Attending a concert with an exceedingly small crowd has something bittersweet about it. On the one hand, you don’t have to deal with other people. On the other hand, audience dynamics are half of what makes concerts fun, and no one wishes minute attendance upon a band they like. I’ve seen Madder Mortem perform amongst less than 20 people, despite their lengthy career and overall high quality, which is just incomprehensible to me. It’s a little easier to understand in the case of today’s subject, Cities of Mars, who have only been at it for a few years, but my fiancée and I made up two-thirds of the crowd last time we saw them and I think we can all agree that’s a little bit fucked up.
And they deserve a bigger audience, because Cities of Mars‘ doom-sludge is rich in atmosphere and full of excellent hooks and curb-stomping riffs, all constructed around an on-going retro-science fiction story with strong Lovecraftian overtones. The debut, Temporal Rifts, was more oriented towards doom, and found itself more limited in range. The Horologist finds the band spreading their wings and including a smidge more progressive songwriting, resulting in an album that’s more dynamic and varied than their previous work. Though they’ve retained their heavy groove, notably on bangin’ sludge single “Hydrahead” and the more expressive opener “Necronograph,” the album peaks with the post-metal influenced “The Last Electric Dream,” building upon a single shimmering riff to expand into the most emotionally taxing territory on the album.
Their Achilles’ heel, however, is their vocals. Much like Mastodon, all three members pitch in at the mic, but none of them are particularly gifted in that department. The basic sludge roars used in the lower registers are okay, if not exceedingly inspiring. But attempts at higher notes leave their pitch spinning dangerously off course, resulting in a few cringe-inducing moments. Most of these are concentrated on the otherwise groovy “The Floating Museum” where the overreach is most palpable. By comparison, on the more doom-oriented Temporal Rifts the vocal performances stay within a more limited frame. Though I applaud Cities’ willingness to explore, and must note they have improved upon their variety, the experiment doesn’t work out quite as well with their vocal capabilities.
It’s a blemish for sure, but the only significant one. The songwriting is excellent throughout, maximizing the impact through great use of contrast by interspersing heavy, distortion-laden riffs with moody atmospheric sections, underscored by hard-hitting drums and throbbing bass. The production does not skimp on the latter either, turning out a reasonably dynamic master and balanced mix, with lovely thick fuzz on the guitars and refraining from burying any one element. An achievement in and of itself when it comes to sludge, which is too often known for turning everything up to 11.
Cities of Mars is a band on the rise. Rather than displaying complacency with their initial sound, they show themselves willing to expand and experiment, honing their songwriting skills and adding depth and layers to their music. It’s unfortunate that the vocal issue has become a little more noticeable as a result, like a difficult to remove stain becomes more visible when its surroundings are cleaned. It keeps me just a hair’s breadth away from the higher score that I’d love to give, because in all other regards, The Horologist is a great piece of cosmic sludge. Cities of Mars are touring Europe again in May. This time I want to see you all there.