Syncretic approaches to music can provide fascinating results, though these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. So often these blends of different approaches, disparate or otherwise, come off like an audio version of fusion cuisine, something that reduces each component element to a few essentialist characteristics that are perfect for playing mix and match with but fail to capture the depth and nuance of these respective parts.
Occultist – Death Sigils (Primitive Ways Records)
Syncretic approaches to music can provide fascinating results, though these tend to be the exception rather than the rule. So often these blends of different approaches, disparate or otherwise, come off like an audio version of fusion cuisine, something that reduces each component element to a few essentialist characteristics that are perfect for playing mix and match with but fail to capture the depth and nuance of these respective parts. Though much attention gets paid to the artists whose juxtapositions are the starkest, as if novelty were a substitute for quality, the ones making lasting, quality work are typically those that can more smoothly and subtly synthesize an aesthetic.
It wouldn’t be difficult to turn the recent uptick in attention paid to Richmond’s Occultist into a drinking game – take a swig for every comparison to Sacrilege, another for each use of the term “apocalyptic” or any variation thereof, perhaps not a whole mouthful for every use of “blackened crust” (unless the participant is trying to get hammered quickly). This latter phenomenon proves the most frustrating, as it paints the band in broad strokes that fail to capture their ability to draw from a wide swath of the heavy music spectrum without leaning too strongly towards any single genre characteristic. Though there are certainly traces of black metal’s nascent years (early Bathory, Hellhammer, et al.) and of crust punk’s more metallic side (a la Hellbastard and the aforementioned Sacrilege [take a drink!]), Occultist brings to the table references to many different pieces of heavy music’s history: Détente, Rorschach, Soulside Journey-era Darkthrone, His Hero Is Gone, Sodom, and Neurosis circa Pain Of Mind all find themselves reflected in parts of Death Sigils, though the shadow of none of these forebears rears its head for long before another creeps up, blends into it, and renders it unrecognizable.
Photo by Dante Torrieri
This scope of influence leads to the only potential qualm with the album. A scant few parts pop up that are spectacular in and of themselves – most notably the Scandinavian Jawbreaker-era Anti-Cimex rock and roll crust vibe of “Path Of The Damned,” or the slow dirge that constitutes the first quarter of “Blackest Apotheosis” – but commit the crime of standing out. They’re notable, they’re great, but in being so, they call attention to themselves in a way that the rest of the album doesn’t. This isn’t to say that any of the material is weak or even out of place, only that the album succeeds most convincingly when it presents itself as a singular whole, a unified rushing current of sound rather than one from which tributaries can branch off.
It may seem like faint criticism to suggest that any weakness in Death Sigils stems from parts that are too memorable (one wonders how many bands would kill to have that as the most glaring problem with their output). But the vast majority of the album’s content speaks to Occultist’s ability to perform the difficult task of enmeshing their influences into a totality so neatly integrated that the songs hardly sound pieced together at all – perhaps the surest sign of the band’s grasp of real syncretism. Though the pieces from which they constructed their sound can still prove somewhat recognizable, the end result is like a jigsaw puzzle in which the overall image is far more apparent and striking than any smaller component from which it was created.
Occultist will be performing live on Tuesday, January 14 at Bandito’s, located at 2905 Patterson Ave. Also on the bill will be Iron Reagan, Burn/Ward, and Agnostic Cunt. Admission is free, show starts at 10 PM. For more info, click here.