Imperialist – Zenith Review

Some albums hit at just the right time, and Imperialist’s debut was right on schedule. In 2018, the year I would personally call the weakest year for metal of my AMG tenure, Cipher was a commanding force of bullshit-negative black metal, and easily one of my most-listened-to records of that year despite its late release. So then… where was it on my list? Ah. Yes. Near the bottom of my honorable mentions, chucked there as an almost-afterthought. While I was once obsessed with Cipher on a level that begets 4.0 status, time and distance has dissolved its charms. It’s still fun and listenable, but its dearth of rhythmic and melodic variety makes it a prime candidate for a Contrite Metal Guy entry. This is a fate that I’m confident its follow-up Zenith will never know. While not itself flawless, Zenith improves upon its predecessor to a point where it essentially invalidates it.

I say that Zenith invalidates Cipher, as opposed to complimenting it, because it takes the exact same ideas and imbues them with greater instrumental nuance and songwriting tact. Melodically and rhythmically this record is very much business as usual (read: grim ‘n’ fast), just with an expanded toolkit. The riffs have grown past boilerplate black metal constructions to incorporate more classic metal sounds, with tracks like “He Who Mastered Shapes” and “Beyond the Celestial Veil” exhibiting a thrashier palette and Iron Maiden-inspired guitar gallops. The latter track, along with “Parallax Descends,” are prime examples of Imperialist’s reforged songwriting style, each possessing a suite of distinct movements that make for engaging and grandiose compositions. Every song presented here exudes confidence in a way that, in retrospect, Imperialist circa 2018 simply could not execute with conviction.

Even so, there are aspects of Imperialist’s songwriting that still irk me. While the individual movements are consistently compelling, the pieces never quite interlock in that smooth, satisfying, clicky way. Tempo changes are often exhilarating, yet more often than not break the continuity of the song in question, as if attempting to transition to a new song entirely. This feeling of disconnect is exacerbated by the fact that Imperialist still ends their songs in anticlimactic fashion. Even cuts like “Parallax Descends, which ends with an exhilarating tempo hike, fizzle out before reaching something resembling a proper climax. Annoying though they may be, these structural foibles do not make Zenith a bad record; rather, they bar a thoroughly good record from attaining true greatness.

While a handful of Cipher’s most irksome songwriting habits have carried over to Zenith, this new record possesses objective strengths in its performances. Imperialist felt weirdly sloppy as a unit on their debut, and Zenith feels exponentially more cohesive. Drummer Bryant Quinones has most notably improved, as his rhythms now stay in lockstep with the rest of the group without feeling soulless or mechanical. Sergio Soto continues to excel as the voice of the band, his distinctly gravelly delivery conveying the lyrics with expert precision. As stated, the guitar work is surprisingly diverse, culminating in a standout emotive solo midway through “Beyond the Celestial Veil.” This solo, unfortunately, is the only passage on Zenith where Imperialist stands out from a melodic perspective. The band lives and dies by stone-faced minor key riffage, and while that’s not inherently a bad thing, it means that they lack any sort of distinct tonal personality. More moments like the aforementioned guitar solo would grant a significant boon in carving out such an identity.

Zenith is an immensely enjoyable yet inescapably flawed experience. I love hearing the ways in which Imperialist has so obviously worked to improve their sound, while being slightly disheartened at the loose screws that still need to be tightened. But unlike most records with such notable flaws, Imperialist remains so breathtakingly aggressive that these flaws are barely an afterthought while I’m actively devouring their music. This record represents a more complex Imperialist that I hope will serve as a pillaric step towards a magnum opus, but even if they never get there, I’m just happy to be along for the ride.

Rating: 3.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Transcending Obscurity Records Official | Bandcamp
Websites: | |
Releases Worldwide: November 26th, 2021

« »