You can tell which questions Cleric gets asked too often. “I hate talking about ‘What kind of metal would you describe yourself as,'” says bassist James Lynch. But you can see why people wonder. The music this Philadelphia four-piece plays is a kind of metal the way Lost Highway is a kind of movie. It’s an elastic tissue of creepy electronic noise and barely human screaming, impregnated with patches of riff-salad grind and hypercube mathcore. Imagine a billboard-size smear of Silly Putty pressed onto the incomprehensible infinite grid of a sinister Sunday crossword, then stretched, folded, and twisted till there isn’t a single straight line left.

The brand-new Regressions is 76 minutes long, and the lead track, “Allotriophagy” (the word refers to the pathological desire to eat unnatural or improper things), runs more than 19. It opens with knotting and unraveling chugga-chugga, which slows and dilates into sandstorm ambience that’s in turn overtaken by spidery Middle Eastern exotica; sometimes it sounds like two bands overlapping. For its last seven minutes the song has no fixed tempo and only rarely a pulse, maintaining suspense by continually suggesting a resolution that never arrives.

“A Rush of Blood” includes tumbling shards of piano, a pell-mell seesawing lick that accelerates like Wile E. Coyote on roller skates, and slingshot swoops of guitar whose pitch climbs to a degraded digital whistle. One riff in “Cumberbund” works like a crude musical palindrome, descending and slowing down, then climbing in pitch and speeding back up. “Poisonberry Pie” makes its winding way from eerie tundra lounge to a dizzying triple phase between the keyboard, bass, and guitar parts—relative to the drums, the other instruments precess like spinning tops, so that each bar seems to begin at three or four different spots. Matt Hollenberg’s guitar is alternately crunchy, glassy, and staticky, and Larry Kwartowitz’s drums range from heavily gated thunks to reverberating detonations.

As is customary in the form of metal Cleric orbits least distantly—furiously dense and intricate stuff like Converge and the Dillinger Escape Plan—there’s nothing catchy or even particularly memorable in the music and no melodic content to speak of in the vocals. They don’t use verses or choruses and pretty much never return to a part after they’ve had their way with it once. Regressions stays interesting for the same reason a tightrope act stays interesting: How will they keep this up? Are they going to throw in the towel and repeat themselves? Will they put a foot wrong and break the tension they’ve been building from their first note? It’s like watching a Jackie Chan fight scene and realizing five minutes in that’s all been shot in one take—you start anticipating the inevitable cut.

One thing that makes this engrossing rather than simply exhausting is the music’s elasticity in tempo and texture. Instead of clicking from part to part channel-surfer style—a technique better suited to 45-second Naked City tracks—Cleric songs breathe and evolve. They slow down or speed up fluidly, a technique similar to the “burst beats” all but patented by artsy Brooklyn black-metal band Liturgy. Nick Shellenberger’s layered vocals and synths—onstage he uses two keyboards, three mikes, a mixer, and a few effects loops—often fuse into a sustained, distorted howl, like a jet engine passing overhead, and this too helps to create a through line in the music. It suggests a sort of hovering imminence, as though the song’s next episode were already audible, bearing down from a great distance.

Because Cleric can sustain a dramatic arc for 20 to 30 minutes—especially impressive given that they traffic in subgenres of metal where brief, violent spasms are the norm—it’s tempting to characterize their music as cinematic. Even the quiet passages carry a charge, ratcheting up the tension with harmonically lopsided drones rather than relieving it with, say, lyrical fingerpicking, a tradition in metal that goes back at least as far as Black Sabbath. One of the untitled interludes on Regressions sounds like somebody farting around on his front porch with a resophonic guitar to the accompaniment of singing birds and buzzing insects, but within moments this pastoral tableau is interrupted by the faraway footfalls of something inconceivably huge and bestial, which in short order splits the air with a scalding roar.

Members of Cleric have in fact scored movies, but not necessarily the kind of movies you’d expect Regressions to soundtrack. They’ve done music for indie horror flicks (notably the Punk Rock Holocaust series) and several productions by alterna-porn outlet Burning Angel. In 2008 they were nominated for an Adult Video News award for their contributions to a Party Monster parody called Porny Monster.

Regressions has been a long time coming. Two of the band’s three previous releases, 2006’s Allotriophagy EP and 2007’s Cumberbund 12-inch, are anchored by tracks that recur on the album in later versions. Only their debut, the 2004 EP The Underling, can’t be seen as a warm-up. The new disc certainly feels like something that’s been slaved over for five years—not overworked till it’s antiseptic but rather ruthlessly revised and edited into the most efficient possible form.

There’s a trend in metal, especially technical metal, toward studio recordings that are finessed and quantized and rebuilt note by note, so that the finished product feels like the output of an evil self-replicating machine. (I’m not necessarily complaining; sometimes this is awesome.) Anemic acoustic drum sounds—the faster you play, the tougher it is to hit hard—are digitally replaced by beefy samples, and notes that aren’t perfectly timed are snapped to a grid.

Cleric wants no part of this trend. “We don’t like to quantize or replace sounds,” says Lynch. “We like to practice a lot and spend time getting it right the first time.” They recorded Regressions in Queens, New York, with Colin Marston (Dysrhythmia, Krallice), tracking guitar, drums, and sometimes bass simultaneously to reel-to-reel tape. Even in the few cases where a song stayed in one tempo long enough for a click track to help, they didn’t use one.

Plenty of wet-behind-the-ears metal bands suffer audience backlash because their shows feel fumbling and tentative next to their digitally massaged recordings, but Cleric doesn’t take any chances. “We never write something we won’t be able to reproduce live,” says Lynch. “We don’t play to a track or use samples really, we just all stay real busy onstage. . . . Nothing is ever simply not there that is on the album.”

Rules were made to be broken, though, and the album closer, “The Fiberglass Cheesecake,” breaks most of them. It’s the only track on Regressions pieced together in the studio rather than performed, and the band can’t yet play it in concert (though they’re working on it). Its final eight minutes, after the song proper ends with several snipped-up chunks of horrific grating noise, are given over to a meditative, sentimental piano solo, played at a leisurely pace while a backdrop of electronic sizzling tapers off like receding surf. “We actually used a sound replacer on that one for fun, since we never use it otherwise and it seems to be a favorite of heavy bands these days,” says Lynch. “But we used it by recording Larry playing a part on his lap with his hands and then replacing the sounds of his hands with drums.”

Cleric played Regressions top to bottom at a release party in Philadelphia on Tuesday—minus the last song—and a U.S. tour is in the works for late summer. Keep your ear to the ground, and you might hear the faraway footfalls of something inconceivably huge and bestial.   

Philip Montoro has been an editorial employee of the Reader since 1996 and its music editor since 2004. Pieces he has edited have appeared in Da Capo’s annual Best Music Writing anthologies in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011. He shared two Lisagor Awards in 2019 for a story on gospel pioneer Lou Della Evans-Reid and another in 2021 for Leor Galil's history of Neo, and he’s also split three national awards from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia: one for multimedia in 2019 for his work on the TRiiBE collaboration the Block Beat, and two (in 2020 and 2022) for editing the music writing of Reader staffer Leor Galil. You can also follow him on Twitter.