The saqra of South American lore pesters, pranks, and provokes the lovely people residing in the former domain of the Inca Empire. Though unclear whether that tradition begat their codpiece affinity, Saqra’s Cult‘s 2017 debut Forgotten Rites embraced that legacy surprisingly well for a bunch of Belgian black metallers glomming onto a different continent’s folk tales. Tribal black metal works about as well as [Insert Anything You Can Imagine, Really Here] black metal ever works—pretty damn well (if you can riff). But with The 9th King losing a lot of their overt South American influence, can Saqra’s Cult still put the can in Incan?
Admittedly, the lack of tribal elements leaves this black metal as some pretty standard fare. Past a little Ruins of Beverast weirdness in a passage of “Last Denial,” the intro to opener “The 9th King” is the closest approximation of Saqra’s Cult‘s Rootsy roots, but that direction exists only to tie in the past. Saqra’s Cult, then, owe a great debt to Inti, Supay, or whoever they worship, that their riffs blessed from the heavens. Once “The 9th King” blasts off, axeman S. packs in as many sun-blotting riffs as you’d pray for on a ten-minute song, with solid composition to boot. Much of The 9th King‘s riffiness evokes Scandinavian chills, in all their frost and grime, though the long-form arena stretches the punch out across a shattered landscape. The Belgians employ percussive techniques like capping their verses with palm mutes and halting for a split-second to let the drums hammer through quite well. Couple that with the fact that S.’ riffs rarely relent, and “The 9th King” suffers no opposition as it rules with an iron fist.
What of the deviant qualities then? Little to none, and it is to The 9th King‘s deficit. The organization and presentation of the riffs line up exactly how you’d expect them to, with the attention necessary to follow along waning over the record. L.’s drum patterns fill the void when the might of the riffs wane, but without an additional layer—like, you know, the folk elements from just two years ago—it all feels a bit old. Further, the record barely scrapes past thirty minutes. This brevity doesn’t ease the listen, but instead feels too short. Inevitable is the impression that the last ten minutes of material, namely the elements that could set them apart, were simply left out. “Legends of Pururaucas” has its share of moments, but with a name like that, you’d expect more than seven minutes of a single dimension. Don’t get me wrong; the way the song plays with tempo works quite well, but “Legends” lacks the damn good flavor worth spinning a yarn over.
A.’s vocals on “Legends” portend something stranger, with howls and shrieks that seem ready to cast a curse over the kingdom. However, he, like the rest of the album, never amps the weird factor up enough to stand out. His presentation instead is quite standard, sitting alongside the guitars’ slight offset echo and dissonant chords to create a nice pocket of atmosphere. L.’s snare-centric beats tend to sit lower in the mix than the deeper skins; most of the time, their standard sound is secondary, if muffled, but the rolls of “Endless Devotion” with a deeper profile lengthen The 9th King‘s sound in ways that the record could use more regularly.
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I prefer to review bands that I don’t know the first thing about. An unvarnished look at the album, sans preconceptions, expectations, or history, provides the best possible review. So going into this review thinking I knew what to expect from Forgotten Rites makes me wonder if I’ve been unfair. Comparing The 9th King against specific benchmarks that it actively avoids competing against isn’t exactly an adequate assessment of its strengths and weakness. It’s not like Forgotten Rites didn’t do straight black metal songs, and by that measure, Saqra’s Cult show clear improvement. But still, I cannot separate my opinion from the fact, despite The 9th King‘s obvious strengths in the riffing department, I find myself happy with what I’ve got but still wanting more.