The word ‘repetitive’ has an inherently negative connotation. If I tell you a song is repetitive, your expectation will be an uninspired slog through an endless cycle, stretched too thin over too much time. But repetition is a songwriting tool like any other. The music theory term is ostinato, and the idea of the guitar riff itself is derived from it. Its overuse is always dangerous, but in the right hands, it can build an intense, hypnotic effect. Not everyone agreed on its quality, but I consider last year’s 40 Watt Sun album a particularly effective example at creating space and even emptiness with its sparse arrangements and use of repetition, reflecting the social distance in the lyrics. Since every good example is most effective when juxta- I mean, when placed opposite a bad example, Cursus has volunteered to demonstrate.
Cursus platter up 6 tracks of sludgy doom metal with songwriting issues. The opener slogs through the same couple of notes for over 6 minutes before sputtering to a halt. However, the guitars are so downtuned that they’re relegated to background status. Although the riff temporarily changes two-thirds into the song, an actual melody is hard to distinguish. The vocals don’t fare much better, an indecipherable sludge scream drowning in reverb. Because of this murk, and because of its relatively high placement in the mix, the most significant instrument is the drums, which loop along with the riff, trudging on into the sunset without ever attempting the novel concept of variety. “Trail of Tears” has pretty much the same problems, but in a different, more atmospheric setting, and some equally indecipherable clean vocals echoing up the hallway from three rooms over. Both these songs would wear out their welcome at half the length due to their incessant, and most of all boring, repetition.
The other two original songs fair slightly better on account of actually trying. “Waters of Wrath” gets some mileage out of a heavy chugging riff, and one of the better moments on the album hits a quarter of the way in when Cursus find the gearknob and attempt an imitation of Mastodon if Brann Dailor had no imagination. Sadly, it descends into a bit of a slog again as the short burst of energy runs the well of inspiration dry. The uptick in quality also occurs in “The Guardian,” but the energy and songwriting level actually remains at its improved level for most of the song, and though the vocals are still a weak spot, and repetitiveness remains an issue, I could see this style spun into a decent sludge album with some polishing. Although the mix is off, the master is quite dynamic and easy on the ears, something many sludge bands could learn from.
But content-wise, two lousy slogs and two nigh-acceptable tunes are slim pickings for any album, especially a debut. Cursus try to get around this with a cover of Pink Floyd‘s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” and close up shop with “The Empire Will Fall,” which is just creepy wind sounds. On an album already low on ideas, padding it out to get it to full-length size seems an act of desperation. Moreover, tying into the theme of using repetition as a tool, Pink Floyd are masters of the art and the difference in songwriting quality is immediately obvious. Instead of helping to pad the album out, it underlines the problems with the compositions on Cursus and serves as a reminder of how it should be done.
In the final tally, Cursus feels like a band blowing their wad early. This is an EP, or even a demo, spun into a debut full-length with a cover, a boatload of repetitive recycling of retired riffs, and 4 minutes of evil1wind. A couple of moments show the band should be able to do better, if their vocals, the drums and the murky mix improve. The prevailing feeling of desperately putting something out into the world, rather than waiting and polishing it until it’s ready, may be harder to fix. Although they are American, their name has a meaning in Dutch as well: out-of-school course, as in ‘pottery course for middle-aged women.’ Cursus needs a songwriting cursus and a do-over for a debut to be proud of. This isn’t it.