In Gareth Tunley’s haunting and haunted 2016 film The Ghoul, the whole of reality is bent and infected by the protagonist’s depression. He is trapped in a twisted, magically real manifestation of a Möbius strip. Here, all means of escape are soon revealed to be nothing but bottomless ladders that descend into the darkest craters of the human psyche. The beginning is the end is the beginning. There is no escape. But unlike The Ghoul’s main character who ultimately appears powerless, Portland, Oregon’s A.L.N. has the music of the project Mizmor (מזמור) on his side, both as a weapon and a vessel of catharsis. And on his third full-length, Cairn, he finds a way to finally break the loop.
2012’s raw מזמור and 2016’s massively bleak and cynical Yodh explored questions of faith and meaning while struggling to find reasons to go on. In contrast, Cairn’s heavy mesh of doom metal, sludge, black metal, and drone channels a hopeful kind of introspection and reflection. It carves a path to a reconciled future, supported by a cleaner, clearer sound. Along the way, the album builds cairns—ceremonial piles of stones, monuments to the past—to bury, leave behind, but never forget all the demons that haunted A.L.N. On one side, it’s God and faith that failed him. On the other, thoughts of suicide which once seemed plausible now become the coward’s choice. These two ideas make “Cairn to God” and “Cairn to Suicide” the heaviest and angriest songs on the album, which shift from permeating sludge and drones that move at glacial pace to incisive, blurring black metal segments driven by tremolos.
Amid a particularly affecting passage of “Cairn to Suicide,” A.L.N.’s mercurial voice—transforming growls into shrieks and clean cries—is accompanied by a YOB-like mournful heaviness as he pours these existentialist thoughts into austere lyrics. “Both are tragic, groundless, / leaps That completely miss / the mark. Desperate for the / oasis, Succumbing to / consoling lies,” he rasps with conviction. Whispers and atmospheric noises surround him, taunt him. But once notions of religion and self-destructive impulses are abandoned, where do we go next? How do we cope with the wonderful absurdity and irresistible meaninglessness of life? The answer to these questions comes crashing down during one of the most poignant moments of the record on “The Narrowing Way.” “And resumed my toilsome trek / Through the narrowing / wasteland. Remaining on that / dizzying crest Is the only valid / choice. Daily revolt – breath in / my lungs. Absurdity is pain / and beauty,” A.L.N. growls and screams and sings carried by crushing waves of scorched doom and sludge that crest with glimmers of hope.
There are no places to hide or attempts at mystification on Cairn. A.L.N.’s thoughts are instilled into sobering, frank lyrics and further explained in candid recent interviews. As he confides in Emma Ruth Rundle, “Life is not a miracle because that implies divinity, but it is certainly amazing and I go back and forth between ‘it is certainly terrible’ and ‘it is certainly amazing’ very, very rapidly, constantly.” This directness is reflected in the music throughout the record. On “Desert of Absurdity,” gentle themes played on acoustic guitar harden and blossom into atmospheric black metal romps twirling with harmonies. Then, the ground opens beneath us, and we’re sucked into funeral doom chasms adorned with enchanting leads. The music, while dripping with melancholy and sonic brutality, is always delicately beautiful.
While obviously a painfully personal and intimate confession, Cairn is decidedly universal as it tackles themes that affect and afflict each and every one of us. That such harsh and stark music could eventually peak in cautious optimism is a tribute to the endurance and fortitude of the human mind. Recently rivaled only by An Isolated Mind’s I’m Losing Myself in terms of musical exploration of the most agonizing of subjects, Cairn is an utterly difficult but vital listen. An encouraging signpost for all of us.