Travelling in space will probably be a lot less glorious than what most of science fiction would like us to imagine. When it comes, space travel will be intrinsically tied with the very real forces of economics, efficiency, and all powerful physics. As such, the smooth flight of an Enterprise or the impossible leaps of a Heart of Gold are unlikely. Instead, humanity can expect cold decks filled with machinery, the sound of mechanics, deceleration/acceleration (coupled with other, even less pleasant, effects of those processes), and the solitude of being among the stars. Much like any means of transportation in the throes of its early use, space travel is likely to be a harrowing experience for a long time.
Even if relatively smooth travel is achieved quickly, travelling in space will probably always hold psychological challenges. It is the ultimate alone, the ultimate isolation. It is you, your crew-mates (if you have those) and all-killing space, separated by something so thin and inconsequential as metal and engineering. This mental environment has been the subject of art for over one hundred years and has received competent attention from music in the past few years. During this article, we’ll be focusing on three, recent examples which explore and convey well this sensation of all-encompassing isolation and danger. Through their music, lyrics, and ideas, these three albums attempt to cast their net forward and think about what it will mean to be human in the void (quick note: if you wonder at our certain note when talking about space travel, it’s no mistake. Humanity will go to space or it will die).
First, we’ll take a look at Cult of Luna‘s album with Julie Christmas, Mariner. This hulking post metal creation explores the introspective, psychological horror of space exodus, mixed with the inevitable hope which accompanies it. Weaving between hallucination, distress, and a brush with eldritch forces, Mariner confronts the listener with the tiny, tiny thing which humankind is in the face of what’s out there. Its music serves these ideas, crashing on the listener with forces which diminish and scoff at their sense of identity. Along the way, it also creates a tapestry which emphasizes isolation and abandonment.
Second, we shall turn to Clipping.’s Splendor & Misery. While we exhaustively analyzed the album’s themes and lyrics in a series of *prognotes posts, we didn’t focus on the many noises, samples, and other musical choices which convey the sense of loneliness inherent in the album’s story. While Splendor & Misery‘s universe is less sparse than Mariner‘s, its protagonist is just as isolated. The album focuses on the physical sounds of being on a ship travelling at full speed through space, the casual madness which infects its protagonist as a result (contrasted with the cosmic madness of Mariner), and the many sonic ways in which these states are conveyed in such an atmosphere.
Lastly, we will deal with Luminiferous Aether from atmospheric black metal band Mare Cognitum. This album beautifully captures the contrast between the mostly empty “seas” of space and the chaotic explosions of energy that are the myriad astrophysical phenomena which inhabit it. Dealing with a journey across vast distances, Mare Cognitum utilize the tools of atmospheric black, with their own contrast between sparse ambiance chaotic riffs, to accentuate these themes and carry the listener through the trouble waters of space. It is perhaps the grandest and most punishing of the three albums we’ll explore and is thus a perfect closer for this article, painting its ideas with the grandiose brushes of black metal.
Let our lonely journey begin.
A Greater Call – Cult of Luna’s Mariner and the Eldritch Horror of Isolation
“We are not conquerors”. So beings Mariner by Cult of Luna and Julie Christmas, one of the best albums to grace post metal since its inception. It’s also a brave look at the meaning of space travel and what it means to be alone. It begins with why humanity would even go to space. As that lyric says, it’s not to conquer the universe but rather because we have no choice; “We float with the tide”. At its outset, Mariner reminds us that space is inevitable for us and we are small and powerless in relation to it. The music and lyrics both begin with painting a picture of space not as something bleak but as a long shot, the only hope for man’s survival. However, for all that it’s essential for us, it’s also inhospitable and dangerous.
The mood then is of frantic redemption, of reaching out too far. As Mariner develops, this sensation of feverish exploration and barely clinging to ourselves will deepen and become dark, as something reaches out back to us. By tweaking the synths, the “size” of the chords and how oppressive the sound of the album is, Mariner develops, spiraling closer and closer to the bottomless depths with which it ends. “A Greater Call” starts with melancholia, whirring drones underneath isolated chord progressions that ping back and forth and reflect off each other; they’re all the other has. The loneliness is immediate and unforgiving… and then the song explodes. The band-defining roar of Johannes Persson clashes in anguish against both the instrumental and the sustained cleans of Julie Christmas; three inextricable threads immediately develop.
While isolation and the dreaded self-reflection accompanying it are certainly something Cult of Luna have dabbled in extensively in the past, Mariner keeps this quality hovering around maximum capacity across the entire release. There is never a moment not mired in the sound of the ego about to erupt from the mental pressure such all-encompassing solitude forces on it; space squeezes in on the psyche from all sides. Cold, dead synths and mammoth guitars are the interlocutors between listeners and the void around us. Julie Christmas’ vocal delivery goes from reserved to panicked on the drop of a hat, switching between whispers and a terrifying half-howl as space goes from an existential threat to something very real, and very, very dangerous. This fluidity is undoubtedly Mariner‘s greatest strength: the unthinkable vastness goes from something at the back of one’s mind that is easily outrun to a crushing, absolute entity that easily engulfs everything it contains. There’s no protection, no escape, just acceptance of the annihilating power of the universe writ large.
He’s Missing Something Gritty – Clipping. and the Soundscape of the Spaceship
When looking at the structure of Clipping.’s Splendor & Misery, the difference between the album and the rest of the band’s work is immediately obvious. Eschewing the classic track-by-track structure of the standard album, Splendor & Misery is riddled with interludes and instrumentals that don’t even divide the album symmetrically. However, approaching these tracks as unintended chaos is a mistake; they serve an all important purpose within the album’s concept. This concept takes place not only in space but, mostly, on one ship; thus, the soundscape of this ship is critical as the story’s background. Throughout the album, along the “proper” tracks and the interludes, the accumulated noise of the ship acts as the backdrop on which the other aural elements unfold.
Take “All Black Everything”. Ticks, clicks, pings, and communications feedback echoes throughout the track and its intro. These create an atmosphere of “filth”, of a landscape which constantly hums and moves, shedding echoes of itself. You see, it’s very unlikely that someone would soundproof a slave ship (which is what the protagonist’s vessel is). Hell, it’s unlikely that anyone will soundproof any ship for the beginning decades of space travel. Safety and efficiency will come first over luxury until space travel becomes trivial, and how long do you think that will take? Pretty long. Until then, all travelers will be surrounded with the audio detritus of engines, hulls, and bulkheads all readjusting as they hurtle through space.
Splendor & Misery takes care to remind of this fact at all times. In addition, it also goes further; sound is not just the background of the world in which the story takes place but, as is fitting for a band which utilizes noise like Clipping. do, is also a marker of psychological processes and breakdowns. The protagonist often screams when he is frustrated or speaks verse (whether religious or Kendrick Lamar‘s) and thus displays his internal pressures to the outside world. The first interlude, “Interlude 01 (freestyle)”, is a perfect example of that: swimming from out of static comes the hero’s voice, quoting several famous hip hop sources. The sounds of space travel and his voice co-mingle, becoming one, intimidating ambiance.
Thus do Clipping. confront us with a fact that a lot of science fiction ignores: space travel will change the role of our voices. Inside the ultimate quiet of the void, surrounded by the inane, every day sounds of that which keeps us alive, our voices will become precious treasure, a psychological buoy or anchor which will remind us that we are human, that we can communicate or converse. Abusing those voices will have powerful affect, both on ourselves and on our compatriots/enemies. Imagine what singing will be; perhaps, like during the slave trade and other human catastrophes, it will often be one of the only things keeping us together.
Aether Wind – The Cold Loneliness of Astrophysics in Luminiferous Aether
Any atmospheric black metal album worth its salt has a sense of grandeur to it, but Mare Cognitum isn’t content with the natural beauty of our planet that serves as thematic foundation for the majority of the genre. Instead, this one-man project turns its eyes skyward, harnessing a heaven-sent astral energy into an explosive 50-minute album that seeks to both elucidate and obfuscate space at alternative moments. Cold, dead infinities are lit by the astronomical force of supernovae; a cosmos replete with latent energy coalesces into a fiery blast that transcends any human capacity to understand before returning to the dead, silent stillness from which it originated.
Distance is a powerful phenomenon in music, and much of Luminiferous Aether embodies distance with its constant outward momentum. Like an asteroid hurtling through the inky, omnipresent blackness of space, the listener is thrown out into the void at top speed and shot across it with reckless abandon and zeal. At the record’s outset, all is astral pomp and grandeur: chord structures move up and out in a transcendent manner, generating more and more energy for the listener’s journey across the universe. What starts well, though, does not remain well, as over the album’s course we move into darker and darker territory. By this point, space is less of a natural theater for the most incredible spectacles the universe has to offer and more of a cold, lonely emptiness.
Where the record switches is a realization: we look out, around the stars and nebulae we’ve seen, and realize that astral bodies are surrounded by an infinite, consuming deadness that beats on the walls of existence and threatens to engulf it with every passing second. Everything beautiful we’ve encountered is swallowed into the ever-oncoming gravitational weight of collapse; every star, resplendent in its heat and strength, succumbs to the encroaching cold that surrounds it.
The record does not end on this downer note, though: if nothing can be extratemporal and extraspatial, permanently resisting the forces of the cosmos, then we must understand it in its own time. Closer track “Aether Wind” moves into a quasi-nostalgic territory that reinstates beauty precisely through the fact that nothing is permanent on any scale. The cycle of creation and destruction must be recognized and understood for what it is; trying to eternally preserve the grandiose spectacles of astrophysical phenomena renders their beauty inauthentic and ersatz by removing precisely the impetus such a spectacle requires. Everything must be observed in its own time and space. Isolation, disappearance, decay, all just natural parts of a universal ebb and flow. Tension is erased; harmony reinstated. Loneliness isn’t refuted or lamented, it exists to be understood and to provide the contextual backdrop to everything we do and see.