There’s a certain freedom to creating your own band. Whatever ideas you have, you can manifest. The vision will be pure, uncompromised. People will be impressed by your abilities to play multiple instruments. Bandmates won’t have to put up with your potentially toxic personality. Nobody will be able to stop you.
Unfortunately, nobody will be able to stop you. Who will say, “Hey, this section isn’t working, let’s cut it and move on,” if not bandmates? Who will point out that the ride cymbal sample you chose sounds like somebody tapping on an IKEA desk leg with a ballpoint pen if not a producer? Nobody, that’s who! And so there exist now dozens or perhaps even hundreds of bloated, self-indulgent one-man-band albums available for your listening pleasure that contain 20 minutes of genius lost amid 80 minutes of noodling.
Spectral Lore is the one-man project of Greek multi-instrumentalist Ayloss, and Mare Cognitum is the one-man project of American multi-instrumentalist Jacob Buczarski. Together, they are two one-man black metal / dark ambient projects that both happen to release music through I, Voidhanger Records. In no way do they temper each other to play less, cut songs short, or not go for any haughty concept that they might think deserves exploration. This should be a recipe for absolute disaster. And yet, it is brilliant.
Having already covered the over-indulgent nature of this project and the potential downfalls of solo black metal projects in the introduction, no more needs to be said of that at this point. If you’re here for the album, you’ve already decided that those are small costs to pay. Wanderers is designed to be a heady concept album, and the lyrics have been made available to listeners who wish to delve into the poetry in question. Normally, I wouldn’t do a track-by-track breakdown of an album, as that’s not a good way to present rock music to an audience. But since the artists behind this project have specifically presented this project more in the mode of a classical composition than an album, mentioning Gustav Holst’s famous Planets cycle as an inspiring light, I will be approaching the album the same way I would movements in a symphony.
Spectral Lore starts the album with “Mercury (The Virtuous),” luring the listener in with ambient guitar textures before opening up the first blast beat at three and a half minutes. Ayloss keeps the feeling dynamic, using a layered vocal delivery to add aural space and a cosmic feeling atop triumphant, almost Nordic chord patterns. The drumming has a hint or two of being programmed, but overall has a pleasing acoustic tone and enough variety to suit the trance-like quality of the song.
Mare Cognitum’s approach is more straightforwardly aggressive, opening immediately with a furious tempo and a thick, modern production sound. These drums have a more thunderous, death metal tone, and are mixed wonderfully to provide a heavy bottom end anchoring Buczarski’s reverb-heavy high gain guitars. The leads in “Mars (The Warrior)” bring to mind the best sounds from Blut Aus Nord’s Memoria Vetusta series, but without the brittle icy timbre BAN is known for. The energy of Mare Cognitum’s song carries the listener deep into the narrative while screaming “All life is dust in the wind” and throws them violently into Spectral Lore’s next song.
“Earth (The Mother)” starts off as a doom song, not a black metal one. Slowly plucked arpeggios and cavernous funeral vocals, intertwining guitar leads and massive cymbal crashes. The lyrics sing of the regret of humans who have left the planet, perhaps for dead, and are troubled by that reality. Halfway through the song, the drums pick up the pace and the guitars tremolo leads to weave a net of sound around the listener. The final crescendo of the song, from heartbeat pulse to inhuman drum machine snare rolls bordering on white noise is one of the most memorable moments on the album.
The next two songs, “Venus (The Priestess)” and “Jupiter (The Giant),” are both Mare Cognitum songs. Despite sharing the planets equally, Mare Cognitum actually has slightly more solo time on the album, with 48 and a half minutes to Spectral Lore’s 43. “Venus” calls to mind the epic black metal stylings of Summoning, with steady drums, huge reverbs, synth pads, and plenty of tempo changes for verses, bridges, lead breaks, and more of all of that. This album is incredibly dense, so if you just throw it on as background metal you’re missing out on the experience of Wanderers as a meditation. “Jupiter” might be by the same band, but Buczarski has changed up the sound again, bringing his take on the slower, doomier style. Synth and piano interludes break up the verses, and the guitars provide an ambient wash reminiscent of ocean waves. Even when the double kicks come in at the 12-minute mark, “Jupiter” feels vast and stately, far from the fury that was “Mars.”
Spectral Lore returns for “Saturn (The Rebel)” at the half-way point of the album. The echoing plucks immediately give this song the most experimental, eeriest tone so far, with major modes being hinted at in the progression but always collapsing back into diminished dissonance. The song feels uneasy, crawling along through ooze. This is the first prominent display of bass playing I noticed on the album; where before the bass simply filled in the sonic bottom end, here it meanders, outlining the most interesting of counter-melodies.
After a slow song, “Neptune (The Mystic)” returns us to the high tempos, thick production, and heavenly tremolos of Mare Cognitum. This is the final solo Mare Cognitum song on the album and thoroughly demonstrates the differences between the two bands. While Spectral Lore has a warmer, more analog or perhaps what one might call “traditional” timbre, Mare Cognitum provides a thoroughly modern atmospheric sound. Yet when it comes to songwriting, Spectral Lore is much more likely to try experimental, unique arrangements. When listening to Mare Cognitum’s work, you might think “this reminds me of…”, whether that’s Summoning, Blut Aus Nord, Immortal, or Borknagar, even if the final arrangement is still a fully unique experience.
These thoughts don’t intrude nearly as much in Spectral Lore’s songs, which wrap up with “Uranus (The Fallen).” Ayloss again makes good use of prominent bass lines, dancing scales up and down while the heavily distorted guitars drone a single chord deep in the mix. “Uranus” is the tightest turning of the screw, with the first chord change coming in at nearly five and a half minutes. When you’re engaged with the album, the constant feeling of tension pushes and pushes until everything breaks at seven minutes. The clean reverb pluckings build like harp and lyre strings as spoken vocals intone “the age of men is past.”
The final 23 minutes of the split are the collaborative “Pluto (The Gatekeeper)” tracks. The first, subtitled “Part I: Exodus through the Frozen Wastes,” is an instrumental ambient piece, while “Part II: The Astral Bridge,” completes the story of the album, bringing us through the solar system and into the realm of death. As somebody who listens to a lot of dark ambient music, I enjoyed “Exodus.” It’s an entirely modern synth track, with the notes flowing seamlessly from breath to breath, using pads that give the impression of sampled industrial machinery to add pulse to the song. “The Astral Bridge” bursts into the listeners ears with distorted guitars and an entirely unique set of programmed drums. Here the drums aren’t even attempting to sound like their acoustic counterparts, instead creating a much glitchier texture calling to mind IDM artists like Squarepusher or Autechre. Synths and guitars smoothly combine into massive walls of sound on either side for the drums and leads to play between. These two collaborative tracks were mastered by Jacob Buczarski, which is fortunate because his ability to create thick, meaty sounds is absolutely necessary when the song literally enters the realm of death at the six minute mark. Hearing chugging death metal riffs after an hour and forty eight minutes of atmospheric black metal is a huge tonal shift, but the bands pull it off with aplomb, particularly as Buczarski’s reverb-drenched leads soar overtop of Ayloss colossal bellows.
Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is not an easy album to get into. It isn’t the kind of music that rewards casual listening. But if you put yourself in the place where you can really take it in, it has much to offer the listener looking for something mind expanding. And honestly, people in solo black metal acts can learn a lot about the value of working with another creative mind, as “The Astral Bridge” is by far the stand out track on the album. Those listeners looking for the full three hour solar experience could combine Wanderers with the previous Sol, but that journey is only recommended with the proper application of drugs.