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Culted – Oblique to All Paths

In a 2011 Pitchfork column, Marc Masters wrote in opposition to the idea that music should be consumed in a vacuum, in part by defending the usefulness of genre: “Acknowledging genres in order to play with and challenge them is almost always interesting. And a great way to push the boundaries of a genre is to buy into it, especially when an artist is straddling or changing genres in the process.”

Metal’s value system rarely reinforces this. The Merciless Book of Metal Lists prefaces its “Completely Unnecessary Heavy Metal Subgenres” list by saying “It was all just ‘Metal’ until someone decided they didn’t want to be associated with certain other bands, so they took it upon themselves and created a new ‘thing’ in order to feel special.” (The subgenres they bash include the ridiculous likes of, erm, melodic death metal and post-metal.)

What, then, should we make of a metal band like Culted, whose music is interesting primarily because of how it plays with genre? Run a search for that word in the five Metal-Archives reviews for the band’s debut album, Below the Thunders of the Upper Deep, and you’ll find 13 results, mostly tied to reviewers trying to parse whether they’re hearing black, doom, drone, death or sludge. Oblique to All Paths, Culted’s masterful second LP for Relapse, gloriously muddies the waters further.

Where Below the Thunders was an admirable record, full of black metal misanthropy played at doom tempos and buried under sludge murk, Oblique to All Paths is a full-on immersion in Culted’s world. The running time of opening track “Brooding Hex” — a whopping nineteen minutes, 13 seconds — is a good indicator of how much further they plan on taking things this time. Three songs in all crack the ten-minute threshold on Oblique, compared to just one apiece on Below the Thunders and the band’s 2010 EP, Of Death and Ritual.

If it seems like this is a fairly superficial statistic, you need only press play to hear what Culted is doing with the extra breathing room. “Brooding Hex” opens with a hazy prog-rock guitar line, accompanied by rickety found sounds and unnerving heavy breathing. When the riff finally kicks in, it’s a fucking monster: molasses-slow, heavy as hell, and shadowed by Daniel Jansson’s reverb-laden rasp. Before long, krautrock synth lines join the fray; after that, it’s glitchy electronics. The song ends with dark ambient tones and grand piano. You probably see where I’m going with this. Culted are doing a lot of stuff, not all of it in line with the sonic ethics of extreme metal. That, in and of itself, is not remarkable.

What makes Oblique to All Paths remarkable is that none of the tricks being employed come off as cutesy or cheap. I’ve rarely heard an album with this many sharp turns that all manage to serve their songs. Industrial percussion (“Jeremiad”), spoken word bits (“Transmittal,” “Intoxicant Immuration”), and lengthy feedback swells (“Illuminati”) populate some of the record’s finest moments. Better yet, these great diversions serve to make the more traditionally metal explorations, like the mid-tempo death metal riff that anchors the excellent “March of the Wolves,” hit even harder.

Culted certainly acknowledges genre, as Masters wrote, by employing so many of extreme metal’s tropes. But they’re also unafraid of buying into whatever else they need to use to make their songs work. There may be a more tightly edited album in them — more than an hour of music this schizophrenic can be a bit of a slog — but for now, Oblique to All Paths seems to be an annunciation. Here we have a bold new voice, and it’s prepared to sing in any key.

Oblique to All Paths comes out today via Relapse Records. Stream it below.

— Brad Sanders

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