Originally released on vinyl in South America last year, Venezuelan four-piece Cultura Tres’ second album, El Mal del Bien, arrives on CD/LP under the banner of UK imprint Devouter Records. It is the latest in a series of impressive achievements from the atmospheric sludgers, who also made a stop at Desertfest in London this year (review here) on a European tour that might have been their first but wasn’t their last. Their La Cura debut arrived in 2008 and immediately established their aggressive take, and was well received in South America and beyond. The tracks on El Mal del Bien (“the bad from the good”) were recorded in 2010, so it may well be that Cultura Tres have already moved past the album’s atmospherically dense lurch in their writing, but as their newest release to date, it’s nonetheless relevant, particularly as the band has taken the last couple years to work vehemently on promotion with big shows, videos and so on. The most immediately striking aspect of the 10-track/51:38 outing is its overarching darkness. Cultura Tres open with their longest cut (points right there), the 7:20 “Propiedad de Dios,” which remains a memorable highlight among several throughout El Mal del Bien and does the work of establishing the creepy undertones and malevolence that seems always to be lurking within the songwriting. The guitar work of Alejandro Londono and Juan Manuel de Ferrari is unmistakably metal in its roots, and Londono’s distinct lead vocals, sometimes a snarl, sometimes Alice in Chains lower-mouth crooning, sometimes all-out screams, serve throughout as a defining factor as well. Sludge metal, with the emphasis on the latter, is rarely done in this balance. The prevalence of the US scene and its roots in Southern rock and punk mean that Cultura Tres’ metal is automatically a curio as “Propiedad de Dios” enacts its formidable lumber punctuated by David Abbink’s echoing snare, Londono working somewhere between a growl and moan while his and de Ferrari’s guitars hold steady rhythm and lead lines filled out by Alonso Milano’s bass. Milano and de Ferrari are credited with backing Londono vocally as well, and there are a few striking moments of interplay, but the band’s greatest impact is made as a whole unit and not as individual members, the mood that El Mal del Bien strikes being central to the album’s mission and, ultimately, its success.
“Purified” furthers the drama of the opening cut and solidifies the atmosphere, and from there, Cultura Tres hold tight and don’t let go. The lyrics are a mixture of Spanish and English phrases, well set in terms of cadence and rooted in a decidedly anti-Christian stance, and de Ferrari answers the unsettling vocal melodies with one of El Mal del Bien’s several excellent guitar solos, setting up the percussion that rises to feature on the instrumental “Los Muertos de Mi Color.” Guitar noise and volume swells fill out an oppressive atmosphere, and whatever else they do, Cultura Tres excellently convey a sense of the deranged in their music. It’s not the en vogue thing to do at this point – that’d probably be to take out a goat head and start playing Electric Wizard riffs in front of it (not knocking that approach, it works for plenty of bands) – but their methods don’t seem dated even if the territory they’re covering thematically will be well familiar to headbangers who encounter these tracks. The undeniable highlight of the album, “El Sur de la Fe” follows the ambience of “Los Muertos de Mi Color,” with an immediate hook of a guitar line, righteous half-time drumming and a forward, aggressive vocal from Londono. Like the best of Cultura Tres’ riffs, that of “El Sur de la Fe” has an undulating sensibility to it, a distinct nod, and the tension the song creates is made all the more palpable by the stops and starts and the echoing shouts, which, when in the last verse “the credit of god” is delivered, remind a bit of Max Cavalera’s work on early Soulfly records. I’ll allow that could be a question of accent as much as anything else, but it’s there all the same. The album has peaked before its halfway point, which is potentially troubling, but actually there’s a kind of wash effect by the time the second half of El Mal del Bien really takes hold that only confirms the disgruntled push of the first. “No Es Mi Verdad” caps the first half with a post-metal build that pays off at 4:33 into its six minutes as Abbink proffers the cymbal abuse he seems to have been advocating all along, chugging guitars driving a straightforward progression behind.
Faster and angrier initially, mostly-instrumental side B opener “The Grace” slows in its midsection and devolves almost completely to silence before gradually rebuilding and hitting a guitar-propelled apex, and the also-mostly-instrumental title-track – the only song here under four minutes long – serves to affirm that Cultura Tres have adjusted their presentation somewhat for the album’s back end. The atmosphere is consistent, but the structures have changed. De Ferrari tears into the best solo of the record on “El Mal del Bien,” but back to back with “The Grace,” that’s an easy point of El Mal del Bien to get lost in and though “Voices” returns to a more verse/chorus-minded approach, if you’re already lost, it’s that much harder to pick back up. Still, the record ends strong with “Tres Seis Diez Dos” and the final build of “Your Call,” which answers back to “No Es Mi Verdad” with chugging plod and calm-before-the-storm clean singing. There isn’t a payoff in the sense of bombast or over-the-top endings, but Cultura Tres do bring the song to a head in its second third and then begin a fade down to a soft piano line that carries the album to its finish. If it’s cliché, at least it’s put to good use. The last 40 or so seconds are totally silent, to give you some time perhaps to think on what you just heard or maybe just to make you wait for something that’s not coming, but whatever the intent, they’ve already long since made their statement. Point taken. Cultura Tres are unrelentingly oppressive in their atmosphere, pummelingly heavy in their tone. Their strongest moments come when they embrace the more structured elements of their songwriting, but even as they veer to either side of some bizarre build, they show direction and never sound indulgent in some way that isn’t warranted. The dramatic defiance in the lyrics and the metallic feel of the music and the production through which it’s presented may be established genre tropes, but in their unwillingness to situate themselves in the post-Eyehategod sphere of sludge, there’s already something interesting about what Cultura Tres do even before they’ve started to do it. El Mal del Bien feels long, but ends up a worthy investment of time.Cultura Tres, Cultura Tres El Mal del Bien, Devouter Records, El Mal del Bien, Maracay, Venezuela