Review Summary: Why is this band still unknown?
When I combine the terms technical, dissonant, slightly progressive, and metalcore, which band do you think of. I'd wager that Dillinger Escape Plan, Converge, and Botch probably all spring to mind. I'm also willing to bet that Scarlet is not a name toward the top of the list. For some reason the Richmond, VA based quartet never quite catapulted to the same level of esteem their forerunners did, even though they should have.
Taking cues from Botch, DEP, and Converge they incorporate a dissonant, mathy sound into what is almost a breakdown centric take on metalcore laced with an industrial overtone. Grating chords played in off timed, often hard to follow breakdowns combined with noodling guitar lines and one of the most precise drummers I've ever heard lay the backdrop for some of the most genuinely abrasive vocals in music today.
The opening flurry of O.D. is a difficult listen the first time, greeting the listener with a riff that has no discernible time signature at first, followed by an off kilter, wobbly breakdown. It's not until midway through the song that the more accessible side of Scarlet shines forth, allowing you maybe twenty second of respite until being slammed again by the outro.
Over half the album continues in a similar vein. Staccato chords and off time chugs create a rhythmic atmosphere that is designed to be ugly and near uncomfortable. The songs are peppered with moments that alleviate the technical onslaught somewhat and become the defining moments of the album: about three quarters of the way into Sinning By Your Side when the guitars drop out and leave only distorted vocals and drums, the anthemic shouting in The Mannequin Campaign, the opening chorus of untitled, and the last 15 seconds of Suicide Soldier to name a few.
The true strength of the album, however, lies in the slow burning tracks that drop the technicality and opt for a more straightforward approach. Life Support's steady 4/4 onslaught coupled with the almost dirge like feel of Dead America make for a highlight in the first half. Black Hole Girl and You're My Fix in the albums last three tracks are a suitable way to close the album. The former is a droning softer piece set to an industrial beat that lurches along at a drunken crawl. The latter is one of the strongest tracks on the album, showcasing Spencer's ability to emote something other than hate or disgust.
When dissected it quickly becomes apparent that the true strength of the album lies in two areas: Jon Spencer's amazing vocals and lyrics, and Randy Vanderbilt's ability to incorporate complex guitar lines in the background instead of dominating the album. A special note must be made of the lyrics, which are some of the strongest in music for the last decade. The range from the disgust filled (Sinning By Your Side, Lie. Fake. Money-Make., Fluorescent Sunshine), the detached loathing (The Joy Decoys, Black Hole Girl), to hateful reflections on society (Nymphoteens, Life Support, Untitled). The disgust and hatred in the lyrics is perfectly audible in Spencer's voice whether he's screaming at the top of his lungs or tensely whispering.
On the other hand the instruments hold their own. From the opening acoustics of Dead America to the lead work cleverly scattered across the album. Vanderbilt keeps the guitar playing varied enough to not sound repetitive through the albums 40 minute run time. Andreas Magnusson and Bryan Tolbert form an incredibly tight rhythm section and keep the album interesting on their end throughout.
Overall Cult Classic is one of the greatest metalcore records made, worthy of being placed alongside the genre greats. It is an ugly, abrasive assault on modern "morals" and society. This album will not make you feel good after listening to it. This album will make you hate. But unlike most music today, Scarlet manage to create something that can still make you truly feel.