Cult Of Luna: 10 Years ‘Along The Highway’
Cult of Luna were hitting their stride just as the post-metal trend was entering its saturation point. By 2006, if you could get your hands on an extensive pedal board, a Sunn amp, and a short haircut you were only a favor from your graphic designer friend away from getting buzz from bearded eggheads. Shortly thereafter the genre began to reference only itself, and what was once cutting edge became dull and blunt, but Cult of Luna were still sharpening their blades. Somewhere Along The Highway is a snapshot of the genre as it stomped on its proverbial distortion pedals and went from a series of isolated incidents to an undeniable part of heavy music history, and it turns ten today.
It also happens to be their best album. Their first three full lengths (Cult Of Luna, The Beyond, Salvation) all showed promise, and even scraped at greatness, but all suffer from clinical and mechanical execution. The band’s unique lineup of three guitars, two drummers and multiple members tinkering with keys and samplers gives them a wide palette of sounds, but for the first half of their career they underutilized this versatility in favor of an all-or-nothing approach.
By choosing to record Somewhere Along The Highway live with little to no overdubs, Cult Of Luna forced themselves to be smarter with their arrangements. Simply burying the listener under low end density would no longer suffice. The first jaw dropping moment on the record isn’t when the band goes full bore on a single riff at the loudest point of “Finland” but what happens immediately afterwards: the guitars both slide up to shimmering leads in the upper register, leaving the bass to carry the low end, and it's as if the walls of the studio have been knocked down. This one moment redefines the entire sonic landscape of the album, allowing the band to play with a sense of scale and space. Cult Of Luna had previously been playing with dynamics in a strictly vertical sense, moving up and down in volume. On Somewhere Along The Highway they started thinking laterally.
The album’s stripped down production gives you an unobstructed view at Cult Of Luna’s unique instrumentation. The band’s two drummer set up gives them a crisp and methodical approach to rhythm, and the rest of their sound builds on that mechanized consistency. Like many other post-metal bands, Cult Of Luna’s guitarists use delay and reverb based effects, but where other bands do this to create an indistinct and overwhelming wash, Cult Of Luna’s tightly gridded rhythm section forces the trails of effects to interact with the rest of the band on a rhythmic level. This is taken one step further by using programmed electronics to create an additional layer of syncopation during the climaxes of “Dim” and “Dark City, Dead Man.”
Somewhere Along The Highway’s underproduction serves more than just an aesthetic function. By recording in a barn largely isolated from society they married the album’s creation to its thematic focus on what they referred to as male loneliness. Of course, “sad dudes alone in the woods” is hardly a novel concept for a Scandinavian metal band, or even music at large (shout out to Bon Iver), but this marriage of form and function served as a guiding principle for the band’s next two albums. On Eternal Kingdom, they crafted a story about the blurred line between reality and fantasy, and then fabricated a story about being inspired by a mental patient’s journal as a way of establishing themselves as unreliable narrators. And on Vertikal they constructed a rigid set of aesthetic guidelines (more keyboards, more downstrokes on guitar) as a way of evoking a harsh technological future.
But while Somewhere Along The Highway was a watershed moment for Cult Of Luna’s career, it suffers from being one of countless albums playing with similar ideas. No matter how good the songs on Somewhere Along The Highway are (and they are very very good, even deep cuts like “Thirtyfour” are among the best of their kind) they do very little to change the paradigm that Isis established with Oceanic and Panopticon. If it weren’t so completely a product of Cult Of Luna’s collective personality, Somewhere Along The Highway could scan as the generic local brand to Isis’s designer product. Lengthy and linear songs with drastic changes in volume, a mix of down tuned aggression and twinkling high end; this description fits Cult Of Luna as much as it does other latecomers like Mouth Of The Architect, Rosetta, Russian Circles, Callisto, Red Sparowes, Buried Inside, or dozens of other bands.
Somewhere Along The Highway is not an important record. But it is a quintessential record. One that is emblematic of its moment while remaining a product of its creator’s unique perspective. After the genre’s long build up, and before its gradual recession, Somewhere Along The Highway is the thunderous crescendo.