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Like a Healthy Gallbladder - 83%

Apteronotus, May 1st, 2014

At its heart, Cult of Fire’s “Ascetic Meditation of Death” is a normal black metal album and no amount of Hindi language, sitars, or chanting to Kali change that here. With that in mind, the album is still solid. The band doesn’t need anything special or unique to make good music, yet they manage to thoroughly incorporate some unorthodox sounds into the album. This isn’t like how garbage food marketed to children will often be the same thing as adult garbage food, but shaped like a tiger riding a surfboard or have a different color just for novelty’s sake. While having a fair amount of Hindu influence in their atmospheric styled black metal probably makes the band more marketable, Cult of Fire does more than just add a childish sprinkling of these influences. These elements are enjoyable and well blended, yet the band’s songwriting is still the true engine and that engine is black metal. “Ascetic Meditation of Death” likely could have just as easily had Cajun or Ainu influences if the band put their efforts in another direction. This is in contrast to bands like Melechesh or Negură Bunget, whose differentness and instrumental decisions are an integral part of their music. Cult of Fire’s strength comes primarily from a sense of atmosphere that doesn’t require overindulging in repetition. Naturally, their major weakness on this album is the tendency to stray from that strength and make lazy jam-band styled songs.    

Vocals here are similar to what you might hear from Agalloch, but with a harder driving edge and a more than ample varnish of reverb. This isn’t entirely surprising, given the blurry intersections between post and atmospheric flavors of black metal. Cult of Fire does a good job straddling those influences. On the post side: the seventh track has crystalline high soaring melodies, the eighth track could be some kind of “inspirational” new-age mediation song (not a compliment), and the fourth’s mood is nothing short of a contemptibly triumphant Hindu themed black metal sports montage. Despite all of this, the band never completely looses that sense of black metal grandeur for too long, where many similar bands devolve into limp-wristed post-rock. Yes, the tonal quality is warm, especially with the rounded off bouncy bass and flamboyant organ, yet the mood remains stern for much of the album. This happens because of the band’s overall sense of direction can include upbeat detours and rich flourishes that keep things interesting but without jeopardizing the guitar’s ample melody. Throwing the driving vocals on top of that melody gives the band a real sense of power and everything else is almost ornamental. The band’s approach is highly melodic, which is especially obvious with glissandi like the organ intro to track 2, the high guitar flourish on track 3, and even in track 4’s cheesy piano interlude. What also helps this style breath is how the drummer is smart enough to know when not to blast.

The downside, to be blunt, tracks 4, 7, and 8. Lazy. Each one suffers from an overuse of repetition. At first glance it might appear from the chant-heavy fourth track and the sitar laden final track that the band is shoehorning Hindu influences into their music and would be better off without them. This is not the case, as the band incorporates these ideas better elsewhere and track 7 has none of these influences but showcases the same problem. Cult of Fire is faltering in terms of song structure, and while the band maintains their pleasant sound throughout the album you can’t hide several minutes of trite chord progressions no matter how they are dressed up, if at all. With the last two tracks being problematic this way, it certainly gives off the impression that the band simple ran out of ideas and padded the album. To reiterate, these tracks don’t mar the album’s overall mood, but taken alone each one sucks. This might mean that they would have worked better with more dynamic material to provide context, track 4’s repetition could be generously viewed as a nice change-up if it were the only one of its kind. Instead the band is excessive with the happier breaks from their music. Even something like the fire sounds on track 2 works as a nice break even while other parts of the album feel forced (it says a lot when a band with the word fire in their name isn’t being awful while also using a sound recording of fire.)

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the band’s use of Hindu influences is some kind of revolutionary approach to metal, it isn’t. To repeat, Cult of Fire is a black metal band at heart; and continuing with the organ analogy their particular approach on this album is more like a gallbladder. It is useful, but you can be fine without it, yet no one wants to cut it out unless it becomes a problem. There are no gallstones here. What is more important than the gallbladder though is that Cult of Fire’s body as a whole is strong, if a bit overly fat due to fits of sedentary songwriting.

Originally written for Contaminated Tones.