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Waiting for the Cut

In Cleric's long-form metal, the tension just keeps building.




You can tell which questions Cleric gets asked too often. "I hate talking about 'What kind of metal would you describe yourself as,'" says bassist James Lynch. But you can see why people wonder. The music this Philadelphia four-piece plays is a kind of metal the way Lost Highway is a kind of movie. It's an elastic tissue of creepy electronic noise and barely human screaming, impregnated with patches of riff-salad grind and hypercube mathcore. Imagine a billboard-size smear of Silly Putty pressed onto the incomprehensible infinite grid of a sinister Sunday crossword, then stretched, folded, and twisted till there isn't a single straight line left.

The brand-new Regressions is 76 minutes long, and the lead track, "Allotriophagy" (the word refers to the pathological desire to eat unnatural or improper things), runs more than 19. It opens with knotting and unraveling chugga-chugga, which slows and dilates into sandstorm ambience that's in turn overtaken by spidery Middle Eastern exotica; sometimes it sounds like two bands overlapping. For its last seven minutes the song has no fixed tempo and only rarely a pulse, maintaining suspense by continually suggesting a resolution that never arrives.

"A Rush of Blood" includes tumbling shards of piano, a pell-mell seesawing lick that accelerates like Wile E. Coyote on roller skates, and slingshot swoops of guitar whose pitch climbs to a degraded digital whistle. One riff in "Cumberbund" works like a crude musical palindrome, descending and slowing down, then climbing in pitch and speeding back up. "Poisonberry Pie" makes its winding way from eerie tundra lounge to a dizzying triple phase between the keyboard, bass, and guitar parts—relative to the drums, the other instruments precess like spinning tops, so that each bar seems to begin at three or four different spots. Matt Hollenberg's guitar is alternately crunchy, glassy, and staticky, and Larry Kwartowitz's drums range from heavily gated thunks to reverberating detonations.

As is customary in the form of metal Cleric orbits least distantly—furiously dense and intricate stuff like Converge and the Dillinger Escape Plan—there's nothing catchy or even particularly memorable in the music and no melodic content to speak of in the vocals. They don't use verses or choruses and pretty much never return to a part after they've had their way with it once. Regressions stays interesting for the same reason a tightrope act stays interesting: How will they keep this up? Are they going to throw in the towel and repeat themselves? Will they put a foot wrong and break the tension they've been building from their first note? It's like watching a Jackie Chan fight scene and realizing five minutes in that's all been shot in one take—you start anticipating the inevitable cut.

One thing that makes this engrossing rather than simply exhausting is the music's elasticity in tempo and texture. Instead of clicking from part to part channel-surfer style—a technique better suited to 45-second Naked City tracks—Cleric songs breathe and evolve. They slow down or speed up fluidly, a technique similar to the "burst beats" all but patented by artsy Brooklyn black-metal band Liturgy. Nick Shellenberger's layered vocals and synths—onstage he uses two keyboards, three mikes, a mixer, and a few effects loops—often fuse into a sustained, distorted howl, like a jet engine passing overhead, and this too helps to create a through line in the music. It suggests a sort of hovering imminence, as though the song's next episode were already audible, bearing down from a great distance.

Because Cleric can sustain a dramatic arc for 20 to 30 minutes—especially impressive given that they traffic in subgenres of metal where brief, violent spasms are the norm—it's tempting to characterize their music as cinematic. Even the quiet passages carry a charge, ratcheting up the tension with harmonically lopsided drones rather than relieving it with, say, lyrical fingerpicking, a tradition in metal that goes back at least as far as Black Sabbath. One of the untitled interludes on Regressions sounds like somebody farting around on his front porch with a resophonic guitar to the accompaniment of singing birds and buzzing insects, but within moments this pastoral tableau is interrupted by the faraway footfalls of something inconceivably huge and bestial, which in short order splits the air with a scalding roar.

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