You will never hear anyone even remotely familiar with Sweden’s Cult of Luna making the accusation that they only make the same album over every time they enter the studio. Their career has been a showcase for artistic progression, from the cold desolation of Salvation to the earthen, rustic tones of Eternal Kingdom and a total about-face into near-industrial territory on Vertikal. It should be no surprise, then, that their collaborative album with Julie Christmas, entitled Mariner is an entirely new beast that stands apart. It’s a supremely haunting release that, with the addition of Christmas’s distinct vocal work, elevates Cult of Luna into uncharted territory.
Musically, Mariner seems like a culmination, almost a retrospective of the band’s achievements up to this point without ever sounding quite like anything they’ve done: Opening track “A Greater Call” utilizes droning guitars and mellotrons, recalling some of the quieter moments of Salvation before a crushing, climactic echo of chords and shimmering lead work enters as Julie and Johannes engage in a call-and-response vocal duel. Per the band’s standards, it is heavily layered with buzzing synth work ala Vertikal but has a rawer, more organic feel that has shadows and shades of Somewhere Along the Highway. Christmas’s vocals, however, are a mainstay of the opener; her entrancing, siren-like delivery and phrasing of the lyrics is a perfect foil to the gruff screams and glides along with the delay-soaked guitar leads. For lack of a better term, it’s a hell of a listen, and the choice of Julie Christmas to be included is immediately apparent as one of the best moves ever made by either party involved in the making of Mariner.
“Chevron,” however, takes a turn for the esoteric. Christmas’s shrieking and venomous delivery of the menacing vocal melody compliments the slithering, eerie bass lines and YOB-like riffs. It shifts down in its second half into more spacey, ambient territory and leaves a wide open canvas for glimmering synths and warbly guitars and transitions into the clanging opening sequence of “The Wreck of S.S. Needle,” where Julie’s vocals alternate between desperate wails and more immediate, but no less urgent, melodic delivery. The album’s highlight, though, is closer “Cygnus,” especially its strikingly gorgeous last few minutes, which continue to build upon an established melodic formula as Christmas’s mantra-like vocal delivery underpins a densely layered rhythm.
Atmospherically, Mariner is absolutely compelling. Aside from Cult of Luna’s own maturity, the inclusion of Christmas as not just a guest, but a key feature of the song craft, results in an incredibly strong, textured, and dynamic listen. Whereas Vertikal was stark in its delivery in keeping with its industrial concept, Mariner does maintain its spacey, lush atmosphere without ever coming off as forced. The amount of detail within the production makes it clear that every section was painstakingly written, and it pays off in spades for the listener, most especially on “Approaching Transition,” which strikes out into more ambient, electronic territory and is gilded by a stuttering, echoing guitar arpeggio and phased vocals.
Mariner is an album that gradually unfurls and demands repeated, sustained listens for the listener to get an accurate understanding of what it has to offer. As such, it’s probably the most artistically accomplished effort so far from Cult of Luna and is one of 2016’s strongest offerings so far. Mandatory listening, frankly.