There’s a genre of science-fiction that’s all about love. Or, rather, it’s about the human emotional landscape in general, magnified against the vast canvas of space. Emotions become grandiose, cosmic even, the only bridge we have across the relative emptiness of the galaxy. You’re actually familiar with the genre; in recent years, it has started to make its impact known on Hollywood, with titles like Interstellar, Arrival and Ad Astra channeling this theme to the big screen. In reality, this thread of science-fiction has actually been informing movies all the way back to the 60’s and 70’s, with 2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clark is one of the first progenitors of the style) and Star Wars being heavily influenced by it. In literature, this style was espoused as part of the New Wave of Science Fiction, with a string of writers like Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Woofle, Samuel R. Delaney, Philip K. Dick, and more putting a more psychological spin on the technological penchant of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Why the hell are we talking about this though (besides the fact that science-fiction is one of my passions)? Well, in many ways, Iapetus belong to this literary genre. If you’re unfamiliar with the name, I’ll forgive you; Iapetus are a relatively unknown band from the US who nonetheless managed to blow our minds with their debut release, The Long Road Home, all the way back in 2017. It was a promising release, filled with ambition and talent but lacking somewhat in polish and finesse. Now, with producer Jamie King recording, Linus Corneliusson on mixing, Tony Lindgren on mastering, and Dan Presland (drummer for Ne Obliviscaris) in tow, Iapetus are ready to fully realize their epic vision, blending progressive death metal, black metal, and science-fiction into one, massive, galaxy-spanning album. And let me tell you, they pull if off. All the little criticisms I had of the last album have gone flying out the window; King did a marvelous work recording this album, laying it up for the mixing mastering to give it the finish Iapetus’ vision and talent deserves. The end result is hands down one of the best progressive death metal albums I’ve had the joy of listening to.
That’s a tall order so let me send you right to the middle of the album where things get really interesting. While the previous two tracks are mostly instrumental, with the addition of samples, “I Contain Multitudes” features the impressive pipes of Matthew Cerami, launching the track right out of the gate with furious growls. The black metal roots shine bright on the guitars behind him, a caustic riff playing beneath a waterfall of giant synths and backed up by beautiful backing vocals, evoking some post-black comparisons like Alcest or White Ward. No, seriously, the utilization of backing vocals on this album is down-right stunning. A quick acoustic section reveals the progressive tendencies of the album before jumping right back into the heavy main riff, only for it to fade back into an extended acoustic segment. The music is varied, complex, and not afraid to take sharp left turns, trusting the listener to be engaged to keep up.
And engaged we are; unlike the previous release, every instrument shines through the mix, allowing us to pick apart the veritable assault that, well, assails our ears. As “I Contain Multitudes” runs down its impressive fourteen and a half minute runtime, this will become more and more important; Presland, never a stranger to the blastbeat, delivers absolute molten fire nearer the middle of the track, as the guitars and vocals turn towards the epic before diving back down into the somber. And this is just one track; transitioning beautifully into “Galaxy Collective” and later on into “For Creatures Such As We”, the album just keeps hitting. On the latter, (which, once again, contains black metal riffs to assuage the most frost-bitten of hearts) a groove that’s seriously hard to resist makes itself known near the middle of the track, nodding towards the progressive death influences that make the band tick, calling to mind acts like Opeth or Between the Buried and Me, backed as it is by incredible bass lines and synth arrangements. It also includes more incredible backing vocals, this time in a more aggressive, direct mode. These really light up the middle of the track, setting us up for the continuing heaviness of the track.
The former track, “Galaxy Collective”, is also where the theme of the album most shines through (in case you thought I had forgotten about science-fiction, which I never do). It reads a few lines which contain the main theme for the album: “For small creatures such as we / the vastness is bearable / only through love”. This is the idea which runs central to the works of science-fiction which center the depth of human emotion and the importance of empathy in making sense of our place in the universe. It is often juxtaposed, as here, with the sheer size of space itself. Across distances which take generations to cross, in the face of objects which span light-years (don’t worry, I’m not going to write about hyperobjects again), the human seems tiny and inconsequential. Only our emotional landscape, a part of us that doesn’t seem to obey physical constraints and considerations, can we hope to contextualize our place inside all of this vastness. Love specifically, in being the emotion which causes us to reach across our own mental gulfs towards our fellow humans, is the emotion that is most often evoked when discussing these questions, as it is here.
This, of course, also raises questions of physicality and the relationship between our emotions and our body (interestingly enough, just like Clipping.‘s sci-fi epos, Splendor & Misery, which is rooted in very much the same wave of science-fiction as Iapetus’ album). The body is both an avenue towards anxiety (when compared to the size of space) and a place of escape (as the seat of our emotions and our personal comfort zones). Here as well these questions are explored, perhaps a bit more subtly through the album’s title and cover art. The separation between the body and space seems to break up in both the title of the album and its artwork, drawing a straight line between our physical bodies and the space which they occupy, much like science-fiction of this sub-genre does, like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion (where distance travelled kills the traveller) or Ursula Le Guin’s The Birthday of the World (where biological reality disrupts the “cleanliness” of space travel).
In the marriage between ambitious, well executed, and progressive metal and these tried and true themes of science-fiction, Iapetus reach a level of artistry that’s rare to see these days. Like all great concept albums, The Body Cosmic hits you on both level, the musical and the conceptual. The riffs, blastbeats, synths, and vocals contained therein will make any fan of progressive metal happy. The concepts will give you plenty to pour over and think about. Put both these things together and you get one of the more effective albums of the last few years, an impressive display of growth from the band’s promising debut. Maturity is a word that gets thrown around metal a lot, with little substance, but we can safely say that Iapetus have matured with their second release, turning their initial ambitions into moving reality.
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The Body Cosmic releases on November 9th. Do me a favor and pre-order it; Iapetus spent blood, sweat, and tears on this album and they deserve the support.