I’m not gonna lie, it feels kinda weird to resurrect my Retrocution column for the first time in more than a year… with an artist who, by his own account, has been actively trying to move away from “conventional” synthwave for a while now. But for James Kent, I’ll make an exception.
After all, Kent’s work as Perturbator was one of my earliest exposures to synthwave. I wouldn’t be anywhere near as big a fan of this music — maybe a fan at all — if not for Dangerous Days. So even though my tastes within the genre have since shifted a bit more toward the pop end of the spectrum, I tend to listen whenever Kent drops something new — conventional or otherwise. And in the case of his latest effort, Lustful Sacraments, the listen proved to be quite an excellent one.
I really do not envy darksynth producers for the task of trying to evolve their sounds. You’ll make your name, more often than not, with some of the loudest, most abrasive and unsettling interpretations of this genre’s stylistic boundaries — and then… shit, they want you to develop further? There’s no one way to tackle that, either. Carpenter Brut streamlined — dare I say “softened”? — his sound on Leather Teeth, while GosT went more abrasive and started working in almost black metal stylings on Possessor (and then seemingly abandoned that pursuit on Valediction). Hell, Dance with the Dead seem pretty content to become the AC/DC or Motörhead of darksynth and actively not really change all that much from their current sound. (And hey, that’s not a bad thing!) Ultimately, progressing from a darksynth foundation is no easy task — no matter which course you decide to chart.
Kent’s evolution of the Perturbator sound really began in earnest with 2017’s New Model. At the time, Kent said that the EP wanted to explore a future “based in our own eerie reality and not the retro-futuristic fantasy explored on [his past releases].” And accordingly, the six songs presented a clear sonic departure from his earlier work, with a more modernized synth palette and more precise, almost robotic rhythmic schemes. For the leap that it was, the EP stood up quite well on its own, but it left the inevitable “next step” somewhat open to interpretation. Perturbator’s future wasn’t in the past… but where was it?
Check out Buke’s interview with Perturbator on The Nine Circles Audio Thing!
Lustful Sacraments answers that question largely by dialing back the mechanization and injecting a gothic cadence into the proceedings. It’s cold, but never unfeeling. It’s got industrial undertones, but also feels quite loose at times. It doesn’t quite sound like New Model, but I also don’t know that it could have existed *without* New Model. (It also helps me appreciate that EP even more.) And it takes all of these apparent contradictions, raises two fingers to them and succeeds on the strength of some of Kent’s most memorable composing and arranging work to date.
So far, these songs have stuck with me as individual pieces more than any of Perturbator’s previous stuff. And I think that’s down to a combination of things. The more restrained production style allows each track its own chance to shine — which for someone like me, who could sometimes get caught up in the overall cyberpunk spectacle of Kent’s past work more than any individual songs, has been quite helpful! I find I’m appreciating the melodies more. I’m noticing the tension in Kent’s songcraft more. I’m appreciating the progressions more. And I’m really appreciating the Andrew Eldritch-esque vocal turns throughout. (I am powerless to resist even the slightest nod to Sisters of Mercy, and there are quite a few on Lustful Sacraments.)
But also, the songs just fucking rule. “Excess” feels like a hit of pure energy, with a more exciting refrain — and, appropriately, a sharper comedown — than any track I’ve heard this year, synth or otherwise. “Secret Devotion” sort of reminds me of mid- to late-era Depeche Mode, which was entirely unexpected but also totally awesome. “Messalina, Messalina” feels like the catchiest, most rhythmic attack-with-a-blunt-instrument you’ve ever heard, then changes feel completely and serves up easily the album’s most menacing few minutes in its second half.
There’s quite a bit to like here on Lustful Sacraments. Kent’s proven himself more than capable of moving beyond his darksynth origins, and in the process, given us one of the highlights of the year so far. I’ll keep listening regardless of where he takes Perturbator from here, but if what comes next is anything like this, color me doubly interested.
Keep it heavy,