hour of your time, I would recommend trying out the first two tracks (which appropriately were both released as singles). ‘Lay Your Head to Rest’ is the shortest song on the album – clocking in at a measly six-and-a-half minutes – and therefore giving just a quick but satisfying impression of their wall-of-sound style. Next to this, ‘The Silent Man’ does indeed take up a bit more of your time, but never wastes it – as the track illustrates the band’s typical road-map from sludgy banger into a beautifully atmospheric breakdown.
I kinda wonder just how many people can hear sludge metal for the first time and think, “Okay, now THIS is the sound for me!” Maybe no one, considering just how threateningly obtuse the art-form is. But hey, even if you duck out after one minute, there’s still some novelty in telling a straight-laced work friend that you’ve recently listened to music which is categorized as sludge metal. And boy oh boy is it heavy.