[Click play above to stream Cities of Mars’ Celestial Mistress EP in full. It’s out Friday, April 8, via Suicide Records.]
Swedish trio Cities of Mars impressed last year with their debut two-songer, Cyclopean Ritual / The Third Eye (streamed here). That release found them not only basking in plus-sized riffing and thick, rolling grooves, but also introduced the lead character, Nadia, whose story continues on the follow-up three-track EP, Celestial Mistress, issued via Suicide Records with intentions toward a 10″ pressing later in 2016. Together, the two offerings seem geared toward establishing a foundation for a first Cities of Mars full-length still to come, but it’s important to note that while the story picking up with Celestial Mistress opener “Gaze of Leviathan” and continuing through “Beneath a Burning Sun” and the sprawl of the 11-minute closing title-track is in progress already at the start of this release, it doesn’t necessarily require one to have heard the prior single to understand what Cities of Mars are going for in terms of sound or overall theme.
We enter with Nadia on Mars. Or, more accurately, beneath it. As the start-stop nod of “Gaze of Leviathan” takes hold, a current of bass rumble from Danne Palm underlying the guitar of Christoffer Norén and the forward cymbal crash of drummer Johan Küchler, the lyrics set the stage for the sci-fi saga playing out. The inclusion of drones or keys in the second verse gives more of a feel that strange things are playing out, and the story follows through there as well, with Nadia making her way underground toward the ancient lost Martian city Bahb-Elon, where she’ll eventually meet the EP’s titular mistress.
Of course, you can engage these songs on that level or not. Out of context, “Gaze of Leviathan” (8:50) offers massive riffs and an infectious, shouted hook that demonstrates clear progression from Cities of Mars‘ initial single while feeling built outward along similar lines, and the subsequent “Beneath a Burning Sun” follows suit structurally and in its push through to its chorus, repeating the title-line as a distinct moment of arrival within it. These songs and “Celestial Mistress” all work just fine on their own, but the narrative deepens the listening experience. “Beneath a Burning Sun” introduces a secondary character — not sure on the name — who was an ancient Martian fighter pilot shot down, and backs up the fluid motion of “Gaze of Leviathan”‘s verses, chorus, solo, ending with an efficient, relatively straightforward take of its own that still opens wide during its initial verse and builds toward its harmonized-shout hook.
As a centerpiece — only three tracks, but still 27 minutes — it provides a landmark that, especially when positioned next to “Celestial Mistress” bodes well for Cities of Mars‘ full-length debut, since it shows not only an ability to vary songwriting around common ideas, but a sense of relating one track to those around it to create an overarching flow, which is something that even a two-song single can’t really accomplish. In its second half, “Beneath a Burning Sun” kicks into faster riffing without losing its central density of swing, and when they turn it back around for a return to the chorus, the effect is unrepentantly righteous. Doesn’t matter if you relate it to Sabbath, or Sleep, or whoever. Done so well, it still sounds heavy as anything.
And as “Beneath a Burning Sun” — presumably that pilot’s aircraft crashed in a Martian desert — winds down its finish in amp noise, the course of Celestial Mistress feels set. The expectation for the title-track is another big hook, more rolling riffs and big tones. Well, it’s still pretty large, all told, but as Nadia confronts the leader of Martian civilization underground, the vibe shifts significantly, and “Celestial Mistress” is much more about spaciousness than impact. Guitars spread wide over an initial movement as rich basslines and ride cymbal provide a sense of motion, and the full-boar riff that takes hold does so after three minutes of build. Dual-vocals from Palm and Norén round out the first verse — all the more spacious — and a moodier sensibility emerges as a more melodic, almost neo-prog metal break arrives at the halfway point, but the course of “Celestial Mistress” is deceptive in that a build is underway already.
Cities of Mars make their way through a few subdued lines before the consuming wall of fuzz kicks back in before the nine-minute mark, Norén topping it with a final lead that, much to the band’s credit, isn’t layered over a line of rhythm guitar, and then rounding out with a last chorus and instrumental roll to end the track cold in a way that suggests “to be continued…” without actually saying it. Whatever it does for the plotline that has run throughout their two releases to-date, Celestial Mistress broadens the scope of Cities of Mars‘ work overall, and finds them as able to conjure an atmosphere as they are to slam their audience with tonal heft. To be blunt, they use both to excellent effect, and as like the single before it, Celestial Mistress was recorded by Esben Willems (also of Monolord), there’s even more a continuity of sound tying their work together. Writing songs that tell a story over multiple releases can be tricky as a band progresses in their style, but like Nadia deep in an underground Martian tunnel, Cities of Mars seem to have no trouble with navigation.