Synthwave trailblazer James Kent, better known as Perturbator, has returned with Lustful Sacraments, his fifth full-length studio album and the follow up to 2016’s The Uncanny Valley. Since 2012 he has been honing his craft, producing predominantly instrumental electronic music that recalls the sci-fi and cyberpunk film scores of the 1980s but with enough grit and distortion to appeal to fans of heavier genres. This time around however he has drawn from a broader range of influences, swapping out some of the retro-futuristic synths in favour of more goth and post-punk inspired soundscapes, resulting in an offering that is darker and more occult, but no less cinematic, than what has come before.
In the run up to the release of this album it has been said that it represents Perturbator 'breaking free' from the clichés of synthwave. This is true to an extent, but whilst Lustful Sacraments certainly leans less heavily on these things it's still readily identifiable as a synthwave album, albeit one that is significantly more expansive and ambitious than the rest of the pack. Notably, vocals are more prominent here than in the past, the addition of more lyrics possibly reflecting Perturbator's stated desire to make music that can exist on its own merit rather than in the context of paying homage to something else. Whilst guest vocalists crop up on a majority of the tracks, and do a magnificent job, it is worth stating that they never take centre stage. The singers instead hang fairly low in the mix and serve to accentuate the moods and feelings that are already strongly conveyed by the brooding instrumentation.
Consciously moving away from the sonic tropes of a genre you have personally helped to popularise is certainly a bold move, but it doesn’t come as a complete surprise – 2017’s New Model EP clearly drew inspiration from the likes of Kraftwerk and Nine Inch Nails, but Lustful Sacraments embodies the synthesis of these elements and those that have come to define both his previous releases and the synthwave genre as a whole.
The opening cluster of tracks give a firm indication of what Perturbator's latest reinvention is all about. After a brief intro to set the tone, the eponymous second track hits the ground running, bearing possibly the greatest degree of similarity to previous efforts albeit with eerier, more gothic synths thrust to the fore. 'Excess' and 'Secret Devotion' are both replete with earworm electronic melodies and grave, melancholic vocals that recall the likes of New Order and The Cure as much as they do John Carpenter and Vangelis (the usual points of reference for the genre).What is particularly interesting is the fact the instrumental palette retains an undercurrent of menace and majesty. Set against this backdrop, the deep vocals are re-contextualised and are often evocative of occult chanting and even, on the handful of occasions where things get harsher, the artist's own black metal past. It's a genius move and one of many methods by which Perturbator, ever the innovator, retains a unique sonic identity and aesthetic amongst his synthwave peers.
The tail end of the album offers up the most experimental tracks. 'Dethroned Under A Funeral Haze' maxes out the atmospherics, although at five minutes it is perhaps a little too long for a track that simmers without ever quite boiling over. It leads into 'Messalina, Messalina' and 'God Says' - the longest songs on the album by some measure but arguably the most absorbing soundscapes he has created thus far.
There's a filmic coherency to the entire body of work, a sinuous ebb and flow between driving intensity and seething ambience that makes it difficult to consider Lustful Sacraments as a collection of songs as opposed to something that demands to be listened to in full. In near hypnotic fashion it draws the listener in and fills the mind with images of desecrated cathedrals and creatures of the night.
Lustful Sacraments doubtlessly represents a significant evolutionary step in Perturbator’s career, without a doubt it is the furthest sonic leap he has taken from one album to the next and the manner in which he has fused outside genres with the foundational elements of synthwave is a credit to his ability as a songwriter. Whether he chooses to continue in this direction or to add other genres to the mix, he has proven himself to be anything but one note and has delivered not only a fantastic album but the promise of a varied and long-lasting musical career.
Lustful Sacraments is out now via Blood Music.