Any fan of Gaza knows the drama. In early 2013, vocalist Jon Parkin became the target of a rape allegation that, though eventually settled out of court by both parties, ultimately led to the remainder of the Utah-based hardcore outfit cutting ties with Parkin and starting anew. The result was Cult Leader: essentially the same lineup, with bassist Anthony Lucero dropping the four-string to take over on vocals. I received this news with a bit of unease. For months I’d been grunting through workouts to the dissonant, sludgy vitriol of Gaza’s 2012 swansong No Absolutes in Human Suffering, an album which Parkin – personal issues aside – delivered quite an impressive performance on. Fortunately, Leader’s 2014 EP Nothing for Us Here proved decent enough and featured no alarming stylistic leaps. Still, I couldn’t help approach debut full-length Lightless Walk with a tinge of apprehension…
…which was immediately gnawed apart in the first seconds of opener “Great I Am.” Not since Morbid Angel’s infamous snare hit in “Immortal Rites” has a boom-thunk drum strike followed by surge of guitars conveyed such vigor. In fact, that’s the perfect way to describe Lightless Walk: reinvigorated. Throughout these 11 tracks and 37 minutes, the members sound tighter, meaner, and fiercer than ever. Drummer Casey Hansen batters his kit with a furious, natural rawness that sounds more aggressive than any of his prior work (and is perfectly captured by Kurt Ballou’s superb production); Mike Mason’s guitars burst and stutter with a frantic, malevolent dissonance that’s still similar to Gaza, only honed to a more frighteningly effective point; and Lucero roars like he’s been stewing with rage behind his bass for years. It makes me wonder why he wasn’t given a microphone sooner.
With second track “The Sorrow,” Leader prove just how tight they’ve really become. The guitars gallop along in seamless sync with the rhythm section, barreling forward with the fervor of a starving Doberman. Likewise for the feature riff of early highlight “Suffer Louder,” which literally sounds like a guitar attempting to replicate an animal growl. Like Gaza, Leader still know how to turn tempos on a dime, but here, they’ve refined it to great effect: the faster songs like second-half highlight “Walking Wasteland” excel as unrestrained outbursts of neck-snapping hardcore, while longer tracks become more exploratory – see “Sympathetic” with its churning acidic riffs, screamed call-and-response refrain, and nihilistic sludgy outro that provides a needed breather early in Walk’s runtime.
Most impressive, however, are “A Good Life” and the closing title track. Built mainly on bleak clean picking, these tracks largely forgo hardcore and come across more like apocalyptic folk, complete with Lucero adopting a bluesy croon reminiscent of Michael Gira (Swans). Hansen’s dynamic, lively drumming helps make these tracks crackle with energy, and further showcases he can do more than just blast like a madman. On another album, these songs may have been a failed experiment – here, they’re some of its most interesting moments. It all cements the high level of inspiration, and proves that sometimes overcoming wounds can make a group come back even stronger. The result is one of 2015’s finest records of this genre, and a must listen for anyone who likes their hardcore tinged with metal and seared with raw passion.
Tracks to check: “Sympathetic,” “Suffer Louder,” “Lightless Walk,” “Walking Wasteland”