Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
– Emily Dickinson, excerpt from “Because I could not stop for Death” (1890)1
The Cavern is a 46-minute track recorded by Virginia sludge/doom metal band Inter Arma. Although performed at live shows multiple times in various forms and at various lengths since at least 2010, the band did not have the resources to record the song: according to the album liner notes, the song “was destined to be lost to the sands of time” until Relapse Records2 “learned of its existence” in 2013 and offered to record and release it. The Cavern saw light on 14 October 2015.
As with Inter Arma’s previous output, The Cavern is a coalescence of black, sludge, doom, and psychedelic/stoner metal. The album may be interpreted as being comprised of several distinct sections: for example, the first two minutes are an ambient overture, and the next eleven minutes are pulverizing sludge metal with a progression that is frequently referenced over the course of The Cavern. Midway through the song are two brief passages with acoustic instrumentation and clean singing, featuring guest violin by Meg Mulhearn. Following these sections is an extended series of sludge and doom metal solos before the band revisits the main fugue that culminates in a pulverizing black/sludge metal finale with the most ruthlessly emotional screams ever recorded by the band.3
The lyrics depict the last thoughts of a dying exile wrecked by emotional and physical turmoil. The song describes his exhaustion in excruciating detail as he travels through a desert, rests at a tree, and approaches a mountain: “In the shadow of a gnarled tree at the foot of the peak, I collapse / And with one remaining thought I yearn for a grave in which to lie” and “Can this be the end? Is this all I have left? To die at the foot of this towering peak?” A light at the mountain’s peak calls to and enraptures him, so he enters a cavern to make a futile climb upward. At one point he passes out – “As my body falls numb and the light beings to fade / I know at this point I’ll die” – and dreams of a voice who ponders over his “hunger” for atonement over his actions that led to exile, later asking him where he will find peace if “not in the sky / not in the water / down in the dirt.” The Cavern ends with the man waking at the peak of the mountain as the aurora shines above him. A spectral woman appears who tells him not to be afraid as she takes his hand in hers and “everything turns black,” which coincides with the instrumentation gradually becoming noisier and the lyrics more incomprehensible until everything ceases.
Usually, that sudden-ending trope would be a hackneyed way to finish a song when that the writers don’t know how to end. On The Cavern, it is anything but: the jarring ending perfectly fits the lyrical theme and the composition’s theme, having just completed a repetition of the fugue. The Cavern is proof of three things: 1) the enduring legacy of heavy metal to produce emotional affect;4 2) Inter Arma’s outstanding musicianship and storytelling abilities; and 3) the compositional versatility of sludge metal.
1. The Cavern – (45:46) – ★★★★☆
[UPDATE 25 February 2016: Changed the overall rating from four-and-a-half stars to four stars.]
1Transcribed by R.W. Franklin, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. (Cambridge, MA 1999)
2For whom Inter Arma released Sky Burial.
3Simply writing this feels like a Wikipedia synopsis on a classic movie: I’m not doing it justice, and I vaguely feel like I’m doing a disservice to the album because of just how powerful The Cavern is.