Celtic Frost‘s music was simple yet influential. But there’s a problem with simple yet influential music: it’s easy to play, and thus you’re going to have a lot of bad bands try to play it. Still, for the longest time I couldn’t really think of a particularly awful group that sounded like early Celtic Frost. Well, you know what they say: if you spend long enough poking around, you never know what you’ll dig up. Here, amidst the remains of half-baked riffs and ideas long ago discarded by young groups who knew they could do better, I’ve uncovered a true stinker of an album, a record that I question how it ever came into being: High Command, the debut full-length by Pennsylvania’s Cultic.
When I first saw the title High Command I was amazed it hadn’t already been taken by a stoner metal album. In actuality, the only thing Command has in common with stoner metal is that it sounds like the band were high when they came up with it. I imagine the scene: one dark and stormy night several years ago, three friends are gathered around listening to early Celtic Frost records. “What if,” says one of them, pausing momentarily to cough after a massive bong rip. “What if we made music like this, but slower? And, like, rawer?” “Yeah!” says another. “And with, like, a dragon on the cover!” And rather than reject that idea upon regaining sobriety, the band not only followed through with it, they found a label to release it and even slapped some decent artwork on it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how we ended up here.
High Command consists of seven tracks of largely trudging, basic riffs that sound like if the primitive extreme metal of Morbid Tales was slowed down and stripped of all thrash elements. Songs average around five minutes in length yet contain no more than three ideas, typically alternating between them without any sense of buildup or progression. Nearly all the songs amble along at the slower end of mid-paced and rarely break from this tempo. Amidst the bare-bones songwriting are some terribly unimaginative riffs. Opener “The Conqueror” sets the stage with a repetitive and bumbling main idea that sounds like the first riff you and your buddies came up with when you decided to form a band back in high school. If you actually like this riff, fret not, because you’ll hear minor variations of it in “False Idols” and “The Prowler.” “Idols” also stands out for having the album’s only lead guitar part, though I hesitate to even call it that considering it’s really just a handful of squawky notes, each played once and then sustained for four or five seconds.
The production does Command no favors. The album has an annoying “intentionally raw” sound to it, with clamorous drums, a creaky bass, and guitars that feel big yet muffled. Vocalist Brian Magar’s gruff rasp is slightly buried but lacks conviction anyway and is thus largely ineffectual. Still, I’d hesitate to call Command a total loss. “Cruel Orders” adds a bit of variety by slowing the pace and featuring a nice atmospheric ending of ringing chords and echoing screams. Closer “Enchained” is even better (meaning, it’s the only song I’d willingly listen to again) with an even slower tempo and some beefy, respectable doom riffs. The main riff of “Dark Rider” isn’t bad either and makes me imagine a set of intestines being churned around a witch’s cauldron. Even “The Conqueror” features passages near the end where the rasps get higher and the guitars drop out, which at least make the song feel like it has a destination.
Yet ultimately, High Command is simply not good. Aside from the bad production, lazy songwriting, and uninspired riffs, the album possesses virtually no feeling or atmosphere. If it weren’t for the artwork and band’s choice of dress, for instance, I never would have picked up on the group’s medieval theme. While I appreciate Cultic‘s obvious love of the old school, they totally missed the mark when it comes to quality. If you’re a huge fan of Hellhammer, Winter, or early Celtic Frost, you might better appreciate what Cultic are doing here. For everyone else, stay well clear.