Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Further Along the Highway: Celebrating 10 Years of Cult of Luna’s Somewhere Along the Highway

Ten years have passed since the release of Cult of Luna’s Somewhere Along the Highway. To celebrate this, the band has reissued SATH (along with Salvation) on a limited pressing of vinyl through Earache, and have embarked on an anniversary tour. Whilst Johannes recently told an interviewer that this anniversary tour was the idea of their agent[1], it is a decision which has certainly excited a lot of fans (myself among them) who now get both of this as well as their newly released album with the mighty Julie Christmas, Mariner[2]. I was fortunate enough to catch them at Sound Control, Manchester and treated to a fantastic two hour set encompassing tracks from Salvation through to Vertikal II.

To help the band celebrate this happy anniversary we look back on the album, one which I would suggest is their most important to date. It is an album totally embedded within the surroundings it is recorded, as well as their most intimate, expressing not only an artistic output but a creation essential to the bands needs at the time.

Shedding some of the hardcore aesthetic of salvation, along with some of its more self-destructive tendencies, SATH, though more stripped back, has a certain warmth. This said, it is without a doubt that the cold-dark Umeå nights creep through into the music; the warmth present is one pertaining to life echoing its rural background, some distance from the more abstract and polished Salvation.

Salvation's abrasive sounds at times seemed to protrude from the beyond, grasped through cracks of dilapidated city buildings and industrial landscapes. It appears that Cult of Luna didn’t quite cross over to that other space; rather they seem to have glimpsed an introspective moment and were catapulted right back, back to their roots, literally the landscape where they grew up. SATH then can be understood as realignment, a detox of both body and mind, and in a way a searching for a purer, less refined, organic sound; completed after months of intensive touring.

The album was completed over a period of three months and recorded, mostly live by Magnus Lindberg at the Octagon Barn, Norrfors outside of Umeå in the winter of 2005. The recently reissued anniversary vinyl provides some stunning new photography and artwork as well as some additional liner notes from Johannes.

In the current anniversary tour, this Salvation/SATH contrast is strikingly apparent, choosing to end the first half of their set with the blinding white hot intensity of Waiting For You, before commencing Along the Highway.


Opener, Marching to the Heartbeats, sung by Fredrik Kihlberg, opens the album with sombre feedback. It’s crisp, like ice crackling as the sun slowly makes its appearance, placing the album solely in the here and now of the landscape. That essential facilitating property of landscape feels prominent, and a long way from Salvation (“To escape the suffering we keep our emotions at a distance”, Into The Beyond, Salvation). We are witness to the embedded stories and interactions.  It’s an album not just of the self, but of the longing for another. Personal histories evolving in place.

“The sun, the light in your eyes, trapped me in a cage.
When you saw me you saw yourself.
We were the ones that marched and fell.”

This sense of longing is reflected in the ethereal distortion that hangs over the track, the stretched notes seem echo a sense of time and a feeling of waywardness.

Perhaps this waywardness is a disconnect between the internal and the external, of body clocks needing to be re-synced with a natural cycle. The return to their home town to record this album representing “[t]he longing to find a home in myself, to find peace and tranquillity”.[3] With symmetry of intent, the drums pen a simple heartbeat.

The initial aggression of Finland doesn’t take long to subside into a more tranquil state, building to a precipice which it cannot help but plummet. It feels introspective and considered. Whilst the recording of this album was completed in a short space of time, any sense of urgency is not apparent. The moments of heavy intensity and those quieter, tranquil ones here feel less diametrically opposed, more fluid and natural.

A flicker of electronics around the four minute mark conjures thoughts of some night time creature call. Perhaps the beasts of the Eternal Kingdom calling out. It’s an eerie if not slightly unsettling call. Linked with the lighting in a live setting to great effect, the electronics are more prominent and imminent, where as in its initial recording, there is a sparse and facilitating aspect to Anders Teglund’s flourishes. Recent addition Kristian Karlsson seems to have enthusiastically taken on role with keyboard/electronics, which, since Vertikal seem to have come forward in the mix.

The drums feel very raw, for the most part, a long way from the maximalist percussion of Hedlund / Lindberg on Eternal Kingdom. Lyrically the track relates personal events[4].

Compared to the precise extended builds of Salvation, the beautifully textured opening of Back to Chapel Town feels more like an awakening of the dawn chorus. There is an odd, staggered sense of time however, this dawn chorus quickly descends into night; the band in sync with the seasonal cycles and the fleeting winter sunlight.

Though more loosely conceptual that the bands following releases (attempting more generally to capture the image of the environs it was recorded) it is of note that so many have made this connection, resorting to allegories of nature to describe the aesthetic of the album. Perhaps most recently by Jack Chuter “…tracks developed with the fluid inevitability of plant growth and seasonal shift, repeating certain sections without the diarised schedule of the city to hurry them along.”[5]
That is so clearly realised, stands as testimony to the artistic integrity of the album, to its completeness. The video for Back to Chapel Town was filmed in the location the album was recorded; depicting "a man waking up in a world he doesn't know, he knows nothing of his past or where he is, people treat him like air or are very suspicious of him."[6] 

As with most elements of the album there is a thoughtful correspondence between passages of sound, lyric and artwork. Here the dissociated lyrical content of Back to Chapel Town is captured in the cinematography.  

As in Marching to the Heartbeats, Kihlberg returns to centre stage. And With Her Came the Birds acts as both interlude and central to the albums nature. Sonically it is the clearest reflection of where the album was recorded and has an interesting back story.

“One day a woman emerged from the forest, she looked thin and her clothes were ragged. She started to dance in a meadow outside of the cottage. We looked at her through the window and made sure not to make any noise that would have made her aware of us.
Later that night we recorded And With Her Came the Birds. The studio was only lit up with a few candles and we recorded it live. Magnus set up a mic outside the cottage to capture the atmosphere. The temperature was just above zero and if you listen really carefully in the first few seconds you can hear the melting water.”[7]

I had always felt it had some almost folkloric element to it, though had not until recently heard its associated back story. Here, and throughout the rest of the album, this rural setting in many ways taps into a national psyche.

With a boom in popularity of Nordic noir over the last few years in the UK, I was always reminded, when watching programs such as Wallander, of the provoking imagery on SATH. It seemed to me, that there existed a deep fascination of the rural countryside of Sweden, often depicting those living there as isolated and archaic, perhaps viewed with slight suspicion. Of course this is a popular fiction portrayed in most countries. Here the modern myth takes on its own national hue and corresponding sounds and aesthetic. Whether knowingly or not this girl and her birds, and “dead man with pitchfork arms” tap into these ideas and weave into their own myths of identity.

Having been absent from set lists for the past decade it was an extra treat to get to see Thirtyfour performed live. A cacophony of drums fills the space of the barn on its recording. This interplay of duel drummers reaches their natural climax before cascading.

There is optimism at times, an elated feel within the track, its peaks offer a heady mingling of electronics, guitar and drums, swirling crescendos which provide momentary hooks.

As elsewhere in the album, these briefest moments of rapture, quickly to descend to darker passages, like the fleeting glimpses of winter’s daylight.

A sparse and beautiful track, Dim arises with a certain fragility, its layers build gently before Lindberg and Hedlund’s drums are allowed to accompany as the track finds its trajectory, continuing to take shape. Its transience allowing it to float somewhere above ground, though managing to wrench at the heart.

At its peaks it offers such ecstatic beauty before returning the listener back into their seat. If there is a contrast of light and dark, night and day throughout the album, Dim, despite its name seems to linger within the light for the longest, though when eventually enveloped by the inevitable night, the skin shivers. You’d be forgiven for not noticing the tracks length due to its immersive qualities; caught on the breeze with the sounds.

Vocals roll in at the nine minute mark in line with the intricacies of their depictions.

From the skyline dark clouds move in. They shroud me with her cold cover.
Eyes like daggers puncture the skin. Isolated in a room with no others.
Where do I turn when all hope is lost? Where do I find forgiveness?
My search for salvation has begun. To find a place where our hearts beat as one

The sense of dissociation found throughout the album, lyrically at least ends Dim with an agonistic implosion. It’s here that we find the artistic pinnacle of the album, with its desperate searching and ultimately crushing poignancy.

Themes of male loneliness in Perssons lyrics, are embedded throughout and provide a further conceptual focus throughout the album[8]. Sonically you feel wrenched at times, as notes are stretched, and space opens between the sparse and raw interplay of instruments.

Electronics pulsate and interrupt, as raw energy is unleashed and the track is forced to collapse on itself, its fragility and impermanence once more apparent. The pulse eventually calming and slowing to a close.

This steady pulsating heartbeat eases us into our closer Dark City, Dead Man. If Dim was our moment of light, we will be ending in darkness. This massive track, moves with a speed fitting to its density.

The momentum carries it through, unstoppable at times as the eight strong group organise. With its many chops and changes, we are led through dark city streets, offering unrivalled immersion.

For a long time this closed many a Cult of Luna set, and perhaps for this reason it is best experienced in live setting. You are required to give yourself over and embrace its oblivion. Its final climax is one of sensory overload, white lights flash as the band erupts.  I’ll let this one speak for itself.

I let go and fall deeper. This will be the end of me.


It’s the imagery (delivered sonically of course) which this album conjures that really makes it an outstanding and important record. Whereas conceptually SATH’s intent is more loosely delineated, perhaps more humble, than its successors (Eternal Kingdom, Vertikal & Mariner), it forms a cohesive whole. The overall aesthetic emerges from the sum of its parts, and it feels that whether knowingly or not, embedded within wider social commentaries.

If its aim was to reflect the environment where it was recorded, then it is a resounding success. Whereas, its emotive narrative is powerful and feels intertwined with this landscape.
This association of certain sounds with place or theme is an exciting prospect and one which Cult of Luna seem to be adept at doing (at least over the last three “conceptual” records they have yet to slip up). 

That this association exists, points to the influence of wider social influences. I wonder for instance whether I would identify such pictorial references in non-western sounds? Or perhaps it’s just that my senses have been influenced by a combination of graphic design, photography and press releases?  When it comes to aural representations of certain landscapes, I am reminded of the claustrophobic post-industrial dearth of Birmingham envisioned by Napalm Death; or on another extreme, the intentional Romantic creations of Grieg, who tapped into traditional folklore and folk music to depict an idealised cultural landscape. It is as though there exist socially recognised correlates of sound, evolved as human histories are entangled with the environment.

The artwork itself plays an important role here, streamlining perception and expectations of what sounds lie within. The hues of greens, the eerie half-light of the Scandinavian winter and the vast expanses captured in the photography, combined with the minimal graphic design put together by Erik Olofsson. Olofsson acting essentially in a role of artist in residence equally as musician (at least since Salvation), a role he has continued, creating the artwork for Mariner despite leaving the band in 2014.

I have always been impressed at how well the fit of the album artwork, the colour schemes and graphic design have fit with actual sound of the album, as well as the overall theme[9]. Here there is a certain complexity hidden within simplicity, as though Rothko was commissioned to create an Umeå landscape in green white and black. This visual imagery clearly plays an important role in the creation of a Cult of Luna album[10].


The emotional intensity throughout SATH’s hour duration is powerful, though with its spacious and organic approach it’s never claustrophobic or overwhelming. The dissociation depicted is real at times, but with the reflective beauty of the countryside envisioned, this provides only introspection which is, in the end only positive.

The outside world finds its way into the music, sending shivers like gusts of wind in its darkest moments; bringing warmth and optimism at its lightest.

With such on point symmetry throughout between sound, art and lyrical narrative Somewhere Along the Highway is a stunning and cohesive piece of work of audio-visual merit, its poetry ever revealing upon further listen. A modern masterpiece.

At the same time an extended version of Marching to the Heartbeats, entitled Heartbeats was released as a download with the intention to be kept alive by file sharing.

[1] http://www.ponto-alternativo.com/cult-of-luna-somewhere-along-the-highway-holds-a-certain-significance/
[2] Somewhere Along the Highway was ranked #5 in Decibel’s Best of 2006 Top 40 (interestingly #2 was super group Battle of Mice’s A Day of Nights (featuring Julie Christmas) and #31 Made Out of Babies Coward, so you could say this year’s Mariner is a perfect anniversary collaboration). http://www.rocklistmusic.co.uk/decibel.htm; http://www.earache.com/archive/cultofluna/Decibel_06_Top40_CoL.jpg
[3] On the subject of extensive touring following the acclaimed Salvation. Johannes, November 2015, taken from liner notes of Somewhere Along the Highway vinyl reissue (Earache, 2016)
[4] http://www.lordsofmetal.nl/en/interviews/view/id/1357
[5] Chuter, J. 2015. Storm, Static, Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. Function Books. London: p235.
[6] http://www.metalunderground.com/bands/details.cfm?bandid=1473&tab=news&page=3
[7] Johannes, November 2015, taken from liner notes of Somewhere Along the Highway vinyl reissue (Earache, 2016)
[8] An influence on this theme for Olofsson is reportedly the novel Life And Times Of Michael K by J M Coetzee http://metalstorm.net/pub/interview.php?interview_id=376
[9] I am reminded of how the bells appear from the blissful wave of drones in Crossing Over from Salvation, beckoning toward a pure white light of the beyond as depicted in its cover artwork.
[10] Erik Olofsson discussing the importance of imagery in the creation of Vertikal https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=149&v=02lZaL_0aSU