I’ll be honest: as a reviewer, I often don’t care how original a band is. Give me a thousand groups like Nails, who take a well-tread style and play it damn well, over any wacky group that artificially cobbles together disparate influences in vain pursuit of originality. To me innovation is something that should result from a band playing the music they love and want to hear, not an end goal in itself. And that’s exactly why I find Sektemtum’s sophomore LP Panacea so refreshing – not because it isn’t original, but because it seems to achieve originality without really trying that hard.
Formed in 2009 by members of the oddball blackened screamo act Doctor Livingstone, this French group’s 2012 debut Aut Casear, Aut Nihil was notable both for its un-kvlt, girls-night-out music video and percussive, Satyricon-like rockiness. Now stripped to a trio, Panacea sees Sektemtum shrugging off genre conventions entirely to give us a 52-minute infusion of black metal, hardcore punk, and even some rock. The result is a streetwise collection of 12 riotous, dismal, and bizarrely catchy tracks that owe equally to Mayhem and Minor Threat. Trust me when I say it works far better than it sounds on paper.
Opener “Place à la Comédie” may lead one to believe they’re in for conventional second-wave revivalism, with its storming Gorgoroth riffs, blastbeats, and skin-peeling rasps interspersed between sequences of malicious clean picking. Only the moaning background singing hints at what’s to come with follow-up “Ebony Grand Master.” Beginning with a rolling drumbeat, “Master” breaks into a devilishly rocky, almost industrial riff, before moving through scrambled whispers, wailing alley cat leads, throaty shout-singing, and finishing with tender lullaby acoustics. The weirdness doesn’t end here: third track “Direction Cataclysme” combines an assertive, stomping verse rhythm with a chorus of gang vocal caterwauling that vaguely recalls The Sex Pistols.
For how strange it all is, it’s amazing how natural everything sounds. Their promo blurb is telling: “No rehearsal had been planned before entering the studio: we wanted to make a record in a hurry, following the mood of the moment.” The effect is an album free of awkward transitions, one that moves from Anaal Nathrakh riffs to shouted punk choruses without blinking an eye. Furthermore, the songs are wholly distinct and rife with memorable moments. Mid-album highlight “Le Crepuscule des Idoles” almost sounds like a blackened alt-metal song with its throaty singing, neon tube leads, and locktight grooves that reminded me of Trivium’s Shogun, of all things. “Bad Winds” trudges on a Meshuggah riff that’s been slowed to the speed of an obese brontosaurus, cresting with some strained yells and concluding with a surge of blasting. Likewise, closer “Panacea” features an excellent reflective vocal line, while late highlight “Subsonic” wraps its folk ritual vibes over a refrain that features a wailing, snaky lead and a fist-raising snarl of ‘Come on, let’s go!’
From the more traditional black metal riffing to the atonal bashed chords to the neo-psychedelic melodies, the guitar-work is both diverse and impressive, but it’s the vocals that really make Panacea the success it is. With all three members contributing, the trio move deftly between spittle-gurgling rasps, dirty punk singing, and raw spoken word, calling upon each as the songs require, harmonizing occasionally, and never settling in one style for too long. Surprisingly, the album’s only issues have nothing to do with failed experimentation. Instrumental “218’” rides its atonal note sequence for too long and feels superfluous, as does the extended outro of aforementioned “Idoles.” Other than a few abrupt endings (and the cringe-worthy spoken word section in “Subsonic,” where the vocalist sounds like the goofy protagonist of a 90s Nickelodeon cartoon), there’s really nothing to quibble about. Despite the fairly low DR, the guitars are sharp, the mix is nicely layered, and the drums sound good and lively.
Panacea is one of those strange and wonderful albums that’s innovative because its makers didn’t seem to care what music they were playing, only what feeling that music conveyed. With outstanding instrumentation and songcraft, these 52 minutes fly by in a rush of street-stomping and head bobbing, floating on a undercurrent of puddle-gazing bleakness that’s sure to earn some year-end attention. All told, if you’re a fan of Raspberry Bulbs and their ilk, curious what an alternate history would sound like where Black Flag embraced black metal, or just enjoy quality, passionate music regardless of genre, Sektemtum‘s Panacea is a record I can’t recommend enough.