RETRO TUESDAYS: Pessimist – Cult of the Initiated (1997)

The earliest demos and ‘Absence of Light’ EP from Pessimist were a combination of Slayer, Insanity and Hellwitch style thrash metal and old school death metal that featured an odd mix of yowling vocals and brutal death metal grunts. Rob Kline‘s avant-amateur approach to vocals on those demos were somewhat informed by past power metal projects, but he’d quickly switch to a more muscular tone as their death metal style would evolve. Pessimist are best known for their streamlined and brutal death/black sound similar to Rise or mid-era Vital Remains but earlier efforts were very different. Though I can appreciate their concept more than the execution and performance, the formative releases leading up to Pessimist‘s debut album ‘Cult of the Initiated’ were, at the very least, unlike most anything I’d heard in terms of early 90’s death metal demos.

Founder and primary guitarist Kelly McLauchlin‘s strength was in his brutal interpretations of early death metal riffing as he translated the first wave of Florida death metal with the brute and grit of of the New York scene. Though he would restaff the project around 2000 as the direction of the band began to lean in some unison with Angelcorpse, this first era of Pessimist was most dedicated to brutalizing the thrash informed roots of death metal as much as possible. The dual vocal style approach continued to make this band stand out beyond their off-kilter death metal sound with Patrick Ranieri style rasps occasionally flitting among the deeper growls. The effect lends itself to an heir of desperation, depravity, and insanity… something darkly frantic lead by post-‘Blessed are the Sick’ thrash informed riffing.

The typical talking point in reviews for ‘Cult of the Initiated’ over the years online tend to be dismissive of it’s style with back-handed compliments that call it derivative then go on to describe it’s unique style. What I think most writers are trying to convey isn’t that this album has a generic sound, it certainly doesn’t, but rather that it has an air of ‘amateur’ quality to the sometimes less than tight compositions and performances. If you’ve heard demos from early NYDM greats like Suffocation, Cannibal Corpse and their ilk most were heavily influenced by thrash metal in their earliest conception and Pessimist is born from that same evolution beyond the brutal thrash takes of the late 80’s. The difference here is that were ‘Cult of the Initiated’ released as a demo in ’93 it’d have been mind-blowing and appropriate whereas in 1997 the expectations were ultimately out for something more professional and coherent. Likewise McLauchlin‘s Morbid Angel-esque ambitions occasionally overstretched his capabilities though I feel like this was quickly remedied with further production layers on the next album.

The thrill of ‘Cult of the Initiated’ comes from it’s unpredictable and raw conception that creates a mood of psychopathy and dread as the album nears it’s end. As the album plays the compositions become more ambitious, heavier, and less predictable with the bass work beginning to flare up and the double bass drumming intensifying. The line between brutal death metal and death/thrash has never been exactly this blurred or effective since and this carries Pessimist‘s first album in my mind perhaps more than it’s inherent standout moments. The whole Florida-meets-New York dichotomy sustains enough interest for me but I think even the most involved listener will cringe at some of the rasped vocals and janky slower moments where things don’t line up with great precision. Either you love the quirk of it’s insanity or it’ll drive you nuts on repeat listens.

Going further into Pessimist‘s discography you’ll get a clear sense of their shift towards increasing brutality as McLauchlin‘s guitar work lead him down more savagely execution in projects like Diabolic and his own vision, the underrated and forgotten Unholy Ghost. ‘Cult of the Initiated’ was always a bit misunderstood and underappreciated as it came out within an era and amidst scenes that wanted more brutality and less nuance and aged thrash relics spinning around. Looking back upon it with 20/20 retrospect it was a brilliant brutalization of early death and extreme thrash metal (a la early black metal) influences feeling out their place within the newly extreme, pit-focused space of brutal death. It isn’t the most perfect death metal album ever made but it is one of the more interesting late 90’s permutations of death.


Artist Pessimist
Type Album
Released September 1997
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Unholy unions. 4.0/5.0

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