The Porcelain Throne – Cormorant (Or: Creatures of Other Mould, Part 1)

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In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan first peers into Eden from the top of the Tree of Life. Perched in the form of a cormorant, he spies a pair of unfamiliar creatures, both innocent and beautiful. (Artisanally crafted with love in every limb.) Jealousy engulfs the fallen angel, and he knows in that moment he will stop at nothing to corrupt God’s pet project—Mankind. After some slithering and a long walk of shame, he is ultimately successful. Adam and Eve are fallen, tainted and free.

Like the eponymous bird, Cormorant is deeply connected with the human story post-exile: our fraught relationships, our feats of strength, the myths we create to make sense of our only home. These struggles form the backbone of the band’s musical storytelling, although the end result is anything but anthropocentric. Where Milton’s cormorant looked on us and saw perfection, San Francisco’s birds glance with a critical eye at our horrors and accomplishments alike. Over the course of their 4 LPs, Cormorant tells the true tale of humanity—the one where we are a single thread in the planet’s tapestry.

Hatchlings
Metazoa (2009)

Leaving an egg behind (or hive, or hometown) is an inherently risky journey—the protection of family is stripped away, and in unfamiliar territories, the rules shift like tectonic plates. Novel experiences overload the senses. Snares lie in the underbrush. Everything depends on adaptation to the unknown.

My move to western Massachusetts for college was hardly a matter of life and death, but it did present a new environment with its own set of challenges, namely trying to find out who I was and resisting the urge to gorge myself from the soft-serve machines in the dining hall. The year was 2009: deathcore was ascendant (with recent releases from genre-giants Whitechapel and their ilk), purple tech was in its infancy, and my most pressing concerns were crippling social anxiety and the quest for increasingly belligerent metal. (It is with a faint smile and full-body cringe that I remember blasting Viraemia like a true edgelord.)

Years before this infernal toilet graced the internet, I was an avid reader of No Clean Singing (Hi Andy!); it was there that I first laid eyes on Metazoa‘s transcendent artwork. Here was an image that bucked the prevailing trends: a legible logo, gently curving lines, serenity in place of vulgarity. The image alone cut through the layers of defense I’d accumulated over the years, exposing the young boy who once studied insects with near-religious intensity.

It only took a few minutes of the opening track, “Scavengers Feast,” for me to realize what I was hearing: my love of animals (or Metazoa), written as music. At 2:42, I imagined a seabird flying low across the water, weaving around whitecaps as Brennan Kunkel’s gentle double bass kicks created a sense of joyful motion. With a splash of cymbals, the avian form plunged into the ocean; the tempo dropped, the guitars were engulfed in reverb, and melodic basslines bubbled up from the depths.

Metazoa‘s wide range of influences mirrors the diversity of life—from the ethereal post-rock of “Sky Burial” to galloping melodeath (“Salt of the Earth”), there’s a niche where every listener can feel at home. A guillotine blade falls with a wooden thump in “Uneasy Lies the Head” (doom and Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution, name a more iconic duo). Guests from Squalus and Judgment Day join the menagerie  in “Hole in the Sea,” a bizarre Tom Waits-meets-sludge track featuring Lewis Patzner (cello) and Aaron John Gregory on vocals.

There is honesty in these songs, a refreshing simplicity devoid of posturing; stripped bare of trends and scenes (as well as a record label—the band was always 100% DIY), all that’s left is the beauty and violence of the natural world. I’ve circled this album for over a decade now, a vulture landing occasionally in search of sustenance. With every visit, I find the nourishment I seek.

Fledglings
Dwellings (2011)

I have always locked horns with change. When faced with new challenges or opportunities, my first instinct is to retreat into my shell, to avoid discomfort, pretending that time can’t reach me. And so I hid from Cormorant’s rapid evolution, the strange sophomore beast called Dwellings. It took several years and a personal metamorphosis to realize what I’d missed.

I’m not sure what exactly changed, but switching my major from Biology to English seemed to be the starting point. Something about the influx of human voices, perspectives and circumstances struck tinder, kindling a love of history that hasn’t dimmed since. The absurd vanity; the ascent to celestial bodies; warfare’s casual cruelty; boundless ingenuity—ours is a short story in time, but each page contains the drama of an eon. If Metazoa was the chronicle of our connection to nature, Dwellings traces the human urge to carve a lasting legacy at any cost.

From the start of “The First Man,” Arthur von Nagel’s intense (and intelligent) lyrics carry an emotional weight often lacking in extreme metal. It was this intensity, coupled with his new vocal style, that initially deterred me from digging further into the album. Gone were the guttural vocals that so easily masked the words beneath; in their place, a strangled rasp remained, laying bare the horrific subject matter.

Snippets from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology speech to indigenous Australians (beginning at 2:13) add a historical dimension that could’ve come off as awkward (or even tasteless) in the hands of lesser songwriters. Instead, the spoken words become infused with the song’s DNA, forming a bridge between the Aboriginal creation narratives of the first half and the erosion of indigenous culture by white missionaries at its conclusion.

Dwellings forgoes the escapism of most metal bands. You won’t find any gore fantasies or pseudoscientific drivel during its hour-long runtime—but you’ll most likely learn something. Whether describing feats of physical prowess (“Funambulist”) or the total erasure of dignity (“Junta”), each composition is crafted with impressive attention to detail. I felt compelled to research these topics outside the confines of the album, no matter how upsetting they might be. After all, it’s a record about confrontation—with ourselves, each other, and the fear of being lost to the ages.

I think that was my greatest worry when abandoning my Biology courses—would my future matter? Could I have merit outside the STEM fields? Could I consider myself a biologist without the scroll of paper? Experiencing Cormorant’s transformation helped me answer these questions for myself. There is no moment of stylistic clarity on this record, no dividing line where one can point to death or thrash or prog. In the years since Metazoa, these labels have simply dissolved.

Take “A Howling Dust,” for example. Beginning with clean (bluesy? Americana?) guitars from Nick Cohon and Matt Solis, it melds seamlessly into folk-tinged trad metal. Or is it thrashy folk? As the town of Quartzburg descends further into gold rush madness, elements of drone and doom bleed out from veins of ore, mingling with the myriad styles that came before them. It’s readily apparent that the band couldn’t care less about fulfilling the “requirements” of a specific genre; they use whatever methods are available to transport listeners around the Earth, through decades and centuries.

Establishing a unique identity will never be a painless endeavor. Without the handholds of an established path, the body grows weary quickly and skin scrapes away on the rocks. Dwellings taught me that change, while unsettling, can be a positive force. It was there for me at the crossroads, encouraging self-reflection, encouraging autonomy. For that, it will always have a chapter in my history.

Part 2 coming When It’s Ready™.

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