Imperialist – Cipher (2018) REVIEW

In researching the disturbing history of colonization and cultural eradication of the greater Los Angeles area native peoples the most cruelly deleted traditions are those of the Tongva. By all accounts a relatively peaceful monotheistic population the Tongva (alternately Kizh) weren’t merely assimilated but decimated by disease and forced relocation at the hands of imperialist Christian Spaniards. With California ceded to the United States in 1848 the US Government promised nearly nine million acres of reservation to the Tongva, they received nothing. What few oral traditions that haven’t died since their language ceased to be spoken in the early 70’s are still fascinating and none more than that of their creator Quaoar, who birthed his pantheon and the universe itself into existence through song and dance. Today many of these names live on as cryovolcanic dwarf planets (Quaoar) and Neptunian moons (Weywot). Hailing east of Pasadena in the once Tongva inhabited Monrovia, California comes science-fiction themed black metal band Imperialist who are perhaps more tuned into Scandinavian melodic black metal, technical thrash metal, and Destiny lore rather than the United States’ troubling imperialist history of cultural genocide.

‘Cipher’ is an immediately gratifying listen for it’s stylistic balancing act between the refined hand of mid 90’s melodic black metal and the meandering whip of modern progressive/technical thrash metal innovation. The meticulous but effortlessly flowing nature of Imperialist‘s debut full-length should be no great surprise for those familiar with the band’s demo ‘Quantum Annexation’ (2015) but it is still a tremendous step forward on all levels. A black metal project at their darkest core the unearthly cadence of 2000’s Immortal provides ‘epic’ structure to balance some greater influence from Sacramentum and early Necrophobic with the twisted prog-thrash of later Hexen and Aspid; Any of the more precocious or predictable aspects of melodic black metal are stripped in favor of flourishes more typically found in modern takes on technical thrash metal and the result is Imperialist‘s own sound on ‘Cipher’. There is little to compare beyond some similar dynamic qualities found on Immortal‘s ‘Damned in Black’, the spaciousness and moderate complexity of more recent Nightbringer records, and some similar treatment of melody on Hoth‘s latest album.

Balance is everything with acts that bend sub-genre as their signature and not a second of ‘Cipher’ is wasted on frivolities. Every riff serves to support the mid-paced tension of the album and it’s strength lies in never meandering too far off track. It is the antithesis of many modern black metal records only in the sense that it all flows together beautifully in one solid, filler free stream and fully avoids overtly slimy plagiarism. Greater flow and a good sense for transition is what Imperialist ultimately borrows from the Ancients of melodic black/death metal and where I think ‘Cipher’ thrives in connecting with both old and new listeners of the style. Sure, I think a lot of people will see that beautiful Chris Burke sci-fi cover art, the Bat’leth looking logo, and want to hear Vektor and although you’ll hear some influence (in terms of drumming) pop up, I’d suggest tempering those expectations closer to ‘Sons of Northern Darkness’.

This is one of the few releases where I felt like the lyric sheet could have been enriching but only for the bigger picture. Most of the vocals are discernible as vocalist Sergio Soto details conquest, anomaly, and I gather some small bit of conflict taken from Destiny‘s lore… but I base that on only some small research into song titles and terms as I’m not familiar with the game’s cryptic world building. I’m fully on board for sci-fi themes in extreme metal and because I’ve devoted a few years to the breadth of melodic black metal and technical thrash metal alike ‘Cipher’ represents a perfect storm of influences for my own personal tastes. This informs both the amount of hype I personally feel and some greater excitement I felt in digging deeper into the album’s themes and musical style. So, with some acknowledgement that I’m generally a fanatic for melodic black metal, thrash metal, and science fiction I found Imperialist‘s debut to be one of the better releases I’ve heard so far this year.

The first listen was absolutely flat for me as I’d pressed play expecting the romantic and moving rhythms of Swedish melodic black metal and the second coming of Dawn but instead found Imperialist fine tuning their vision heard on ‘Quantum Annexation’ without reaching into the void of cheese metal for obvious melody or hyper-technical showmanship. Further listening revealed considerable growth in terms of composition and showing their influences without aping them; A great example comes with the drum sound as fills echo down into the impossible caverns of ‘Far Away From the Sun’ but the music itself isn’t bluntly trying to sound like their heroes. I’d normally say 50+ minutes is excessive for a black metal album but there is no superfluous aspect of ‘Cipher’ as Imperialist quickly find their ‘pocket’ and stay there just long enough to show great skill and taste before ducking out. For preview I’d suggest “Advent Anathema” for it’s glorious transition between prog-thrash blasting and most direct nod to Sacramentum at the end, I’d likewise recommend “Binary Coalescence” as it brings a brilliant set of hypnotic riffs in it’s middle section, but the entirety of the album is air-tight.


Artist Imperialist
Type Album
Released October 20, 2018
BUY/LISTEN on Transcending Obscurity Records’ Bandcamp! Follow Imperialist on Facebook
Melodic Black Metal, 
Thrash Metal

The beast remembers. 4.5/5.0

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