My grievance is simple. Throughout A Patient Man, there exists contrived quasi-balladry that makes me question Cult Leader’s judgment. Every minute of it (approximately 19 in total) derails and makes an unnecessary slog of the album. I am heartbroken for three reasons: firstly, I can’t believe that something so surface-level could have weighed down A Patient Man; secondly, Cult Leader are absolutely capable of crafting solid slow tracks; lastly, the non-ballad tracks are actually pretty damn good.
The issues surrounding the balladry are straightforward, and concern little more than poor structuring and technically underwhelming clean vocals. “To: Achlys”, the title track, and “A World of Joy” might as well all be the same plodding song (with exception granted to the latter’s last-minute heaviness). Each follows this formula: a lethargic, repetitive lead with little accompaniment, Anthony Lucero’s shaky and often off-tune cleans (unwisely put in the forefront, as opposed to their relative sidelining in Lightless Walk), and occasional hi-hats. Lightless Walk had slow tracks, yes, but they were never taken to this pared-down extreme, justified by the press release as “maturation and a sense of melody”. It’s all odd, because slow closer “The Broken Right Hand of God” mostly dodges the pitfalls: the tempo evokes solemnity rather than boredom, Lucero brings out potent harsh vocals on the higher end of his register, and the riffs are melodic yet powerful as they crash down. The redundancy of the ballads also troubles me: for instance, “I Am Healed” and “To: Achlys” are both masochistic calls for healing, but the former and its cathartic outburst is much more effective at conveying a sense of purging and renewal.
I can only assume Cult Leader were trying to go all out in two opposing directions. When not mired in failed minimalism, A Patient Man is a dizzying cacophony that makes use of menacing gutturals, manically “bright”-sounding chords and a swirl of unpredictable, punishing drums. “Craft of Mourning” and “Share My Pain” are relatively straightforward beatdowns, stylistically close to Lightless Walk; “Aurum Reclusa”, “I Am Healed”, and “Curse of Satisfaction” feature unsettling, even demented riffs. And then there’s the crushingly beautiful “Isolation in the Land of Milk and Honey”, which is a miraculous fusion of all the extremes that Cult Leader were probably going for. It begins erratically, alternating between fretboard ends, then suddenly decelerates into sludge that pits radiant, triumphant guitars against vehement snarls; torment and release are deftly wrangled together.
What’s most disconcerting, I think, is that A Patient Man sometimes comes across as pitiful. As it claws out of the ground, lyrics begging for healing and resurrection, it appears to us as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster; wanting and even deserving of love but showing “horrid contrast” in its features, it can’t help but draw discomfort. The ballads display vulnerability, but not a sympathetic kind; there’s something shameful about watching this otherwise mighty creature lumbering and brooding over its troubles. It’s not a convincing display, especially when earlier moments in the album have already resolved this particular tension; what is there to be moody about now? The chaotic pieces don’t suffer from this issue because they provide the tension as they address it; the ballads, meanwhile, seem to concern non-issues, and are too disconnected from the others to be able to leech off their energy.
It’s slightly comforting that I can chalk down A Patient Man’s missteps to overzealous experimentation rather than to complacency. At its peak, it’s satisfyingly maddening and more nuanced than Lightless Walk. For those wondering whether Cult Leader have truly distinguished themselves from Gaza, I’d answer with a qualified yes; “Isolation in the Land of Milk and Honey” best encapsulates Cult Leader’s current identity: familiar brutality meeting with newfound optimism and light. Alas, excellence remains so close, and yet so far.
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A Patient Man will be out November 9 and can be pre-ordered at Cult Leader’s Bandcamp page.