See that laptop in the above image? I like to think that’s what happened to the circuits that tried to process Retrocausal, the new and long-awaited album from Philadelphia collective Cleric. Moving at light speed from one musical idea to the next, ever restless and seeking even as it clearly lays its feet at the crossroads of bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, Mr. Bungle, and the exploratory avenues of modern free jazz. But rather than get lost in a myriad of riffs and ideas, this massive slab of music works in a similar fashion to doom, with extended run times allowing multiple listens to glean new facets and structures, renewing itself each time.
Although forming and releasing singles since 2003, it wasn’t until 2010’s debut full length Regressions that Cleric really came to notice with the community at large. And it’s easy to see why after listening to the record: the band has an immediate and uncanny knack to construct massively dense soundscapes that bristle with thrash, death metal, jazz and funk, and ambient noise that veer from the cinematic to the horrific. The 10 minutes that make up “A Rush of Blood” showcase a painstaking attention to detail an form that help to make each lengthy track not feel as if it’s coming apart at the seams – intentionally, at least.
And on Retrocausal this sense of frantic cohesion is given even greater visibility in the manic urgings of its tracks. “The Treme” rips open with a razor sharp riff before paint comes in, doubling the riff and adding a note of menace to vocalist/keyboardist Nick Shellenberger’s screams. The track breaks and sews itself up again and again, moving from spacious, walking bass to maddening noise and shock in a heartbeat, but there’s threads to follow to keep you constantly engaged. And that’s really Retrocausal in a nutshell: it doesn’t matter how many genres or ideas they throw at you; they have the chops and the songwriting acumen to keep you engaged and in awe the whole time.
And that’s where the doom element creeps in, something in all the talk about this band I haven’t seen before. You read about the comparisons to Dillinger, Mr. Bungle, Candiria and others and it’s okay, and then you see the track times. 10 minutes. 13 minutes. That’s not Bell Witch time, sure…but that’s not typically a length to hold you when stuff is literally coming in every second. The best doom works on subtle changes within repetition. We don’t mind a 13 minute doom song because part of the lure is how repeated motifs cause a sense of constant discovery, as you ebb and flow with the song you start to see small shifts in current. What makes Retrocausal so special is that Shellenberger and company do the same thing – not through repetition, but the opposite. The barrage of concepts owing the past borders on ridiculous, but you’re always held in thrall, and repeated listenings bring out nuances you may have missed before. It took me four listens before I really keyed in on some of the incredible background work going on in “Resumption” which is holding steady as my favorite track on the album. So much of this is the interplay between guitar, bass, and drum, so I need to point out how stellar the work of Matt Hollenberg, Daniel Ephraim Kennedy, and Larry Kwartowitz are with their respective instruments. By the time avant-garde (and I went 575 words before using that term) godfather John Zorn makes an appearance on closer “Grey Lodge” it almost feels like an afterthought. This in no way should be construed as belittling Zorn’s contribution, which is – as per usual – stunning and fitting perfectly with the intent – but after over an hour of paying oblations to the alien altars of Cleric it almost feels like an obligatory appendix than a necessary coda.
Lost the thread? I hope not, because Cleric and Retrocausal are as exciting as any music that came out in 2017. Five full listens in and I’m no closer to parsing all the intricacies the album offers, and it will be a dear challenge to see how much more I can get out of it with another dozen or so listens. It’s worth the time being challenged, I assure you.