Think, for just a moment, about your favorite black metal records. What adjectives form in your mind? Perhaps you thought of words, popularized by second wave progenitors, that have long since become cliches; pure, evil, cold, and so forth. If you’re more inclined towards the genre’s modern incarnations, the descriptors you recall may be borne from an entirely different mood; ethereal, melancholic, pretentious, et cetera. Of all the albums that came to mind, which of those could be described as “heavy?” Not thematically heavy, mind you, but rather in their ability to conjure an atmosphere of crushing immediacy and tangible rhythmic weight? I imagine the answer for most falls somewhere between “few” and “none.” California’s Imperialist is not happy with this dearth of neck-stomping black metal, and with Cipher, they fill the void with stunning, straightforward efficiency. As crushing as it is cathartic, this debut is one of the year’s greatest black metal surprises.
Cipher is a black metal release that operates like a death metal record. This is not to say that Imperialist is merely a blackened death metal act, as doing so would be to grossly undersell their potency. Rather, they offer pure black metal, supplemented with riff techniques derived from death metal and thrash, to craft a richly textured riffscape; think Dissection‘s blistering tremolo runs spliced with 00’s era Immortal, and you’ll have a decent idea of the groundwork laid here. The resulting sound, when filtered through Imperialist‘s sheer relentless nature, is as enormous as the scale reflected in Adam Burke’s incredible cover art. This thing is more densely packed with riffs than the bulk of pure black metal records I’ve heard in recent years, and while melodic indulgence is far removed from Imperialist‘s caustic mission statement, Cipher‘s execution makes it instantly memorable.
The reason why Cipher works so well as a complete record boils down to each track’s ability to stand apart from the rest, without once abandoning Imperialist‘s strict approach. Some cuts see the band exercising their death metal tendencies to create something that is arguably more death than black (“Chronochasm”); others indulge in the breakneck guitar runs and melodeath-derived rhythms of Dissection (“Splendor Beneath an Ancient Permafrost”), or more traditional, Darkthrone-esque fare (“Binary Coalescence”). While the sprawling compositions could be improved by moments of “downtime” to offer ear breaks and bolster dynamism, individual track highlights manage to keep the proceedings gripping. These moments, such as the awesome, Death-like solo in the latter half of “Chronochasm” or the mind-bending technical riffage at the mid-point of “Binary Coalescence,” inject significant instrumental savvy into the overarching meat ‘n’ taters aesthetic.
Clever though Cipher’s songs can be, Imperialist‘s performances are absolutely vital to the record’s sense of heaviness and savagery. As a band, Imperialist operates on a knife’s edge, careening from riff to riff with execution that feels just a bit loose without ever falling apart. This balance between technically demanding speed and rowdy performances gives Cipher a genuine “live” vibe, granting it a unique sense of character missing from many modern black metal records. Vocalist Sergio Soto, with his roaring, rasping execution, is the commanding voice demanded from an album with such a strong instrumental personality, and delivers Cipher’s tales of world-ending monsters and intergalactic warfare with the utmost clarity. Rod Quinones’ smart cymbal work, highlighted by pitch-perfect drum mixing, makes for some of the most standout kit-work in black metal this year, while the production in general offers fantastic, vicious tones and a reasonably dynamic mix. If the bass had been allowed a bit more presence in the mix, Cipher may have been a literally earth-shaking experience.
Though Imperalist could stand to tighten up their songwriting chops a bit, Cipher garners incredible mileage off of its bludgeoning cavalcade of searing black metal riffs. There’s some room for improvement, sure, but this feels like the best possible album that the band could have written at this point in its career, and represents an extremely sturdy foundation for what I feel could quickly become one of America’s premiere black metal bands. As a towering, relentless slab of death-y black metal, Cipher should appeal to any fan of classic black metal, and may even convert a few death metal fans along the way. Just remember that once Imperalist is huge, I had long since secured a primo spot on the bandwagon.
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 1008 kbps mp3
Label: Transcending Obscurity Official | Bandcamp
Websites: imperialistofficial.com | imperialistus.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/Imperialistofficial
Releases Worldwide: October 20th, 2018