No matter what genre I’m listening to, whether weepy-face indie rock diaper-wetting, robots-having-a-seizure electronic angle music, or fjord-gargling black metal of the least children-and-small-animal-friendly variety, my favorite music tends to do two things: feel both thrillingly new and perfectly natural, as though this sonic neonate had been there all along, just waiting for the right pair of lovingly curatorial ears. Too much novelty and it can feel mannered and academic, but too much worn-in comfort and it loses the spark of inspiration. So, when a band like California’s Cormorant comes along that manages to inhabit both poles of the Official Spectrum Of Musical Jubilation (patent pending) and does so in resolutely independent fashion, well, friends, it’s time to hold on to your goddamned hats.
Cormorant’s sound is a rich progressive metal that grabs up bits and pieces of disparate genres in the time-honored tradition of “whatever the song requires.” There are galloping dashes of NWOBHM, sprightly folk melodies, spare overtones of epic doom, and the brashness of a distinctly modern American black metal in the raspy vocal touches. (Think Ludicra.) The closest comparison to make is quite unavoidably Hammers of Misfortune, but only because neither band sounds exactly like anyone else in particular, and both imprint their mélange of styles with a unique stamp.
Opening song “The First Man” marches onto the field with a galloping folk melody that is equal parts triumph and melancholy, and wouldn’t sound out of place on this year’s Darkest Era album. The remainder of the song previews the techniques that will so enliven the entire album: introduction and careful elaboration of melodic themes, richly mournful slow sections, delectably tight rhythmic guitar figures that are burnished perfectly by Brennan Kunkel’s drumming, which actually plays its own riffs rather than just hammering beats, gorgeous bass, and a unique and understandable impassioned vocal tone. The guitar solo that follows the spoken word sample halfway through the song is a perfectly searing capstone on such an excellent statement of intent.
It would also do the band a great disservice to ignore the brilliant and thoughtful lyrics from vocalist and bassist Arthur von Nagel, which frame each immaculately crafted song in a searching narrative of historical and sociopolitical themes. And yet, it’s one thing to make high concept progressive metal, but quite another entirely to make high concept progressive metal without completely jumping up one’s own ass. Cormorant’s gift for songwriting telegraphy and emotive instrumental wizardry means that rather than remark on its strangeness, one may start wondering why all extreme music isn’t preoccupied with themes like ruthless state repression in West Africa, the mistreatment of Australia’s aboriginal peoples, and the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
Of course, even if one is disinclined to ponder the conquest of Peru and other such topics, the songs themselves never disappoint. “Funambulist,” in particular, is a sheer masterclass in how to write a ten-minute song that never stagnates and retains a singular identity throughout. It also serves as an excellent showcase for von Nagel’s beautiful bass work, with the swinging transition into the first quiet section, or the busy but uncluttered melodic playing around the 7:00 mark. Dwellings also has a few more straightforward pieces to break up the flow of multipart song-suites, with the totally raging “The Purest Land” and the fantastic instrumental “Confusion of Tongues,” the latter of which opens with knotty, dual lead-work courtesy of guitarists Nick Cohon and Matt Solis that suggests Mastodon, if Mastodon had taken a vaguely Celtic turn in between Remission and Leviathan.
Still, even when Cormorant occasionally calls to mind other artists, the band’s compositional prowess sets them well apart. The emotive guitar soloing throughout is a marvel, as are the ever-intuitive transitions that prevent these rather complex song constructions from ever feeling burdensome. On “Junta,” the guitars sound out a frantic tremolo as they echo the anguish of the song’s subject: the brutal 2009 violence by the military against protestors demonstrating against further efforts by the ruling junta to seize power in the West African nation of Guinea. Particularly in the midst of such heavy subject matter, the rough timbre of von Nagel’s vocals is an excellent counterpart to the rich, organic instrumentation, and when his vocal lines are quickly spat, the poetic pacing of the language gleams in the way it rides atop the rhythm guitar (see the first half of “A Howling Dust”).
Album closer “Unearthly Dreamings” is astonishing in its range and yet supremely digestible in its gradual unfolding. The guitar solo that thrashes and fugues its way straight through the end of the song (and album) might have come across as excessive if not for the fact that the logic of the album demands such a cathartic unspooling of emotional tension. The song is both elegiac and furious, tracing the human cost of fanaticism and failure while recounting the awestruck gut-ache of the fathomless hunger for exploration through a chronicle of the Soviet space program: “Burn, burn the ties that bind / mortals to this terrene rind / Yearn, yearn to part the skies, / upon an ark of sullen eyes.” Kubrick’s 2001, Rosetta’s The Galilean Satellites, Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, and now “Unearthly Dreamings”: all travelogues of the boundless yearning and unwavering fount of sadness at the heart of the human recognition of its cosmic insignificance. Failure to launch; burn-up on reentry.
Evocative, literate, soaring, thoughtful, passionate, full of both weight and light, and still one hell of a lot of fun, Dwellings is an absolute triumph for independent music, and for heavy metal as a whole.