This summer saw a couple of top-notch releases from instrumental post-metal vets Russian Circles and Pelican. Both albums were worthy entries in the genre, but we should consider them appetizers, or warm-up acts, because one of the heavy hitters just walked in, and they have something to say. A Dawn to Fear is Cult of Luna’s seventh album, and it’s eighty minutes of dense bludgeoning sprinkled with but brief moments of respite. After a rather prolific start to their career, with five albums within a seven year span, the band has slowed down. This is their first full-length since 2013’s superb Vertikal – not counting the excellent Mariner, a 2016 collaboration with Julie Christmas. That album made it all the way to #3 in my 2016 Top Ten-ish1. So my expectations are pretty high here.
“Towering” is the word that comes to mind when lead track “The Silent Man” gets moving. It features a churning, grating, yet at the same time subtle riff – a motif that’s on display throughout A Dawn to Fear. Growling bass and an inexorable drum line underpin the guitars, while organ blasts also come and go when Johannes Persson’s hoarse hardcore vocals aren’t shredding the mic. There are foreboding moments within this ten-plus minute song, adding emotion and giving “The Silent Man” a sense of explosiveness that is the perfect introduction to the album. Is 10:37 too long for an opening track? If you think so, you better leave the Hall; there are four longer songs here, so if you want to hang with Cult of Luna you better be patient, and have some Ibuprofen handy for the pummeling your head is going to take.
A Dawn to Fear is arguably Cult of Luna’s heaviest album to date – certainly heavier than Mariner, and perhaps also Vertikal in that the sound is very viscous and elemental. Kristian Karlsson replaced Anders Teglund on keys after Vertikal, and his work here is primarily on organs rather than electronics, which brings welcome depth. His touches on “Lay Your Head to Rest” and “We Feel the End” add a real sense of unease to the songs. The former features a monolithic riff and complex drumming as Persson sears our eardrums, while the latter slows things down and adds in a touch of Pink Floyd to offset the brutality. Closing tracks “Inland Rain” and “The Fall” are monstrous, each with hints of Neurosis permeating the arrangements. The title track is a study in somber, melancholic doom with a sprinkling of sludge for old time’s sake, while the aura given off by “Nightwalkers” is exactly as the title would imply.
Eighty minutes is a lot to digest of any kind of music, and in fact makes A Dawn to Fear unwieldy when it comes to CDs and LPs. There are no bad songs here, but if Cult of Luna had to cut or shorten one to make this thing fit on physical media better, it would be the longest song, the 15-minute “Lights on the Hill.” The first four minutes are doom-slow clean guitars, and the rest could have been further reduced as well. This is by no means a bad song, though, and like all the others it sounds amazing. Every instrument is in its place on the soundstage, with nothing taking any range away from a counterpart. The bottom end is insanely thick and the organs either serve as a cushion for the guitars, or cut through them when their time comes.
Cult of Luna have evolved into post-metal titans in their own right, long ago escaping the shadow of their American counterparts, Neurosis. Both bands bring the heavy, but Cult of Luna have upped the ante here on A Dawn to Fear. Every song packs a wallop, and each stands on its own with stellar arrangements, leaving us completely wrung out. Persson’s harsh vocals are devastating, and while my olde ears might prefer more cleans (a big reason I loved Mariner), I can more than willingly get behind this album. The heavy hitters of post-metal have entered the Hall, and I don’t think they want to leave.