The Porcelain Throne – Cormorant (Or: Creatures of Other Mould, Part 2)

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It only took me 1.5 months to get around to it, but here’s the second half of Cormorant’s Porcelain Throne. (If you think about it, that’s only a few days in COVID time!) Check out Part 1 here if you are so inclined.

Falling
Earth Diver (2014)

Loss is an experience common to all life, whether in the shedding of old skin, the death of a parent or the destruction of habitat. Organisms have a set number of options when dealing with these setbacks, depending on the severity of the upheaval: adapt to fit these new circumstances or perish in the process. As humans, we have at least one alternative—survival, if only in a liminal sense. Dwelling (sometimes to the point of mental illness) on what could’ve been, how things could’ve turned out if nobody got in the car that day; if those words were said; if the war never started.

I’ll never know exactly what laid siege to my lungs as I was graduating college. Sure, the diagnosis was pneumonia, but it comes in a variety of wonderful flavors (bacterial, viral and fungal to name a few). How did those little guys end up in my alveoli? Was it exhaustion due to grant proposal writing? Maybe I listened to one too many brutal death metal premieres. Whatever the case, I was soon putting even the most guttural vocalists to shame; with each breath, a subterranean crackling escaped my throat. One order of lungs please, extremely well done.

Through the night sweats, in the months of recovery, I realized the true cost of my illness. My belief in the near-omnipotence of doctors was lost, along with the confidence that my health was unshakeable. I sunk into long stretches of solitude, but there was a presence that stayed with me as I licked my wounds: Earth Diver.

Cormorant had suffered a more palpable loss during this period—the departure of Arthur Von Nagel (lead vocals/bass/lyrics). Being allergic to change, I feared for the worst; his lyrics had quickly become all-time favorites of mine. Implosion seemed entirely possible. As I’d experienced with Dwellings, my initial worries were unfounded. Like the eponymous Earth Diver, Marcus Luscombe plunged into the chaos, awakening ferocious facets the band had not yet fully explored.

A glimpse of the updated logo and album art (along with the bare bones production) led to one conclusion: this record’s more blackened than my respiratory system. An early album highlight, “Waking Sleep,” best encapsulates the band’s nascent sound—weird and pissed off. Eerie clean guitars stalk the listener’s eardrums, and ghostly, wavering vocals narrate a myth born of Solis’ imagination. As the song’s hapless subjects are led through a forest to a bunker (where they will be made to converse with a “voice from the ether”), a sense of foreboding continues to build, aided by jittery drumming and shambling tremolos (2:20) that augur the madness to come.

Earth Diver preserves Cormorant in a time of rapid transition; as a result, it’s the most vulnerable and intimate recording in their discography. In place of historical events and established myths, the songs focus mostly on original stories that are at once more personal and musically extreme. When the final track, “A Sovereign Act,” cleaves closer to non-fiction, the result is devastating: inspired by the 2011 documentary, How to Die in Oregon, the narrative follows a terminally-ill cancer patient as they contemplate (and eventually request) medical aid in dying. (That’s “assisted suicide” to those who don’t believe people should have control of their own existence.)

Having seen my grandfather unraveled by cancer during my childhood (and having this recent health scare of my own), the lyrics pierced like a doctor’s needle. The band’s close attention to detail results in a densely-layered epic that functions on several levels: a play in three acts, a memorial, an adamant stance. Whether utilizing samples from the documentary (you can hear a bottle of pills rattling at 0:56—”It’s very comforting to know that they’re right here”) or frantic black metal riffing to symbolize the frayed nerves at the moment of decision, every minute tells the story. As the narrator’s heart rate plummets, the track’s BPM follows suit for its final stage. The oppressive weight of funeral doom slowly resolves into gently rolling tom fills—we know the suffering has finally ended.

This album is my own personal earth diver. It fell into a confusion of procedures, itchy gowns and uncertain prognoses and provided a stable platform. It was a splint for my fractured faith in medicine. Most importantly, it gave me the confidence to acknowledge what was lost and continue to grow.

Flying
Diaspora (2017)

Animal locomotion is perhaps the most important function for survival (unless you’re sessile); natural selection has led to vastly different methods and forms between species. From cilia to prehensile tails, lobe-finned fish to the 12-foot wingspans of albatross, life has taken advantage of every possible clime and continent. Thanks to some extra folds in the mammalian brain, humans have a knack for traveling beyond our physical limitations and, through fiction, the borders of reality.

My own range of motion grew exponentially when I passed my road test (at the ripe age of 23). For the first time, I controlled the sacred CD player and volume knob—music was never the same. (Blastbeats on a lonely two-lane highway were certainly a revelation.) Driving became musical meditation, the time when albums etched themselves most clearly in my mind.

My movements accelerated. I left my hometown, lived with friends, and eventually nested with my partner. I bounced between metal blogs, started a WordPress of my own and stumbled on a curious, toilet-themed website. Cormorant released Diaspora, and I submitted a review as a tentative contributor. My time as a nomad ended and I settled into the community that became my home.

Diaspora‘s sprawling compositions (and artwork) depict movements of several kinds: families are uprooted, mortals journey into the afterlife and time’s barriers break down. “The Devourer” follows a soul to the Duat, where he presents the heart of a man he killed (in place of his own) to fool the scales guarded by the goddess Ammit, devourer of the dead. Her relentless pursuit is mirrored by the song’s simplicity and malicious atmosphere. This style of groovy blackened death metal is new territory for the band, but they succeed by exploring with confidence.

Another sign of confident artists? Writing a 26-minute song that is A) not insufferable and B) enjoyable on repeat listens. “Migration” is that rare beast, moving between styles as disparate as psychedelic rock, dissoblack and trad metal without disappearing up its own cloaca. Is it indulgent? Somewhat—prog is involved. Did they earn it? Of course. “Migration” is an atlas of influences, with faint trails connecting as far back as Metazoa. It’s a celebratory swansong featuring stellar performances from each member. It captures the sound of musicians that love their craft and sharing it with each other and anyone who will listen.

Cormorant’s dissolution in 2019 (I’m honestly surprised it didn’t happen in 2020) left me gutted. The sting of their absence is a bittersweet reminder of their role in my development: a guiding light; inspiration; catharsis. They’ve been with me through depressive bogs and moments of personal triumph, self-loathing and pride. They leave behind a legacy that I am grateful to share with you.

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