by Todd Manning

Only a few short months have passed since avant-garde death metal outfit John Frum released their stunning debut A Stirring in the Noos and now their guitar player, Matt Hollenberg (subject of the latest Burning Ambulance podcast), is back with his Philadelphia-based unit Cleric. Retrocausal is their first release in seven years, and despite the gap Cleric seems to be further proof that Hollenberg, also a member of John Zorn‘s Simulacrum, is a force to be reckoned with in extreme music’s most outré territories.

A Stirring in the Noos (reviewed here) certainly qualified as a challenging release in almost any context, but make no mistake, Cleric takes the idea of complexity and strangeness to a whole new level. While John Frum gravitated towards death metal at its core, Cleric loosely correlates to the sort-of chaotic hardcore/metal hybrid pioneered by the Dillinger Escape Plan in the late 1990s. Combine this with the genre-smashing releases of Fantômas and we start to get in the neighborhood of the group’s sound.

Retrocausal is a sci-fi concept record telling the story of a submarine crew fated to die in a post-apocalyptic and dystopian future. There are many moments of cinematic mood breaking through Cleric‘s mathematical onslaught, hinting at a possible narrative. The group possesses a firm grasp of dynamics, but deploys them in an unconventional manner. Often times, rather than breaking up their metallic skronk with long, quieter sections, the soft spots only emerge in brief flourishes, a few bars of respite bookended by chaos-as-composition fits of madness. Whatever the actually story is, it moves and jump-cuts at an absolutely staggering pace.

And the aforementioned madness is quite noteworthy as well. They take the stop-start bludgeoning of Meshuggah and slice it up into even weirder configurations, sounding less like a djent workout and more like the result of the “cut-up” literary technique pioneered by William Burroughs. Their times when the percussive guitar attack is punctuated by strange piano and keyboard parts, like Cecil Taylor stopped by the studio to add his two cents. Other sonic oddities abound, with any number of samples and field recordings lurking beneath the surface. The extremity here is achieved not only by heavily distorted guitars and aggressive drumming, but from a pure dedication to disorientation.

Many notable guests do appear to join in the fray. Guitar renegade Mick Barr of Krallice and Orthrelm brings his own six-string weirdness to “Soroboruo,” while Timba Harris of Secret Chiefs 3 lends his violin to album opener “The Treme.” Perhaps most notably, John Zorn makes a significant contribution to the last cut on the album, “Grey Lodge.” His trademark saxophone work covers the gamut of his sonic vocabulary, ranging from avant-noir to blasting free improv. While Zorn is being namechecked more and more by all sorts of experimental metal musicians, it is unusual for him to appear in person, lending a stamp of approval to Cleric’s take on this growing niche of the metal scene.

Cleric’s Retrocausal is an extremely demanding listening experience. This probably isn’t for someone who occasionally throws on a Gorguts album when they are feeling adventurous, but usually gravitates toward more hook-oriented material. This is for the listener that is seeking another fix to feed their insane music addiction, something strong enough to intoxicate even the most jaded ears. Cleric delivers the madness in spades, and it’s hard to imagine anyone, even the bandmembers themselves, composing a more challenging extreme metal album.

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