Fans of extreme music live in an age of plenty; never has there been a time where so much excellent heavy music was so instantly available. Almost every blast beat, guttural growl, and gnarly riff ever created can be called forth at the touch of a button. However, this embarrassment of riches comes with its own set of problems, one of them being the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility (Thanks Mom and Dad; that undergraduate Economics degree is finally paying dividends!). To wit; the first time you heard a grind band shred your brain meat with unrelenting blast beat fury, your insides tingled with an unbridled euphoria. Now, when you hear yet another grind band pulverize away in a similar fashion to the preceding 875 grind bands you’ve listened to this week, your Jimmies remain dishearteningly un-rustled. To be sure, being formulaic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however I believe what separates the good bands from the truly excellent ones is an ability to embrace experimentation. With Lightless Walk, Salt Lake City’s Cult Leader thoroughly cement themselves in the latter category.
Exploring new territory isn’t, well, new territory for this four-piece. Earlier this year, Cult Leader released an EP with a cover of Mark Kozelek & Desertshore’s “You Are Not My Blood,” a haunting, indie-rock ballad that would seem an odd choice for a grind-infused metallic hardcore band, especially since, outside of some additional feedback and a touch more distortion, the cover retains the original’s tone and style. After listening to Lightless Walk, the choice makes complete sense.
This is not to say that Cult Leader have gone soft. The opening track “Great I Am” rages with the group’s trademark break-neck, oppressive severity. There is a sense of panicked urgency coupled with outrage in lead singer Anthony Lucero’s voice, as if he’s grabbed you by the shirt and pulled you close to ensure you’ve heard every single, tortured word. The music, especially on tracks like “Sympathetic” and “Suffer Louder,” amplify this sense of frenetic unease with push-and-pull rhythmic patterns that undulate between rapid-fire blasting and sludgy drone, driven at its core by the masterful percussive clobbering provided by drummer Casey Hanson.
It is at the mid-point of Lightless Walk that Cult Leader dramatically shift gears with “A Good Life,” a somber, minimalist tune featuring sparse drums and clean, echoing guitar whose style feels more rooted in post-rock than metal. Lucero adopts a low, soulful baritone reminiscent of Leonard Cohen. The final third of the song returns to familiar heavy territory with an extended, almost black metal style blast beat section. This tonal shift highlights the congruence between the musical and emotional complexity present throughout the record. Unlike the band’s previous incarnation where the rage was directed towards government and organized religion, Cult Leader’s ferocity is decidedly inward-facing, and as such is compounded with a multitude of different feelings ranging from despair, grief, guilt, and existential dread. This emotional depth is nowhere more poignant than on “How Deep It Runs,” a song that painfully recounts memories of childhood physical / sexual abuse and touches on the victim’s feeling of being abandoned by the adults who should have intervened.
The album ends with the title track, another austere, deliberate ballad similar in style to “A Good Life”. While the tone is sufficiently grim, the song contains an almost peaceful sense of fatalistic resignation; a bleak sense of relief in the face of imminent death. I can think of no better way to conclude an album that takes listeners on such an intense, labyrinthine journey.
Written by Jesse Gainer
*edited by Kate Erickson