Swedish post-metal mainstays Cult of Luna have been spoiling fans in recent years with a near unprecedented level of creative output from the group, hearkening back to the early years of activity with the back-to-back The Beyond (2003) and Salvation (2004) coming just barely a year and a half after their self-titled debut. A Dawn To Fear (2019) saw fair praise three long years after their widely celebrated opus and Julie Christmas collab Mariner, and before the end of the following year, the band were already dropping new material from what would be their EP (it’s nearly 40 minutes, come on, it’s an album) The Raging River, which saw release in early 2021. Now, almost exactly one year later, the 70-minute epic The Long Road North has arrived, showing that the pandemic hasn’t quite bankrupted the realm of crushing introspective sludge of ideas. Imagine that.
The Long Road North isn’t quite a revelation for Cult of Luna in the grand scheme of their post-Verikal (2011) discography insofar as their aesthetic and sonic palette — you know Cult of Luna when you hear them — but the deck is stacked in a way that feels much more invigorating and inspired. Opening track “Cold Burn” is a monumental feat comparable to cornerstone tracks such as “I, The Weapon” and “The Silent Man” from previous records, pulling colossal sludge riffs and dynamic percussion through spellbinding layers of ambient guitars and synthesizers over the course of nine minutes. “Cold Burn” is quintessential Cult of Luna and exemplifies everything that makes the act so magical.
The band’s greatest weakness, however, is that there are often too few tracks like it on each album. Cult of Luna has an inexplicable way of front-loading an album with an epic and immediately memorable track, only to drop the tempo out and meander for an hour beyond. Mariner avoided this, sure, but the structures of Vertikal and Dawn suffered this imbalance, again, despite being incredible albums in their own right. The Long Road North does indeed come out swinging, but the ratio of jaw-dropping explorations of active post-metal and the more low-key ambient passages is entirely more favorable. “The Silver Arc,” the follow-up to “Cold Burn,” does drop the tempo, but doesn’t necessarily slog or meander, and features enough passing ornate melodies in its seven minutes to carry the momentum forward.
When The Long Road North does collapse, it feels more purposeful and necessary. “Beyond I” is an ambient track lead by sparse guitar drones and synths, featuring guest vocalist Mariam Wallentin (of Wildbirds and Peacedrums) lending her voice to contribute an air of dark folk, akin to Chelsea Wolfe or Emma Ruth Rundle. The band takes their time to build back with the 13-minute “An Offering To The Wild” which escalates meditative passages until vocals finally roar in around the five minute mark, cuing the full band to do what they do best. “Into The Night” is a more contemplative track characterized by melancholic singing and somber guitars, but the band allows the track to explode in fury by the end of its seven minutes.
“Full Moon” is a brief three-minute vignette touching on the band’s on-again-off-again folk/western influences a la Earth which informs the sliding guitar leads of the title track to follow. Penultimate track “Blood Upon Stone” is relatively vicious for Cult of Luna in its opening moments, with sinister guitar leads folding into each other atop precarious doom until the track naturally collapses into the void, leaving the band to plot their escape utilizing the most intensely satisfying rising action of the record. Out of the ashes of “Blood Upon Stone” leaves the epilogue of “Beyond II,” a swirling soundscape of drones and distant saxophone runs from Colin Stetson that suspend a lingering tension at the end of the record which craves a total replay from the start.
The Long Road North is the most vital that Cult of Luna have sounded since Mariner. This is an intoxicating record that is filled with purpose and end-to-end highlights. I would even go as far as to say that The Long Road North is the band’s opus that gives Mariner a run for its money, seeing them fulfilling every promise, checking every box, and going beyond every expectation. It’s a wonderfully calculated and cinematic journey that justifies its 70 minutes, and most importantly, won’t lose you after the first 20.
The Long Road North is out February 11th, 2022 on Metal Blade Records. Pre-orders are available at this location.