When I was in my senior year of high school, I was really Going Through It. Due to a combination of factors – a couple years’ worth of personal events with peers that I still don’t really talk about much, seeing the signs of the oncoming death of a loved one encroaching like the sea starting to devour the beaches as the tide grows, living in a place where I felt completely alone at the time – I was in a miserable headspace. I’m clinically depressed, but this was all that and then some. This was some of the worst moods I’ve been in in my entire life; I was trapped in a consuming fugue.
One of my only real escapes from this state was into atmospheric black metal. I’m not sure I could adequately explain why this was the case, but here’s an attempt: to start, I was at a time in my life when everything that I didn’t want seemed to revolve around my relationships with the outside world. My problems involved people disappearing from my life or sticking around for longer than I’d like, the incoming world of college, the fact that I was shackled to a place where I felt totally isolated without any hope of escape except into another locale that I was worried I’d hate even more. The dulcet siren’s call of atmospheric black metal was that there was a world away from all this. When I put on Wolves in the Throne Room‘s Diadem of Twelve Stars or Saor‘s Roots, I was ushered away under a starry cloak of sound to a place where these problems simply did not exist; when listening to these albums I could feel a peace that was born out of simply living in the world, unfolding myself as time passed, and I sunk into my place in our reality like a tile in a mosaic.
Two of the most important albums for me at this time were Spectral Lore‘s III and Mare Cognitum‘s Phobos Monolith. These records, still, are incredible; they are the only existing portals to completely unique realms. They are lush, gorgeous epiphanies of sound that perfectly straddle the line between the gloom of the void and the richness of simply existing in a world. Like all albums in the genre, they are robust in sound to the point of being self-indulgent, but unlike many of their compatriots they use this quality to fully realize the landscapes of sound many other records only hint at. To this day, I swear up and down that these albums are magic and have some strange, entrancing metaphysical effect.
My ritualistic nightly wanderings to these records took me to places that are almost impossible to describe; they are cobbled together with the non-Euclidean patchwork architecture of dreams. They are quilts made of haze and mist and fleeting memories of every place in the natural world. Impossible valleys and mountains with impossible rivers. This is not to suggest some sort of transcendent, meditative power – I do not think I would ever describe this in the sort of hushed tones reserved for these psychedelic experiences – so much as to say that I was given free access to just sit in my own head and escape from my feelings of loneliness and rage and uselessness for an hour or so every night, and this took the form of imagining myself wandering through landscapes like some Romantic hero.
Over time, as I moved away from where I had lived and started to pursue my life after high school, I found a purpose and dispelled myself of this isolated malaise. I wasn’t always happy, nor did I ever find myself free from the throes of depression, but I learned to deal with it and I lived a life that was far more robust and in which I was a great deal more present. And those gateways receded for me. I wasn’t in need of those doorways anymore, and so they disappeared for me. I can still recall faint glimmers of the power these albums once held, but that time, by and large, is past. While I think it’s safe to say I’m better off, I do always miss the complete release I got from listening to albums like III and Phobos Monolith at that time. I recall feelings of feelings; I can only summon phantom landscapes whose most palpable aspect is their incompleteness.
Then I learned about the release of Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine. This is a two-hour release by Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum that is at once a development and a compendium of mythology about the planets in our solar system. It is an album that rockets outward from the first planet of our solar system to its farthest icy reaches and aims to anthropomorphize and mythologize the daunting miracles of astrochemistry that orbit our sun. The press release promised something cosmic and transcendental, something totally beyond the scope of what these artists had done before. Wanderers was going to be “monumental and daring,” it was going to be a gauntlet thrown down by two of the style’s masters.
Upon learning of this record and having a promotional copy find its way to my ears, I was worried. Deeply, deeply worried. What troubled me was not whether or not I would enjoy this record; as if one is up for the challenge and has the taste for black metal this record seemed impossible to not enjoy. My trepidation was that my expectations for it had, unwittingly and accidentally, dredged up those old nights spent listening to III and Phobos Monolith and Sol and quietly crying while hoping change was just around the corner. My hope for Wanderers from day one was that it could recapture some of this old magic the genre of atmospheric black metal held for me in my worst moments.
To say Wanderers is up to this feat would be no small praise; to say it surpasses even these expectations I unfairly heaped upon it would be to say this could easily be one of the best black metal records of 2020. And yet, here we are: Wanderers has absolutely blown me away. It is hard to imagine a black metal record topping this in this year. It’s hard to imagine many records in general topping this. Wanderers is a powerful feat of sonic alchemy made by two of the scene’s top talents working in absolute harmony with each other.
Strung across Wanderers like constellations are moments that perfectly formulate the astral beauty of which these two artists position themselves as ambassadors. Each track is alight with a cosmic network of moments that hit the synapses exactly as they should, every moment of this record feels tightly woven and pored over to the utmost extent. There is, naturally, an enormous emphasis placed on the sense of verisimilitude of environment that atmospheric black metal strives for, and Wanderers hits these targets at every possible opportunity.
Stylistically, Mare Cognitum and Spectral Lore sit well with each other: the former’s style is, while certainly not threadbare by any stretch of the imagination, fairly straightforward. The work of Mare Cognitum relies on tightly-crafted melodies and the typical structural light-heavy-light-heavy gait. That is to say, Mare Cognitum do not often differ from the normative standards of atmospheric black metal so much as work within these fences to spellbinding effect. Spectral Lore, on the other hand, pull from a wider pool of influences. One can hear traces of the melodies of classic Grecian black metal bands like Varathron or Rotting Christ and small unspoolings of psychedelic and progressive rock. Spectral Lore songs are often long, winding compositions that evolve and flow organically, led along by the gravitational pull of noodling guitar leads.
This gentle push-pull style that usually changes in between songs (there are two Mare Cognitum tracks back-to-back in the middle, but other than that) means that Wanderers progresses in an exciting and dynamic way, always fluctuating between the different worlds of these two artists. It’s an approach that serves the audience’s attention and stamina in a way that merely divvying the tracks up by A-side and B-side never truly could have accomplished; the beautiful-but-predictable trajectory of Mare Cognitum is gently nudged in an unforeseen direction by Spectral Lore before the other is given the chance to course-correct to some degree before being pushed a little farther out of line, and so on. The diptych on Pluto that ends the record brings these two arcs into unison in a suite that sees Wanderers out on a high note. (Without spoiling anything, anyone who doesn’t listen to this record all the way through does not know how much they are missing from these two tracks. Wow.)
Across the warp and weft of Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine‘s 115-minute runtime, every moment feels lovingly crafted for maximum possible effect. This is a masterwork of atmospheric black metal; a clinic by two of the best and most consistent artists operating in the game right now on exactly how this genre should sound at its apex. It is a monumental achievement, a distillation of magic into sound through the triumph of pure creative energy. It is a portal to the stars, one to be walked and celebrated often.
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Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is out now via I, Voidhanger Records. Buy it today, since Bandcamp is waiving their shares of revenue to help smaller bands/artists/labels deal with the ongoing economic pressures caused by the spread of coronavirus.