Dubstep breaks in 19 minute songs and clean vocal experimentation aside, it felt like Cult of Luna got stuck in a bit of a rut with “Vertikal”. The album has some fine moments, but most of the moods and sounds were already present on “Eternal Kingdom”. I guess the band felt they same since they decided to go for a quirky collaboration with female vocalist Julie Christmas.
The inclusion of Julie Christmas on “Mariner”
Julie is certainly an eccentric singer. She has a shouty, abrasive and sometimes cartoonish voice that’s bound to obliterate every eardrum that comes close to “Mariner”. Getting used to her vocal approach is obviously going to be a key factor to enjoying this album, and something that will polarize opinions. I’d place myself somewhere in between. She’s not the most sincere vocalist, but the sheer velocity of her sounds often works well with the backbone of sludgy metal music presented here. Interestingly, Cult of Luna hasn’t really changed much musically despite the brave vocalist collaboration. It’s essentially the same approach as on “Eternal Kingdom” and “Vertikal”. If anything, they’ve reduced the amounts of buildups and dynamic shifts for a more straight sludge approach. Bringing Julie in while staying so true to the musical blueprint is a perplexing mix of decisions.
The vocal and music interplay
The interplay between the vocals and the music becomes the key here, because it is truly a collision of two different worlds. They don’t waste time showing it off, as the first heavy part in “A Greater Call” has a tradeoff between trademark Cult of Luna hardcore screams and Julie’s strange vocal approach. My overall impression is that the interplay is hit and miss. Sometimes it feels it’s two different artists just playing simultaneously, and sometimes it works. It comes together the best on “The Wreck of S.S. Needle”, my favorite song on the album. It’s got a pretty typical stomping Cult of Luna groove going, and Julie lets her shouts take command. These moments where they come together as one unit sound great, but it doesn’t excel often enough. This leads me to my main beef: the album would’ve needed more memorable instrumentation. It’s lacking even compared to “Vertikal”, and it makes me think that they scaled everything down to put full focus on the vocals. These decisions means that the vocals need to go from an exciting touch to actually driving the songs, which isn’t always the case.
The last two songs are also lacking compared to the first three. “Approaching Transition” unsuccessfully tries to build on the clean vocal momentum from “Passing Through” on the previous album, and feels surprisingly stale in comparison. Closer “Cygnus” mostly repeats ideas from the other songs. It also has the least successful female vocal approach on the album, as Julie sounds forced and annoying in the more screamy parts. Negatives aside, the unadultered clash between Cult of Luna and Julie makes this one of the more fresh albums this year. It’s not always successful, but it rarely gets boring.