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Cormorant – Earth Diver

In the intro for his March retrospective, Steel for Brains mainman Jonathan Dick made a case against forced objectivity in music criticism, arguing that “The idea that we should separate our passion for music and its relationship to our experiences so that we might arrive at some mythic place of critical authenticity is complete horseshit”. I think I speak for many writers when I say I am honored to call some of my favorite musicians/bands friends, or at least acquaintances with whom I keep somewhat regular contact. It is a natural inclination to befriend someone you admire, someone whose creativity has influenced your life with some amount of significance.

In conversations about music, someone will occasionally observe that I’ve described a band with members I happen to know personally as “one of my favorite bands.” This is no coincidence, but it’s not for the reasons many often suspect. They are my friends because they are among my favorite bands, not the other way around. Corrupted objectivity? Nonsense. The old adage goes, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” Replace “family” with “music” and it’s still dead on.

Thus, everything that made Cormorant so compelling to begin with — everything that places them with SubRosa and A Pregnant Light on my personal short list of this decade’s great American metal bands — is present on Earth Diver. And I preface all of this because I was as shocked as anyone when vocalist/lyricist/bassist Arthur von Nagel announced his departure from the band in late 2012 to pursue a career with Telltale Games on its adaptation of The Walking Dead. (Because one critically lauded project in one medium wasn’t enough. I kid, Arthur!) Much wringing of hands commenced among the Internet metal community. “Cormorant left Cormorant,” went the lament. And then the guys posted a stream of “Waking Sleep” last October, and wouldn’t ya know, it sounded like Cormorant. Proggy, blackened blasts; sophisticated tempo changes; massive, skyward riffs cutting ferocity with trad metal bombast.

While von Nagel’s occasional forays into classical poetic devices (iambic pentameter!) will be remembered fondly, it is the playful, boundless melding of styles that truly defines Cormorant’s sound. The what-the-hell-do-I-call-this-ness of “Mark the Trail”’s death march turned rollicking sea shanty, or “The Pythia”’s doomy, tritone-inflected intro, which somehow gets funkified by new dude Marcus Luscombe’s bouncy bassline until guitarist Matt Solis sings a hook I’ve been humming since last week: “Head down, she breathes the ground / Rising mist turns her words to prophecy”.

Far beyond the Viking chant “Whoa-oh-oh-ohs” of Metazoa’s “Uneasy Lies the Head” or the gut-wrenching sadness he brought to Dwellings standout “Junta”’s emotional climax, Solis’ throaty croon is all over Earth Diver, drawing compelling counterpoint with Luscombe’s rasp. On the Opethian “Broken Circle,” his warped, oceanic cleans echo over subtle keys and samples while Luscombe alternates between a speak-yelling bark and black metal howls. During closer “A Sovereign Act”’s chug-ridden midsection, he sings a simple, wordless lamentation as Luscombe hits funeral doom lows, the two reflecting vocal personalities over the heaviest few minutes the band has laid to tape, all screeching dissonance and mournful leadwork.

If it sounds like there’s a ton going on here, well, once again, that’s just Cormorant being Cormorant. In a refreshingly satirical rejection of this generation’s tendency to micro-categorize every subgenre of music we come across, the band’s early adopters bestowed upon them the genre tag “Tiberian ass bastard folk,” because what other label do you stick on “Sold As a Crow”’s sweeping Agalloch-isms punctuated with death metal stop-start breaks and Brennan Kunkel’s relentless snare fills? Solis and co-guitarist Nick Cohon continue their symbiotic six-string vocalizations, the former’s flashy metal shred dueling with the latter’s loose, bluesy licks. Like the rest of Cormorant’s sound, the tandem works because of the counterpoint. And Earth Diver works because it’s Cormorant.

Earth Diver comes out on April 8. You can preorder it at the band’s Bandcamp.

— Greg Majewski

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