Cobalt revolutionized American black metal with 2009’s Gin, as one of the few bands to firmly embrace their home country instead of seeking authenticity by aping their European forbearers. Its successor, Slow Forever, amazingly dominates over Gin, a continuation of Cobalt’s renegade Americanization of extreme metal, with principal instrumentalist and songwriter Erik Wunder further embracing popular American ’90s rock — when grunge and metal bled together — and folk. The album’s gestation over the past couple of years was agonizing, as the band’s former vocalist Phil McSorley’s demeanor grew as intense as his singing, causing him to be exited for, frankly, being a bigot and too much of a liability.
Cobalt are still informed by black metal, though they are no longer a black-metal band. They are an American Metal band, and while that may seem broad, it’s about as specific as you can get with a vision as wide as theirs. Slow Forever sees Wunder’s Tool obsession bloom, never resorting to blast beats, but harnessing Danny Carey’s inability to sit still, thus never letting down on the intensity. On Gin he hinted at those influences; Slow Forever is rife with radio-strained twangs, broken prog riffing, and oddly hummable refrains. Cobalt aren’t cashing in — they’re mining the potential of these signals to the mainstream and blasting them to new heights. Wunder is also a master of space, as demonstrated by the Icarus flight of the intro to “Beast Whip” and the silence that punctuates the bursts of the title track.
It’s hard to believe this same band once made War Metal, Cobalt’s relentless 2005 debut that owed a bit too much to the harsh Canadian vibes of Conqueror and Blasphemy. A lot of extreme metal’s attitude is reactionary (or at best, begrudgingly indifferent) to popular music, and while that fury is necessary to a degree, it also gets real tiring if you don’t have anything worthwhile to offer up yourself. The glory days of “alternative metal” are not Wunder’s enemy, they are but one, um, tool for him to work towards broader mastery of his style. Wunder also works in furiously blackened crust-punk (“Cold Breaker,” “Final Will”), near-tribal drumming that transcends Neurosis worship (“Animal Law,” “King Rust”), and Big Black’s push-pull tension (“Siege,” a hidden track, yet another homage to the CD-era kings of rock radio), making the double-length sprawl feel like a toxic, but still exhilarating, breeze, the stink of oceans creeping into the plains.
Gin had no shortage of prurient lyrics — “Arsonry” defines “hatef**k” with the combo of “Burn me down, shoot me in the chest” b/w “Let’s f**k one last time, in the burning bed” — and while McSorley was a capable screamer, new vocalist Charlie Fell’s screech is more discernible, more personal. His is a choked scream that is less drill sergeant and more grisly storyteller. No disrespect to McSorley — he’s one of the most ferocious metal frontmen on tape or on stage — but his service was up, and Fell picks up the mantle snarling. He isn’t exactly clean of controversy either, but he brings the griminess of his former group Lord Mantis’ death sludge to Cobalt, the underbelly to Wunder’s computational beauty. Hasn’t metal always been about finding beauty in darkness, or the other way around?
Another holdover from Gin is its appreciation of Ernest Hemingway, who was featured on its cover. This time the segue “Iconoclast” samples his Nobel acceptance speech, most notably the famous “at best, writing is a lonely life” line. While Slow isn’t about the loneliness of creation per se, it does resonate deeply with metal’s social contradictions. Metal began as party music for disaffected youth, suburban introverts, and dissidents finding common ground in what was then the pinnacle of guitar extremity. Union breeds more union, alienation breeds alienation, and those two aren’t always mutually exclusive. Making an album is an isolating process, and writing, whether it be influential American literature or just another piece of music criticism, also lends itself to distance.
Wunder has lamented that McSorley’s military service limited Cobalt’s touring opportunities, and is actively working on assembling a live lineup now that a road dog like Fell is in the picture. Slow was born of isolation and betrayal, but it’s music that was meant for concert halls Cobalt deserve to fill, music that rewards both introspection and reveling in like-minded rapture. It’s also ready to f**king kill.