I'll cut right to the chase: as of this moment, Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is tied for first place for my album of the year. This may sound presumptuous, but know that we get promos at least a month or two out, so while the year is clearly far from over and many surprises lay in wait, this is neck-and-neck for the absolute top spot. (As for the other two, you will be hearing about them very soon, one of them as early as next week.) There are, of course, other thoughts regarding this record to discuss, but it felt imprudent and almost disrespectful, both to you and to the artists behind this incredible record, not to open with the news of my favoritism plainly and directly.

Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is the second split between black metal solo projects Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum. There are a lot of descriptors one could throw at either band: cosmic black metal, progressive black metal, avant-garde black metal, atmospheric black metal. None of these would be wrong, and in some cases, their added specificity would help distinguish them from the vast glut of black metal in the world across its myriad styles. But to settle too firmly on any one of those descriptors would feel like a deliberate truncation of the stylistic breadth of these projects -- sure, there are moments where either tends toward the melancholic sheets of sound that we associate with the post-depressive spaces of atmospheric black metal, but you also get ferocious blast beats and terrifying shrieks that feel too direct to fit that tag. Likewise, for as progressive as the average song structure is for both of these bands, they tend to shy away from other typical traits of prog metal, from odd time signatures to intensely virtuosic solos and the like, although there's technical skill aplenty.



Still, it is perhaps progressive black metal that speaks loudest here. This isn't just because of the song structures but also the general conceptual sweep of the record, one of the heady vintage of progressive rock, one which not only girds and structures this record and is a key reason for its development into nearly two hours of material but also links it snugly with the hour-long previous collaboration between these two groups. That collaboration, Sol, was delivered seven years ago in Mare Cognitum's infancy. Mare Cognitum had by that point only put out two releases, 2011's The Sea Which Has Become Known and 2012's An Extraconscious Lucidity, and while those were respectable releases and well-regarded within black metal spaces, Mare Cognituum had yet to deliver a breakout release. Spectral Lore, meanwhile, had three full lengths and a few splits under his belt already, including one with fellow Grecians Locust Leaves.

Sol was an absolute powerhouse of a record for both bands and still holds up as an immense and powerful piece of progressive black metal, among the best in extreme or progressive music the 2010s had to offer. Its structure was atypical for a split; the first two tracks were each near 30-minute epics composed and performed by each of the acts while the final track was, even more atypically, a piece performed and composed by both together. It wasn't just having a proper collaborative track that made the record feel unified, though. Elements of composition and structure in both mega-scale progressive black metal pieces implied a level of continuity with one another, a level of communication between the two one-man bands on their pieces that went a good bit above and beyond the norm for splits.

It didn't feel like they had merely had a couple chats over e-mail, Facebook, or text about rough ideas for a theme for the record and then set off -- if you didn't check the liner notes or streaming details, it would have been easy to believe this was a studio record by a single band. Good splits have always been built on some level of communication, but Sol went a step beyond, feeling like a full and unified work that could comfortably stand toe-to-toe with other records of the year. It's not just a great split but a great album, a masterfully thematic piece of art.

Its creation seemed to be a generative act for both groups as well: the following year, both groups released their seminal works, Mare Cognitum with Phobos Monolith and Spectral Lore with III. Both of them are showstopping albums, where the riffing and song structuring and pacing seemed massively improved for both bands. The exchanging and sharpening of ideas even seemed to bleed over to the lyrics, for III in particular, which featured a set of lyrics that was not only good within the context of metal but also as prose alone, delivered in a manner that didn't feel distractingly self-aware. The act of collaborating with each other brought out the best of both groups, and the slew of productivity that followed for both, be it the split with Aureole and 2016's Luminiferous Aether for Mare Cognitum or the series of EPs from Spectral Lore (each the length of any other band's albums), feel deeply tied to the eruptive creative moment of Sol and the immediate studio records from each group that followed.

Where Sol explored the sun, Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine explores the planets, venturing out from the sun and arranging the tracks in order of distance from it. There is a surface parallel to Holst's suite The Planets, but the similarities feel more like loose inspiration rather than a pure adaptation. For one thing, Holst's suite is only seven movements long, omitting both Earth and Pluto (though these would later be added by later composers performing updated versions of the suite). For another, the order of Holst's suite is arrhythmic, moving from Mars toward the Sun until it reaches Mercury, at which point it spontaneously jumps to Jupiter, reversing course afterwards. In fairness, Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum provide an equally strange order rather dissimilar to the conventional heliocentric ordering. For a standard record of non-thematically linked songs, such questions of order wouldn't even bear mentioning, but here where the album is explicitly a meditation on the symbolic and astrological values of each of the nine planets and implicitly acting in a superset with their previous collaborative LP featuring similar explorations of the sun, the shift in planetary order is a puzzling one.

Thankfully, the reasoning is fairly obvious on first blush when listening to the record. Regardless of the firm and real naturalist order of the planets, the order presented on Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine reads better. The way that the bright triumphalism of "Mercury (The Virtuous)" leads into the strident and intense militarism of "Mars (The Warrior)" feels sublime, bridging perfectly between a standard medieval contrapuntal complexity in the prog black metal of Spectral Lore into the singularly most ferocious and overtly metallic we've ever seen from Mare Cognitum. Likewise, the egress from "Mars (The Warrior)" back toward "Venus (The Princess)" seems to track with a deepening appellation to a mystic ideal, each progressive song shirking just a little bit more of the earthly material world for meditations on some essence beyond it. This prepares for the passage spanning "Jupiter (The Giant)" to "Neptune (The Mystic)" which seems to symbolically chart the figure of Jupiter as a Jehovah-like figure and Saturn as a Satanic imposer, mediated by the unifying mystic of Neptune. "Uranus (The Fallen)," then, is the fall; Pluto is rendered a gatekeeper, the last remnant of the known before embarking out into the terminal darkness and silence of deep space.

It deliberately invokes, provokes, evokes grand spiritual themes and images. Projects like this are risky, prone to falling on their face and coming across as goofy and ostentatious over-wrought cringe-fests rather than the sincere and potent symbolic meditations they seek to be. Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum, though, are resolutely sharp writers, avoiding cliched and hackneyed passages that would turn an album like this into a bad parody of progressive music, like a certain double-disc concept album about EDM robo-spheres in a Game of Thrones-esque future America. On this point, it's better to hear it from the record than from someone like me: admittedly, even describing their vast and spiritual intent can come across a bit... well, weird.

Due to the large number of similarly grandiose concept records that have fallen flat on their face, not to mention spiritualist-oriented extreme metal groups from black metal and beyond who have turned writing explicitly spiritual music into something almost automatically assumed to be dorky and thin, it's hard to describe what's being attempted here without fear of putting off certain people who just want their black metal to be firm, powerful, direct, and free of pretension. But that's precisely the thing: pretension is, by definition, a pretense of something that isn't achieved. But they do achieve it here; despite how absurd and lofty the idea sounds on paper, Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum nail it.

I've listened to the album perhaps about a dozen or so times since receiving it, the most recent being the night before I began drafting this; by "Uranus (The Fallen)," I was crying quietly at my desk again, despite how many times I've heard it.

Each of the planets seems to work in pairs. Mercury and Mars are, as mentioned before, the most sharp and purely black metal. Earth and Venus are soft and rich and intensely euphoric. Jupiter and Saturn are the most excessively epic pairing, with each song feeling structurally much closer to the groups' work on Sol, where each of the meatier songs felt like it could have been split into numerous tracks and released as a satisfactory EP. Neptune and Uranus are profoundly melancholic and depressive, atmospheric affairs. Pluto, meanwhile, is the requisite collaborative piece, this time split into two tracks. The first is a ten-plus-minute dark ambient piece, one speckled with the same fine-grain detail work that makes Spectral Lore ambient tracks such an auditory treat, while the second is a roaring and intense black metal piece. The opening line of the second act of Pluto even begins with the lyrics "Sol's domain ends," lending a bit more credence to the connection between the two records.

The arc and internalities of these songs don't feel, in truth, terribly divorced from the kinds of Luciferic theological ruminations we tend to expect from black metal. The difference is one of keen symbolic shift. Both Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum seem more inspired by imagery of space and celestial bodies than of Christian or anti-Christian imagery, but here use astrological implications of the vague symbolic value of each of the planets to touch back on the theological points of interest in black metal. The switch allows for some more interesting and fruitful things to develop thematically, and the deliberate, more intuitive, and psychologically-driven imagery of astrology, which functions more by loose emotionalist association rather than cold rationalism and logical function, keeps the two one-man bands from being trapped conceptually. They're wise enough with the lyrics to tend toward the sharp and evocative, letting the songs be more resonant and thematically guided by the intent and will of the listener rather than being firmly bolted to some explicit desired interpretation. This, too, is a key element that helps keep this record above the abysses of less successful concept records, especially ones that explore this kind of terrain.

Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine is, admittedly, not black metal as an extension of punk rock ethos. That is a powerful and necessary lineage of black metal, one that goes back to Hellhammer and Sarcofago and can be drawn through groups like Mayhem and Darkthrone up to Raspberry Bulbs today. Instead, this split is explicitly black metal as extension of spiritual meditation and ecstasy, heavy metal as spirit music. Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum both are too smart to let their concept carry the weight of the album, though; each song is a glorious barrage of genius riff after genius riff, marching from the militaristic to the depressive to the euphoric to the celestial.

The split sits comfortably next to the peak works of Wolves in the Throne Room, Therion, Enslaved, and Tribulation as intensely spiritual music that does not sacrifice great songwriting or great riffing in the pursuit of their lofty concepts. This isn't an album that's just satisfactory in the mind: it's fantastic in the heart and, most importantly, in the ear. Even if you burn the lyrics sheet, scratch out the name with black marker, and don't even once glimpse the beautiful symbolism-laden cover art, the sounds alone will enthrall you.


Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine released yesterday via I, Voidhanger Records.


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