CULTIST – Manic Despair (2022)REVIEW

Whipping through the rushes of weirding, thrashing, progressive-lite, and riff-obsessed channeling found on ‘Manic Despair‘ we can unmistakably hear the labor Calgary, Alberta-based old school death metal trio Cultist have put into their full-length debut over the course of a few years. Their musicianship has almost fully ironed out beyond their demo days and the deep underground texturing of their craft now manifests a brutally charming, expressive sound for which is divergent in motion and specific in its design yet still serious, or, at least heavy enough that their introductory bout doesn’t read as weird for the sake of it but… weird for the sake of themselves. While I’d normally hem and haw over whether or not an ‘old school’ leaning death metal act have rushed to readiness for a full-length statement these days this debut offers the rare case of a band pulling it off regardless and with plenty of character in mind and a certain knack for real death metal in hand.

Though the core trio’s major influences range from hyper-specific underground death metal to the general greatness of extreme metal and heavy rock of the past their sound now fulminates as a weirding yet finessed form of stalking, thrashing and bruiser-level death metal which is often as ‘playful’ with awkward yet accomplished rhythms as groups like ‘Hallucinations‘-era Atrocity or the more death metallic side of Disciples of Power, though their point of view includes a riff attack which is as punishing and havoc-hot as Jumpin’ Jesus‘ album and drumming which tends towards the double-bass hammered push of early 90’s records like Immortalis‘ underrated ‘Indicium de Mortuis‘. For the less underground inclined classicist out there, think along the lines of early 90’s death/thrash metal and punkish underground attempts at progressive death metal of the same era boosted by the brutality available to a directly post-‘Human‘ arena. Where Cultist stand out comes with their own readily available personality, or, a personalized sense of atmosphere and an inventive, adventurous approach to melodicism.

In fact adventurous is probably going to be the major takeaway for most folks attuned to ‘old school’ death metal standards, wherein Cultist blur the edges of structure in a sort of attention-deficit pleasing way that never quite manages a pair of 32 counts without some distortion placed upon their patternation. Case in point the late album weirding scorch of “Regression” where floaty bass guitar tones and amp-sizzling distortion pulse into the piece with a simple riff progression, almost gothic metal in its chunking follow of the bass drum hits. It isn’t exactly Achrostichon‘s ‘Reflections‘ but we do get an unusual, satisfyingly janky rock influenced break from the band before the seething prog-death creep of the song scowls back in. In this sense we can view ‘Manic Despair‘ as a truly album ready feat, something inspired and somewhat unique in the nowadays ‘old school’ death metal landscape from a band who sounded entirely green and fumbling on their first EP (‘Cosmic Tomb‘, 2018) wherein they’d maintained a sort of jammed, uncontrollable sense of rhythm that shifted between ideas in a neatly ordered yet ranting mad manner with a skill level adjacent to death metal’s most entertaining primitivity. What a difference a few years makes, though, however you slice it as we step into the righteous, punishing aggression of this debut LP.

If you’ve little experience with death metal in a live setting, particularly the ‘old school’ leaning stuff proper that’d kicked up heaviest beyond late 80’s thrash adjacency, and how performance actually fills three walls with the drummer kicking at moderate-to-high speed (think Aaron Nickeas-era Master) then you might not understand why the title track/opener “Manic Despair” and its garage-crushing cut into the album manages to be rousing enough before they’ve even gotten into it. Granted the drums are produced in a specific way with the kicks pulled back beneath the bass guitar levels a la ‘Dreaming with the Dead‘, the toms offering a nostalgic touch to fills, and the snare lending the most brutal, up front voice to the performance. Though it seems like an odd point of focus on my part the drum sound here is especially ‘right’ for my taste in classic death metal nodding music, “Triumph” probably showcases that authenticity best from my point of view. In terms of riffs, I think most folks will be best sold within the scrawling, edgy wrack of the brain that “Vicissitudes” serves within its ever-shifting instrumental statement.

For this recording the second guitar slot is helped along by producer Depresor (Hrom, ex-Gatekrashör) who provides leads and such alongside the engineer/render of ‘Manic Despair‘ and I think he’s ended up as the sort of gluey savior for the project when we consider why and how it all works by design. Of course it counts for something that the line-up hasn’t found a completely round, or steadfast state just yet as we hear a death metal band continually adapting while still presenting some considerable style and idea-rich pieces. The two songs that ultimately benefit from Cultist‘s unique approach and the well-tuned sound design/presence most are standouts “Synesthesia” and “Missing a Soul”. The former giving the listener their first cold shower of the rhythm guitarist’s worming sense of melody and the latter presenting hard-edged feral aggression virtually unknown among the trendier ‘old school’ stuff we normally hear from the populist side of things alongside some more progressive death metal influenced ideas.

You’ve gotten the point by now, then. Cultist have managed to balance giving some torsion to the usual traditions of late 80’s developed and early 90’s extruded death metal while displaying some adept-level learning from the more serious deep cuts of the trade, now presenting skilled but not too fiddly songs that meet a high standard for energy and attack in service their own occasionally eccentric ideas. It is the exact right measure of brutally-thrashed death metal cruelty, imaginative tangent and the sort small touches and details which can only come from well-developed taste matching performative ability. They could do more with this sound, and likely will in the future, but for now they’ve nailed their first landing by way of solid presentation and ‘going for it’ with plenty of personality, and riffs. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (82/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Manic Despair
LABEL(S):Awakening Records
RELEASE DATE:August 26th, 2022

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