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Album Review: CULT OF LUNA The Long Road North

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9.5 Reviewer
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On the The Long Road North, Sweden's undisputed gods of post-metal, Cult Of Luna, release a superb album that is more mature, nuanced and consistent than their 2019 masterpiece, A Dawn to Fear, but also maybe a bit less transcendental.

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Cult Of Luna's last full-length album, 2019's A Dawn to Fear, was my number one album that year. But A Dawn to Fear wasn't a particularly even or consistent album. On the contrary, I named it my number one album of 2019, in spite of its unevenness and inconsistency because the best moments were unlike anything I had ever heard—truly astonishing crescendos of intricately arranged ensemble playing.

The Long Road North is a more consistent, paced, and mature affair. Clocking in at 69 minutes—long but still ten minutes shorter than the sprawling A Dawn to FearThe Long Road North evinces a more concerted effort by the band at self-editing down to their strongest available material.

In terms of the band's overall sound, there won't be too many surprises for people who have listened to their recent output. The music on The Long Road North is huge and heavy, but also introspective and cerebral. Always a band to have the patience to let their musical ideas develop, Cult Of Luna excel at exploring and slowly evolving varying riffs and themes to create spellbinding post-metal soundscapes. The band's richly organic sound is framed by walls of simultaneously thundering and nuanced guitar playing, anchored by compositionally perfect supporting performances from bass and keyboards, and brought to life by Johannes Persson's hardcore-informed guttural vocals.

Any changes to the band's sound since A Dawn to Fear are incremental in nature and continue the trend established on the band's 2021 EP, The Raging River. There is a heightened focus on dynamic contrast—more soft parts to offset the heaviness—and on painting with an even more varied psychedelic palette. And a handful of guest appearances that I won't spoil here paid off supremely well, creating some of the strongest moments on the album.

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Also worth noting is the fantastic production on the album. This thing sounds huge with layers of reverberating and delayed guitars filling up the soundstage. As always with Cult Of Luna, the production is extremely natural, open, and organic and full of dynamics—particularly on Thomas Hedlund's beautifully captured drumming. A surprising decision Cult Of Luna and producer Magnus Lindberg made with the production on The Long Road North was to situate Persson's lead vocals at a more traditional level, sitting on top of the mix, more prominent than the other instruments. This is normal but contrasts with A Dawn to Fear, where the vocals were really submerged into the mix, at the same level as the instruments. Normally I hate when the vocals are pushed down in the mix. But the extremely ensemble-oriented nature of Cult Of Luna's songwriting and arranging—in which there is rarely if ever a part where a single instrument or voice is in the spotlight—makes them one of the few bands who can really pull off placing the vocals deep in the mix without detracting from the album. That's not to say that The Long Road North sounds worse for its more traditional mixing of the vocals, but it does make me a little sad. Their ability to suppress the vocal levels on A Dawn to Fear—something that is almost universally a bad production decision—and make it sound great is part of the quirky magic of that album.

Although The Long Road North is a superb album and will clearly be a contender on many album of the year lists (including my own), for me, it does not quite match the heights of A Dawn to Fear. It's difficult to pinpoint. Both albums feature Cult Of Luna embarking on lysergic post-metal excursions where they explore and evolve a dazzling array of soundscapes. On A Dawn to Fear, the road you traveled was less consistently captivating, but on a number of occasions it reached end points that were astonishing—truly transcendental musical climaxes. On The Long Road North, the journey is more consistently excellent but less frequently reaches moments of veritable transcendental brilliance.

Ultimately some fans will prefer The Long Road North to A Dawn to Fear. Those who are more into the voyage will prefer The Long Road North. Those who are more into the destination will favor A Dawn to Fear. For me, they are both superb releases. If A Dawn to Fear was a 9.5 plus, then The Long Road North is a 9.5 minus. And if on their next release, Cult Of Luna can marry the consistency, maturity, and greater dynamic range of The Long Road North with the spellbinding crescendos of A Dawn to Fear, they just may merit my first perfect 10.

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