I like the beats and I like the yelling: Cruel Life Inside, Sacrilegious Crown, Pustilence

Cruel Life Inside: Eclipsis Vitae (2021)

Despite having the name of a mid-2000s emo band, Cruel Life Inside are another package of reforms aimed at making something of “positive” black metal. We could spend all day descanting on what we mean when we say music is “positive” or “negative”, and whether black metal even conforms to particular definitions of one or the other. But for our purposes in reviewing the debut album from Italy’s Cruel Life Inside it is enough to know that the music contextualises itself as post black metal. The fact that bands like Alcest or Fen have not so much made “positive” black metal as they have the musical equivalent of watching paint dry should not put people off other artists operating under “post” credentials.

So it is for Cruel Life Inside, whose work – if read one way – is post black metal, whilst offering an entirely different experience to more commonly understand tropes of the genre. Yes, the music found on ‘Eclipsis Vitae’ is broadly positive, life affirming, hopeful, but this is achieved by working more heavy metal and melodic leanings into the framework in the manner of a latter-day Midnight Odyssey more than anything else. This instantly makes this album more commendable than many releases offered with a similar intent behind them. There is a clear attempt to frame this album as a journey, with the starting point being the usual malevolence and grandeur of traditional black metal, which we gradually leave behind as the album progresses on to lighter pastures, the melodies dabble in major keys before setting up shop there for good, clean vocals take over, and flowery keyboards are deployed as respite from the cruelties of the distorted guitar.

With that in mind, and taking a quick look at the production, a more useful moniker for Cruel Life Inside would be atmospheric black metal. Yes, there is a rich array of musicality on display across this album, but twas ever thus for Summoning and Midnight Odyssey, who are both broadly understood as atmospheric as well. The Production on ‘Eclipsis Vitae’ is geared toward this end, with guitars soaked in reverb but retaining a sharp attack more in line with expressing the melodic heavy metal stylings that take hold on the second half of the album. Keyboards are a wash of atmosphere, usually settling on understated synth tones to bolster up the overall size of the mix, but also taking on some lead melodies along the way. Thus it is left to the drums to bottom out the sound with some much needed bass. The cymbals may be a watery static to compliment the guitars, but the snare is kept to a bass heavy thud, making it harder to distinguish from the toms. But as there is little competition at this end of the mix, the tight performance remains in full view for us to witness.

Given the teleological structure of this album, reactions may vary within one individual as much as they would across different listeners. The first half of the album presents a strong character, a well-ordered mix of melodic black metal, symphonic metal, and subtle heavy metal riffing. The result is a more concise version of Midnight Odyssey, and given the needlessly lengthy compositions this latter outfit is known for, the brevity of Cruel Life Inside is most welcome. But as the album progresses, and the mood turns from gentle catharsis to outright celebration, things take a turn for the Nightwish. The clean vocals are not strong enough to carry the melodies with the conviction required, the keyboards take on a touch of the Disney, and many of the riffs move from the longform structure of heavy metal into the instant cyclical gratification of rock. The decline is gradual but severe.

The instrumental ‘Infirmus’ may hold much beauty within its minimal neoclassical stylings, but it also marks the turning point of the album. The unabashed ambition of the first half gives way to a heavy rock affair with distorted backing vocals. In this regard, one reading of ‘Eclipsis Vitae’ could be as a brief history of the decline of 21st Century extreme metal. From wisdom to farce. Make of it what you will. The overall mood and atmosphere Cruel Life Inside reach for is compelling, and the musicianship and approach to composition is not to be sniffed at. But one cannot help but lament the trivial place the album ends on considering the bold starting point.

Sacrilegious Crown: Plenilunium Cult (2021)

Australia’s Elysian Blaze not only created a drab new concoction out of funeral doom and Les Legions Noise style black metal, they also opened up new boundaries for black metal as ambience. The guitar tone was so burdened with reverb and distortion that it struggled to overcome its own inertia. The instruments and broad techniques were lifted from the same old rock format, but the end result was entirely distinct. Each chord change felt like a monumental tectonic shift, each moment weighted by its own significance.

This preamble applies every bit as much to ‘Plenilunium Cult’, the latest EP from Italy’s Sacrilegious Crown. We can hear a drum kit being played in the background, we can hear a guitar plugged into an amplifier, and we can hear the pained shrieks in the background. But all take on new qualities in this warped environment to the point where it feels like we are listening to music that has only the most incidental connection to anything that had its roots in rock. It’s not just that the music is reeeeally slow, it’s also a question of guitar tone and arrangement.

For instance, the drums are audible, and generally do function as a timekeeper of sorts. But only the barest rudiments are audible, especially when taking a broader view of the mix without homing in on them in particular. In this setting they take on the qualities of rhythmically reliable static, a precarious yet essential anchor for the listener, one that threatens to dislodge entirely and abandon us to the awaiting brume.

Guitars again are recognisable as such, working their way through elongated, drab chord passages. But so washed out is the tone, with each layered buried in reverb and static, that it’s as if we are being fed the merest idea of music, a less evolved stage of melody yet to be fleshed out. The high-pitched shrieks of despair that accompany this proto-music seem to be lamenting their own half-existence. Not for us the delights of life, our lot is pale of hue, with which we must make do.

The ultimate decay is reached with the minimal dark ambient closer ‘Homily’, which sees the rock instrumentation give up entirely for the sake of a low-level hum. The end of the line for ordered sound. As a furtherance of black metal as a philosophy of atmosphere, one that strikes a particularly despondent note, this EP is a welcome reappraisal of the terrain. Its emotive range may be limited owing to such specificity, but the experience is undeniably immersive.  

Pustilence: The Birth of the Beginning Before the Inception of the End (2021)

Queensland’s Pustilence sure pack in an array of death metal traditions into an EP that takes less time to play through than it does to say the title. At once reinvigorating the dirtier d-beat end of the genre with a playful rhythmic swing, whilst also reaching for the more esoteric and occult ambitions of Morbid Angel, exhibiting restrained yet noticeable technical leanings. A raw display of death metal’s conflicted heart of primitivism vs. esoteric order.

Production wise we’re not much above demo quality. All is clear and distinct, but character is lacking. Drums are raw and tinny, with the focus seemingly ensuring that the entire kit can be clearly heard without fudging up the rest of the mix, in this regard they have succeeded. Guitars may lack some of the power required to really bring some of the riffs to life, but for a debut EP the tone is serviceable and does not deter us from enjoying the experience. Vocals adopt the very low end of the guttural spectrum, the same weapon of choice for Lovecraftian death metal bands.

The riffs themselves are an odd brew of Suffocation, Morbid Angel, a pinch of Slayer, with some unexpected whimsy and playfulness thrown in all of their own. Pustilence jump from a two power-chord punk riff to an epic breakdown and soaring guitar virtuosity without missing a beat (literally). But the schizophrenic nature of the music works for this brand of death metal, embedded in the mire of the dirty and the primal, but reaching for higher spiritual meaning, the surety of the eternal.

At times the mixture of riffs comes across as a re-ordering of familiar parts, a simple concoction of Pustilence’s influences presented in a slightly different guise. But there are plenty of moments where they go beyond these historical markers, and begin to exhibit a character of their own, one defined by this very dualism of purpose. We cling in anticipation to these moments and what they herald for future releases from this outfit.

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