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Tag-Team Album Review: Cultes des Ghoules – Sinister, or Treading the Darker Paths

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages…are you ready for another tag-team album review?

In this corner, we have the international dream team of Aussie Aaron Dexter Bray, Chief Kvltist at Black Metal Daily and regular IMV contributor, and the Vault’s own Senior Editor Clayton T. Michaels.

And in the other corner, we have Sinister, or Treading the Darker Paths, the new album from Polish black metal horde Cultes des Ghoules, which is now available from Hell’s Headbangers Records (order a copy here). 

CTM: So let me preface this by saying that as far as I’m concerned, Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love, the sprawling, 100-minute black metal opera that Cultes des Ghoules released in 2016, is the best black metal album of this decade. So I approached Sinister, or Treading the Darker Paths with the very strange mindset of both being incredibly excited for new a new full-length and expecting to be at least slightly disappointed in what I heard.

ADB: Holy hell, straight out of the gates with a massive call! I’ve no idea what I would personally call the album of the decade, but yep, Coven was fantastic. My approach towards Sinister was slightly different, as for some reason (and this discussion is what’s forced me to realise and admit to this) I’ve always liked CdG albums when they’ve arrived, but have then never really returned to them. I know, I know… For shame. I did dig their approach on Coven far more than any of their previous conjurations however, and was certainly intrigued to see where they would go next. I feel you on the expecting to be disappointed, too… it’s rare for any band to be able to go back-to-back with monumental releases and scale the same heights.

CTM: Realistically, the chances of their following up Coven with anything even remotely on the same scale were pretty slim, so credit to them for not really trying to do so. I also think it was a good move to announce the album roughly two weeks before its digital release, thus cutting down on the amount of time for any sort of breathless anticipation or hype to build around it.

ADB: Oh, totally. Great move. I didn’t even know the thing was coming and then it was in my inbox. Plus, knowing the unfortunate way the collective social media hive-mind works these days, it may not have even been hype that built up. What’s that saying, “expect nothing and you shall not be disappointed”? Imagine everyone having three months and a drastically different sounding teaser to stew on…

CTM: Ugh…the kvltboi rage may have been too much to bear. Fortunately, I think Sinister is an excellent album, even though it’s pretty surprising in its own way. I absolutely did not expect them to try to do another Coven, but I don’t think I was expecting them to go the minimalist route this time, either. However, I think it was a brilliant way to approach it. With Mark of the Devil, Cultes des Ghoules has arguably the most versatile vocalist in all of black metal – only Lörd Matzigkeitus (The Projectionist/The Black Sorcery/Thy Sepulchral Moon) really comes close to matching him – and to me it sounds like the songwriting strategy for this record was to be like ‘okay – we’re going to compose some straightforward backing tracks and let you do your thing.’ And oh my fuck, does it work.

ADB: Bloody oath it does (and big-ups Lörd M too, that man is a beast). Strangely enough, the opening track “Children of the Moon” possibly even surprised me more than anything did on Coven. I had skingasms before the halfway mark; utterly mesmerised. Stripping themselves back like that just tickles me in all the right places… They’re on some savage voodoo shit. Brilliant is exactly the right word for it.

CTM: Okay…I’m absolutely stealing ‘skingasms.’ That’s hella clever, and I’m kicking myself right now for not having come up with it myself.

ADB: That’s cool. I probably stole it from Seventeen or CosmoGirl magazine or something, anyway.

CTM: You may be on the other side of the world from me, but I can actually see you hemorrhaging kvlt points from my porch after that statement….

ADB: I was a troubled child.

CTM: Hahaha. To use a bit of an odd analogy, listening to Sinister is almost like listening to a Leonard Cohen album. Does anyone listen to him for the riffs? Of course not – he’s Leonard fucking Cohen. If you end up talking about the riffs on one of his albums, something went very wrong indeed…

ADB: Well, you know I’m all about a good odd analogy and I fully agree with you there. I was actually going to say (which I know you’re going to LOVE) that on this album he strikes me as basically the black metal Jim Morrison, totally giving himself over to the primal power of the music and basing his performance on whatever he feels surging through him at the time. That shit is simply thrilling to listen to, and I’d imagine experiencing it live would be absolutely wild. If any of you Aussie promoters happen to be reading this…

CTM: I fucking hate Jim Morrison. To the point where it’s almost one of the defining aspects of my personality. I’ll even go on record as saying that he’s the single most overrated musician in the history of ever, with Jack White coming in at a distant second. But I digress…

ADB: YOU LEAVE JACK WHITE ALONE! He wasn’t even the worst musician in The White Stripes.

CTM: He was, however, the most annoying. That being said…I kind of have to concede your point here. I’ve not talked with Mark of the Devil about it because…well, no one talks to Mark of the Devil – they apparently haven’t done interviews since Häxan came out in 2008. I am friendly with Lörd M, though, and I know that he’s a fan of Mr. Mojo Risin’ (which is…like, an anagram of Jim Morrison, which is why it’s sooooo deep, maaaaaaaan). There’s something about the more free-form, almost shamanistic approach Morrison took on songs like “The End” or “Celebration of the Lizard,” where he does his thing while the band just kind of vamps behind him, that does seem very similar to the approach Cultes des Ghoules takes on this album.

Congratulations – you got me to admit that there might be a Jim Morrison influence in black metal. I certainly hope you’re proud of yourself…

ADB: I’ve already texted my Mum about it, have to make her proud of me somehow. Anyway, this all isn’t to say this thing doesn’t have any riffs, of course; there are some absolute monsters buried in there. The opening of “The Serenity of Nothingness,” for example… Ugh.

CTM: Oh, agreed – I didn’t mean to imply that Cultes des Ghoules  has become the Mark of the Devil show, while everyone else is just kind of there. What stood out to me more than any of the riffs, though, is Minski’s bass work. Like on“The Serenity of Nothingness” – there’s a two-note, upper register accent on every other beat during sections of that song that’s shockingly effective. The main bass line on “Children of the Moon” is surprisingly simple–maybe four notes in total, repeated without any changes through the first half of the song–but there’s something hypnotic about it. Then when he goes all Mingus with it and starts doing those jazzy variations where he’s playing around and through those four notes? Dude damn near steals the song.

ADB: I was going to mention Minski! Figured I’d leave it for you though, as you’re far better versed in / more eloquent at expressing the ways of musicology than I. Totally does almost steal the show on multiple occasions. Icing on an already delicious cake for me.

So, I’m interested: Does this steal the mantle of ‘album of the decade’ from Coven?

CTM: No…I mean, part of what makes Coven so amazing for me is the sheer scope of it. That album is so ambitious and ballsy, and it seemed like everything they tried somehow worked. It also caught me totally off guard. I’ve always enjoyed CdG, but they were never a band where I anxiously awaited whatever they were going to do next. Coven changed that for sure.

That being said, I expect that I’ll likely return to Sinister more than I do Coven, because the whole ‘black metal opera’ thing doesn’t really make for casual listening – you either commit to  listening to the whole thing, or you throw on something else. Sinister is still a lengthy album – five tracks in 55 minutes – but it seems more like an after hours set at a jazz club. You can take in part of it and then come back to it later.

ADB: I’m exactly the same, spot on about the casual listening thing. I feel Sinister is finally going to be the album that gets me to listen to a CdG album on the reg. I’ve already spun it more times than Coven… and I’m still getting those skingasms.

Final rating time? Or anything else we should talk about?

CTM: Only one thing: how closely have you looked at the album cover? I somehow completely missed that there’s a dead infant in the background until I saw the references to sacrificing and eating babies while reading the lyrics on Metal Archives. So if anybody worried that a song titles like “Day of Joy” or “Where the Rainbow Ends” meant they were going soft…

ADB: Fucking hell, you’re right. I doubt I would have ever noticed that if you hadn’t mentioned it. That’s incredible, both how subversive it is and how well it all ties together, tonally and thematically. The more I look at it the more it becomes part of the whole horrifying piece… the perfect visual expression of their menacing ritualistic occultism. I recall reading some hype somewhere saying that they’re the most “evil” sounding black metal band; I don’t know about the “most” part, but you can definitely feel it.

CTM: As for a final grade, this is an easy A for me. Cultes des Ghoules is clearly a band at the height of their unholy powers. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we’re witness to the beginning of a string of albums that will end up being so influential that they’ll help reshape black metal for years to come.

ADB: Straight up, an A from me too. It may not be album of the decade, but it’s far and away one of the best of the year and they’ve definitely hooked me in. They bend black metal to their will. Can’t wait to see where they go from here.

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