Skull Cultist
Hardcore Rituals

Hardcore Rituals is the first proper LP of original material from Canadian producer Steve Saunders’ Skull Cultist project. Like the collection of EPs that have been released over the last few years, the material is generally crunchy, club-based industrial with minimal lyrics, although Saunders’ interests in integrating various subgenres into his songs provides some variety over the course of its eleven tracks. As a pleasing mix of sounds and ideas that keeps its momentum going, it’s a fun listen, with hints of developments yet to come.

The record’s appeal lies largely in how Skull Cultist keeps things moving, varying tempos and structures, but not pausing for long enough to lose any of its forward motion. A track like uptempo club contender “Floor Sadist” serves as a nice example; its rhythmic-noise adjacent rhythm programming is adorned with a few vocal chants, some distorted dialogue samples and tasteful layers of distortion, recalling the late 2000s output of bands like Memmaker and Soman. It’s a simple formula, but one that can often become monotonous in practice, either for lack of variation in individual cuts or across the whole of a record. Saunders gets that, and avoids the pitfall by keeping his arrangements nice and fluid and his track sequencing varied. The aforementioned “Floor Sadist” and the thudding “Rivethammer” are put together with a DJ’s ear for tension builds and releases, and are each followed by a contrasting song, “Harvesting Season” with its long ominous build to the introduction of its slow groove, and the dark electro touched “Voidmother” respectively.

Some of the album’s best moments occur when Saunders stretches himself and the project’s remit. “Mover” is instrumentally comparable to the rest of the record, but by engaging Eva X as a vocalist and building the song around her contrasting monotone and melodic vocals the track gets a dimension that makes it distinct from its neighbouring songs. Completely different, but no less intriguing is “Body Cult”, which invokes the spare, minimal EBM of acts like Digital Poodle, basing the song around a simple bassline, vocal samples and an atonal synthline, with a result that ends up funkier than anything else the project has released to date.

While not flawless from a production standpoint (there are moments where the mix is muddy, or where a cut could have been shortened to increase its impact), Hardcore Rituals is a record that shows a real sense of identity, with Saunders pushing himself creatively without losing sight of his strengths. Skull Cultist has its calling card, one with enough fluidity and experimentation with form to suggest intriguing ideas for releases still to come.

Buy it.