Cult Of Luna have now served twenty years in their quest to push the limitations of what they envision hardcore metal to be. Since Somewhere Along The Highway back in 2006 they have challenged themselves with the dystopian Vertikal, written an instant classic in their collaboration with Julie Christmas in 2016s Mariner, and managed to top these high points with 2019s incredible A Dawn To Fear.
After The Raging River EP, the sheer quality of which would be a disservice to call a stopgap, Cult Of Luna are on a ludicrously rich vein of form that is hard to top. The Long Road North, a much-anticipated release sees the band pushing yet more boundaries and are releasing the nine tracks alongside an immersive gaming experience.
It seems like a typically grandiose and innovative idea that comes as no surprise. The visuals, produced by North Kingdom Greenhouse used to accompany the powerful ten-minute opening salvo Cold Burn are stark, impressive, and foreboding on an epic sci-fi movie scale.
Musically The Long Road North is Cult Of Luna’s most complex and richly textured release to date. From the tough, muscular tension of Cold Burn, a weighty ebb and flow of typically commanding dynamics that sees the Swedes in full flow, Johannes Persson roaring and full-throated to the lush tenderness of Into The Night with its orchestral feel and emotive crooned vocals, whilst the drums clatter with rhythmic, military tattooing, punctuated by stabbing horns.
Given the dedication to the scale and ambition of the band they’ve had a detached, cold side to them that has seemingly melted in recent releases, whereas on Mariner it was Julie Christmas who felt like the narrator tugging on the heartstrings, now the guest appearance of Mariam Wallentin (Wildbirds/Peacedrums) Swedish vocalist and multi-instrumentalist on Beyond I, simply brings additional layers of texture to the impassioned performance.
This ability to pile detail on top of detail has long been a strength of the band, from the raw and visceral post-hardcore bludgeon on their eponymous 2001 debut and the hugely atmospheric follow up The Beyond (2003), Cult Of Luna have mastered the ability to create densely layered, complex songs that shift and challenge with each listen.
The Silver Arc for example has small deft moments of melodies and inflections that augment the searching lyrics. Provided in a beautiful heavy weight paper booklet (if you purchased the vinyl option anyway) and faithfully presented gives the listener the chance to study and get to the matter of what is truly being emoted. It is the first time I have sat and poured over their contents, able to appreciate that The Long Road North is a journey from the opening line of ‘Breathe into the harrowing wind’ to the climactic ‘What is left is an empty void’ of Blood Upon Stone. It is the attention to detail and the devotion to the pursuit of delivering the best art they can that once again makes anything they release an absolute joy to own.
The Long Road North is Cult Of Luna’s most complex and richly textured release to date…
This focal shift has occurred since Persson moved back to Umeå from Stockholm after fifteen years allowing the band to have a continual connection that, despite the pandemic disruption, has not been broken and whilst the recording sessions dragged longer than planned, the band have taken stock of the recordings and brought friends Christian Mazzalai and Laurent Brancowitz from the French band Phoenix to flavour the sound further, the sound they had developed with soundtrack guru Colin Stetson for moments like Beyond II.
Songs like An Offering To The Wild have moments of jazz like improvisation with saxophone as well as the titanic, pummelling drums of Thomas Hedlund, the pulsing rhythmic heartbeat of Andreas Johansson’s bass, and the intricate textures of Kristian Karlsson on keyboards. Coupled with the scything guitars of Persson and Fredrik Kihlberg, The Long Road North bristles with confidence and power.
New material, unfinished recordings from the A Dawn To Fear, along with A Raging River forms a narrative arc that ties into the frontman’s mental journey, ensuring there is a sense of continuity that accentuates the depth and sonic progression reflected in the grandiose construct of the album. Moody instrumental Full Moon with its slow mantra like percussion and swelling synths build a bridge into the towering title track that explodes into bristling atmospheric hardcore and sways with the now trademark softer moments all the while the lyrics carve a soul-searching tale as it concludes with ‘Memories cling on, as I walk the long road north’.
The hellacious near twelve-minute rage and simmering intensity of Blood Upon Stone rises and falls with lush movements one moment, then hits like a drone strike on the next to close out the last proper song before Beyond II, with its film score feel, leaves the album brooding and with a sense unfinished business for the future.
When I reviewed A Dawn To Fear back in 2019 it topped my personal albums for the year because I felt it was the band reaching the summit of their artistic Everest, an album that took everything they had been building upon and consolidated it into their best work. Much as that statement was true at the time, I can hold my hands up and say I underestimated Cult Of Luna as I did not think they could top it, but The Long Road North somehow manages to exceed the previous album and create a sense of emotional connection that was sometimes lacking.
Not only does this album hit harder, caress more gently and challenge you with its rich palette and progressive vision, it also leaves on such a tantalising note and the question of ‘what is next?’ shows that this band are utterly in command of their art, and have the ability to manipulate the audience at their will.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden