(In the following review DGR takes a very deep dive into the new album by the German band Mental Cruelty, which was released near the end of June by Century Media Records.)
The deathcore genre is one that has absorbed so much over the years in the nuclear arms race for ‘heavy’ that we’ve gone beyond being able to track down any particular list of influences or context being provided. We’re layers upon layers deep at this point, and much as it was opined in our writeup for Worm Shepherd‘s latest, it seems like the genre has folded in on itself enough times that at this point it’s just short of a few tempering baths and a sharpening stone that it could be morphed into a sharp blade.
Lately, groups have made use of these insanely multi-talented vocalists, adding their own multitude of vocals on top of it, so that the attack comes from multiple directions, embraced backing symphonics, and cranked the tempo up to near-lightspeed at all times. It has become a genre of ‘a lot’, and a lot is thrown at you any time you’re listening to such a group. Many, it seems, have warmed to the idea of getting by on sheer bombast alone. However, some impressive groups within that sphere have managed to make use of the ever-increasing multitude of weapons offered to them, and Germany’s Mental Cruelty are one such group.
Germany is already pretty skilled at making brutal death and slam music, so it wasn’t too shocking that Mental Cruelty‘s earlier works were born out of and were fully within that vein, but the group made a massive leap in that symphonics-backed brutal-death direction on their 2021 album A Hill To Die Upon. Of course, not long after the group would lose a vocalist as sexual assault allegations came to light post-signing to Century Media, because that seemingly inevitable sword that hovers above all -core group’s heads came collecting.
The group’s newest album Zwielicht – their first for their Century Media contract – then is a first for a handful of things. The aforementioend label contract, their first with new vocalist Lukas Nicolai, and as it turns out, their first with a new sound once again, because it seems Mental Cruelty are one of those bands that should they decide to shift genres or change sounds can do so at the drop of a hat. It also may be – as demonstrated across much of Zwielicht – that Mental Cruelty are a band whose sound changes to match the energy/style of their vocalist, and it would seem that going by the music on Zwielicht, Lukas is a hell of a lot of chaotic -core energy and manic tempo to match.
Much like how A Hill To Die Upon before it was a big shift into the world of symphonics and brutal death, where every song was this big and burly monster of a track, so too does Zwielicht jump once again. In all actuality, Zwielicht jumps a lot though, and the list of genres that goes into the final mixture that is the album is gigantic, with a humongous symphonic black metal influence dominating almost all of it.
Zwielicht is not an album with one massive throughline; instead it is an album of eight massive songs, an interlude, and an equally gigantic ‘intro’ track. Mental Cruelty take on as many guises and forms as were afforded to them on this album, and you could easily pry about five or six different styles and influences out of each track. They shotgun as much as they could at the wall with this release – which could help explain why up to this point the band have done multiple music and lyric videos for this release and each one has felt starkly different from the others, save for a penchant of each song having one blatant and humongous floor-wrecker of a breakdown in it.
With as many masks as Mental Cruelty have donned throughout their career, it feels strange to say you can really only compare albums by tackling the one immediately preceding it. In a way, although the group had two albums prior on a pretty hefty year over year churn, Mental Cruelty as you would recognize them now with all of the pomp, circumstance, and bombast behind their sound were given form on A Hill To Die Upon back in 2021.
That album was one constant brutalizer of a disc that tried to make the band sound as grandiose as possible. That aspect has only increased on Zwielicht, the difference being that there is also now a massive font of energy emanating from their new vocalist, and where they decide to redirect that is what defines this release. Hence, if it seems like we’re throwing words around like excessively fast and manic, it’s because that is a lot of what Zwielicht is. Mental Cruelty launch everything feasible at their listeners this time around and so Zwielicht has a darting energy to it as it zaps from song to song.
It can feel at times like the album was written in two parts, and that’s largely due to the “Symphony Of A Dying Star” movement that takes place to close out the back third of this release. It comes as a surprise too, given that the “Zwielicht/Symphony Of A Dying Star” combo was a lot of people’s first exposure to the group’s Century Media incarnation, but by that same token, this is also an album that after multiple listens could be said to not have a representative track.
“Symphony Of A Dying Star” launches headlong into a combination of keyboard-loving melodeath by way of Wintersun and symphonic black metal for a large part of its run time, but on the same track they still stick to their guns of having the sudden completely out of nowhere breakdown that’ll launch quite a few -core kids into a tizzy for the scant few seconds it happens. If anything, that’s the one portent that runs through Zwielicht as a whole: Mental Cruelty show a real tendency of start/stop pacing within their heftier moments this run. There’s a chunky collective of those scattered across everything that take on a near-mathematic quality with how they’re being hammered on.
Yet right after “Symphony Of A Dying Star,” for instance, Mental Cruelty have a few passages within “The Arrogance Of Agony” that could fall well within the lines of an early-aughts melodeath track and even a verse that could ride right alongside goth-rock territory were it not for the shrieking vocal delivery.
The front half of Zwielicht is likewise an equally different beast; hence the impression that it plays out like a disc split in two. The first five actual songs are all these gigantic, kitchen sink, foundation of the house, and a little bit of the neightbors fence for good measure-esque symphonic deathcore brutalizers. There’s a billion swirling elements within those tracks as well, not so much as if the band were lacking for material but instead because they decided to dredge an entire river’s worth of parts and slam them – it seems at times literally – within five songs.
The run times may look excessive when you play the numbers game but those songs laying well within the five- and six-minute range means that they are absolutely filled, the only negative space being the silences the band leave in the aforementioned typewriter breakdowns. They even cram in a whole ton of guitar-effects that verge on vocal-modulation within one song. The opening five are just as much of a spectacle of ‘holy hell, what is coming next’ as they are actual headbangers. You’ll even get a few moments within “Obsessis a Daemonio” where you could swear that Mental Cruelty binged on In Sorte Diaboli-era Dimmu Borgir and decided to yank some of the more demented spoken-word segments for themselves.
Zwielicht is first and foremost a lot of spectacle and will likely impress on sheer scale alone. The first run through the album – and even knowing that the last track “A Tale Of Salt And Light” was going to be the expected massive and ambitious closer – left the impression that there is enough happening within this release that it is starting to generate its own gravitational force. It’s a densely packed album that should leave no one questioning the group’s bona fides as actual musicians.
But a release like this does run the risk of songwriting seeming to take the backseat in favor of a the synth work doing the heavy lifting for melody while the band are content to rumble in the background, or skirt by on the amount of pyro launched from the stage, yet by the end anyone asked to remember what happened other than the constant ‘fire’ would be left stumbling.
That’ts not the case here, though Zwielicht skates damned close to being more Hollywood blockbuster than Hollywood bludgeoner at times. You can feel the music edging closer and closer to being way out of control, though the band’s grip on its leash remains tight. There are plenty of hooks throughout Zwielicht to keep a listener coming back, and even well after its release, keep someone questing throughout songs as different things reveal themselves once the initial layer of ‘holy fuck’ wears off.
Yes, it’s a lot more spectacle – and dare we utter it, more approachable – than the band have been before, but there’s more than enough teeth-gnashing viciousness here to keep the levels of ‘heavy’ measuring spectacularly high with this one.