An acquaintance asked me recently, having read one of my reviews in which I praised the artwork of a given album at some length, if artwork and packaging was really that important, particularly in this age of MP3. It was a question not without merit but, as we discussed the issue, it became clearer and clearer that not only is artwork still very much important, but it is something which even the MP3 generation still venerate. To consider the former, it is worth conjuring up the image of various classic albums and considering the effect that they had upon their audience and the resulting feeling that can be conjured up even by a glance of the iconic images that adorned their sleeves – Led Zeppelin’s ‘IV’, Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, Tool’s astonishing ‘Lateralus’ or Slayer’s ‘Reign in blood’. In each case the artwork (striking in each case) is as important as the music contained therein and to the fan it is as much part of the experience to open up the booklet and read lyrics or liner notes as it is to put on the disc and hit play. The latter is, superficially, a more difficult case because MP3s come booklet-free but consider this: in the early days of MP3 on computer, phone or stand-alone player there was no screen at all or a small display that offered track listings. However, that was not considered enough and almost all players have evolved to have larger and larger screens purely to incorporate the artwork that my young friend considered unimportant. Phones now display covers as a matter of course with users often adding applications to download missing artwork for them and so it would seem that even to the digital generation, there is much power to be found in the images that go hand in hand with their favourite tunes.
By now, readers may be a little confused as to why a review of Cultus Sabbati’s ‘The garden of forking ways’ has opened with a lengthy diatribe about the importance of album artwork. Well, to put it simply, if ever there was a band to appreciate such things it is Cultus Sabbati. Their album, released on a deep, ruby-red vinyl, is beautifully and time-consumingly packaged making it one of the loveliest editions we’ve reviewed in some time (and that includes the stunning Ocean box set released last year and Nine Inch Nail’s ‘Year Zero’ vinyl). While not, I suspect, destined to become as iconic as some of the albums mentioned above – the music here has rather more of a niche appeal, the effort that has gone into making this edition a ‘must have’ for fans of the blackened soundscapes of Sunn 0))) styled drone is considerable. The cover, which is not by any means done justice here, has been silk-screened and it looks (and feels) stunning while the inlay is double sided and printed on stiff red card and the whole package feels like a labour of love by the label and artists concerned.
Speaking of the artists, Cultus Sabbati are something of an enigma. Their preamble stated “…although we know you in the world we have chosen to remain anonymous in the context of this new project for various reasons…” which adds a suitable air of mystery to the whole thing while the music is as inscrutable as the band members. Existing somewhere within the realm of black metal and drone, Cultus Sabbati seemingly exist in a hinterland outside of the boundaries of genres where they churn out endlessly blackened waves of discordant noise and harsh sibilant whispers layered with feedback in an effort to disconcert the unwary. Reproduced in stunning clarity, the first track (although in truth it is difficult to note where one track begins and another ends) is literally like being trapped within the band’s rehearsal space as massive layers of distorted guitar wash over you. The tracks are seriously loud and take their cue from the pure, blissful noise of Skullflower and Sunn 0))), although elements of the more serene Bass Communion can also be found as ghostly voices exist deep within the tracks for those prepared to search for them.
Of course, what this means is that the appeal of ‘the garden of forking ways’ is limited – far more people will consider this an act of wilful <ahem> sonic abuse than people who will consider it art but then that’s often the test of a truly unique product and here Cultus Sabati blend their own, deeply unpleasant and misanthropic interpretation upon a drone framework and then amp it up to maximum levels. This is certainly evident on side one which builds significantly in volume and tension as the record draws towards its end, creating the ambient feel of a harrowing, horror movie soundtrack where the screams and noise build to fever pitch as the killer closes in. Huge waves of squealing feedback blast out amidst the hurricane blast of guitars while the whispers gain an urgency bordering upon the fevered and psychotic – like receiving a heavy-breathing phone call from the gates of hell itself, it is unnerving, hypnotic and utterly irresistible to the faithful few who will read this (or similar) reviews and rush out to buy it knowing full-well the horror that lies in store for them.
With the necessary side change offering the only respite, side two of the disc opens out immediately into the fear-inducing sound of a bass drone while the vocals have suddenly gained a degree of clarity born out of their not being covered with hissing guitars. Interestingly the effect is to render the whole infinitely more terrifying and there is a genuine menace that underpins the whole thing that has much the same effect as the car crash you can’t quite tear your eyes from despite the blood oozing from out of the passenger side leaving you caught, like a rabbit in the headlights, when the renewed onslaught of feedback and distortion kicks in. Almost more unnerving are the elements of melody that creep into the second side which underpin the harsh screams and gurgles with al almost art-rock sensibility that recalls Mogwai and Red Sparrowes before giving way to a massive riff that is buried in the mix behind so much distortion that it is almost indecipherable. The final passages, meanwhile, can only be likened to being trapped inside some huge industrial machine, as the slithery grinding and scraping tears flesh and bone and you find yourself drawn ever closer to the gaping maw from whence the sounds issue.
Ultimately not everyone is going to love the terrifying issue of Cultus Sabbati. This is vicious, unhinged drone at its finest and therefore virtually impenetrable to the uninitiated. That is not to say you shouldn’t give it a try. If you have never experienced drone before and would like to experience a sound that truly challenges the boundaries of what music can be and what experiences you can gain from it, then this is an excellent release to check out. Equally, if you are a fan of horror movies which crank up the tension without feeling the need to cover their plot failings with explosive outburst of gore (think ‘funny games’ rather than ‘nightmare on Elm Street’) then this may appeal to you – just be advised that this is not music in the traditional sense but something far more expansive and open to individual interpretation. For those of you who have checked out acts such as Asva, Sunn 0))) and Bass communion, then you probably already know if this is of interest to you and will be heading over to the band’s website to check out this stunning, limited (only 333 copies) release.