Such is the never-ending appeal of mythology in metal, we can only hope that CULTED haven't ruined their peculiar chemistry during the five years since towering second album "Oblique to all Paths" by actually meeting each other. Despite or perhaps because vocalist and ambient wizard Daniel Jansson resides in Gothenburg, while the remaining members of the band are thousands of miles away in Canada, CULTED's musical efforts to date have been feasts of intuitive ensemble magic; the sludgy, post-metal blueprint re-imagined for wilder imaginations, but with a bruising, nihilistic undertow that would give even NEUROSIS a run for their seminal money. That last full-length album, in particular, was a flat-out revelation: not just in terms of its viciously oppressive atmosphere, but also due to this international crew's mastery of ambience and noise, via sonically surreal, disembodied dialogue and abstract alien scree. It was one of those albums that either completely floored you or sent you scuttling back to something less terrifying. Either way, conjuring a follow-up was always going to be a big challenge, geographical separation or not.
Whether or not "Vespertina Synaxis – A Prayer For Union And Emptiness" is merely a precursor to some larger, more expansive full-length album remains unclear at this point, but no one could accuse CULTED of holding back on this three-track, 28-minute EP. Noticeably dirtier, more pointedly psychedelic and, most alarmingly, even more bleak than their predecessors, the record's two main pieces are certainly recognizable as the work of the same quartet, but something has definitely changed here, too. Okay, so the production on "Oblique to All Paths" was hardly a big-budget Mutt Lange job, but there was a certain dimensional substance to it, and occasional riffs that nodded towards a more conventionally metallic outlook (not least the last few minutes of "Transmittal", should you be desperate to double-check!). Here, what little humanity and color that they possessed has been drained from CULTED's sonic palette, leaving everything with a truly eerie, low-fi monochrome sheen.
Intro "A Prayer for The Union" owes a debt to SWANS, with its underlying buzzing churn and creepy voiceover, but as tension builds and echoes mutate into threats, it's clear that CULTED are merely toying with us before the real avalanche of despair descends. When it does arrive, "Dirt Black Chalice" is genuinely devastating. Given an oversaturated marketplace, it takes quite a lot to make such crushing, slow-motion heaviness stand apart from all the other crushing, slow-motion heaviness out there, but these are unequivocally ten of the most harrowing minutes of metal you will hear this year. An epic funeral march with spidery black metal motifs, powered by untamed vocals from Jansson that suggest he hasn't had the most enjoyable five years, it's laudably raw and filthy while still filling the room with cavernous bottom end and palpable dread. "A Prayer for Emptiness" dives even further down hell's laundry chute, eschewing riffs for resonance and reveling in the brutal power of repetition and distortion. In truth, CULTED occasionally sound like a band on the verge of total disintegration, but there is a steeliness to their sickness and some unearthly momentum pushing each barrage of discord onwards, into whichever abyss happens to open its slavering maw first.
Sometimes, heavy music should give you nightmares. CULTED have broken into our anxiety mainframe and laid some really nasty eggs. You have been warned.