The received wisdom is that post-metal is dead. Regardless of one’s affinity for the style, it shouldn’t be terribly controversial to note that we are now more than a decade past the most creatively fertile period of the whole Neurosis-inspired post-metal “movement” (for lack of a better word). Cult of Luna, of course, was a key member of this movement, and their high-water mark, 2004’s seamlessly beautiful Salvation, helped to define the style’s peak.
Not only did 2004 see the release of Salvation, Isis’s Panopticon, and Pelican’s The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw, but also Neurosis’s second-greatest album ever, The Eye of Every Storm. With Rosetta’s The Galilean Satellites and Red Sparowes’s At the Soundless Dawn close behind in 2005, there was a brief moment where the scene’s saturation hadn’t yet blunted its impact. But ultimately, if we’re being uncharitable, the entire scene can be understood as Mogwai for metalheads (in much the same way that Mogwai was metal for sad indie dweebs). To put it another way, Cult of Luna always seemed, for better or worse, like the sort of band that would spend more time putting together an artfully designed projection installation for their stage backdrop than they would writing riffs.
As such, Cult of Luna’s pristinely monolithic sound is not an immediate match for Julie Christmas, whose vocals have historically splayed and stretched to fit the messier, artier, noise rock-leaning contexts of Battle of Mice and Made Out of Babies. Regardless, Christmas is one of heavy music’s most transfixing and compelling voices, so having her back in front of a full band for the first time since her excellent solo album The Bad Wife was always going to be an affair of sky-high expectations. Although one’s appreciation of Mariner depends somewhat on whether one approaches it primarily as a Cult of Luna fan or Julie Christmas fan, each party brings more than enough of their core strengths to the collaboration that fans of either should be satisfied.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mariner is strongest when Christmas is given the freest rein. Album opener “A Greater Call” is a fairly standard Cult of Luna piece, with meticulous sound design and somewhat rote bellowing, but it settles into an intriguingly petulant kind of march for the Christmas-led chorus. Three of Mariner‘s five songs feature Christmas on lead vocals, but almost independently of her overwhelming vocal charisma, each of those three songs is more interesting musically than the other two. “Chevron” lets Christmas run frantic and wild against a pounding midsection that features the album’s most teeth-grittingly massive riff, but it also pulls way back into a brushed, psych-synth spaciness for its last few minutes, reminding the listener that for all their bluster and excess, both Christmas and Cult of Luna thrive on dynamics. Here and on several other occasions, Mariner sounds a little like the wounded twin to the Gathering’s How to Measure a Planet?
Christmas’s vocal range is on fullest display in “The Wreck of S.S. Needle,” where her voice commands respect and conveys a steely resolve at the same time that it reveals pain and vulnerability. In fact, listen closely enough and you can hear her using her breath not just to punctuate her lines, but as a percussive and expressive instrument in its own right. The song is the album’s finest moment by far, and Christmas’s repeated command – which eventually becomes more incantation – of “Put me down where I can see you run” is thrilling and strikingly memorable (something not often true of Cult of Luna).
Album closer “Cygnus” occasionally threatens to fall into overindulgence and under-excitement over its unnecessarily stretched 15 minutes, but it ultimately redeems itself gloriously. The prog-synth noodling almost three minutes in is a nice touch of Zombi-esque otherness, and those slippery tones allow Christmas’s vocals to lead with a firm foothold. The song’s quiet midsection is nothing new for CoL – close mic’d, naturalistic drum cadences and distant washes of guitar and cosmic ambience – but Christmas adds some much needed unpredictability. Accordingly, when the full weight crashes down from the 9-minute mark or so on, it is a physically taxing culmination, like something dredged from a deep, painful place. The final minutes of the album are an emotionally charged cacophony laden with the kind of movement and determination that this style too often neglects.
If Mariner wins over even one more fan to the Julie Christmas cause, then it will have served a noble purpose. Cult of Luna’s contributions are confident, capable, and even comforting, but at every turn they are either recitations or slight refinements of moves this band has been making for quite some time. The fact that Mariner is still deeply satisfying more often than not is, to be sure, mostly a result of Christmas’s presence, but it also reaffirms that those moves, no matter how familiar, can still be potent tools in the right hands. The received wisdom that post-metal is dead isn’t wrong, exactly, but that doesn’t mean the style can’t produce electrifying reminders of its power during the long tail of its decline.