Black Cobra’s last album, 2011’s Invernal, ended with the loudest and fastest track this legendarily loud and fast band had ever recorded. Instead of pushing all meters into the red, however, the Frisco sludge unit’s follow-up, Imperium Simulacra, is attentive to builds and variations, offering up the band’s most mature songwriting to date, as far as ever from their snarling punk-minimalist roots.
Which isn’t to say the album is low on wattage. Black Cobra comprises only two full-time members, guitarist Jason Landrian and drummer Rafael Martinez, yet their output is massive, in no small part thanks to the stoner-rock trick of feeding Landrian’s guitar into a cranked bass stack. His chunky licks have it both ways: They slacken as easily for doom dirges like the one that begins and ends “Dark Shine” here as they quicken for the crust sprint in between. But the production on Imperium Simulacra is also decidedly clean, serving a more methodical sense of structure.
The transition to a sophisticated, spacious sound has been a long time coming for Black Cobra, and yields mostly gains, giving Landrian and Martinez room to brandish their chops beyond their reputation for pummeling primitivity. In this sense, “Eye Among the Blind” finds them at the peak of their powers: After a quadrant of rolling-thunder verses, the duo suddenly switches to a swung beat, lending the track’s martial, blackened groove a jolt of blues influence. Psychedelic guitars meanwhile close out “Sentinel (Infinite Observer),” and the submarine-sonar drones throughout fit the lyrical themes of post-humanist despair. Landrian’s vocals have dropped from the husky shout of previous albums to a no-less-menacing drill-sergeant bark. In short, Imperium Simulacra is the band’s deepest, most varied album yet.
The balance between the brutality of Black Cobra’s attack and the clarity of the album’s form, however, isn’t perfect. The inherent density of the duo’s volume and speed has a way of obscuring the rhythmic and dynamic shifts across Imperium Simulacra’s nine tracks. The barnburners that open and close the album in particular sound somewhat flatter than they should: A subtle but crucial deviation in the driving drums of “Challenger Deep,” for one, gets nearly lost in the bulldozer mix. But when those shifts are more dramatic during tracks like “Eyes Among the Blind,” “Fathoms Below,” and the grindcore throwback “Obsolete,” Landrian and Martinez’s songwriting chops get their due, pointing towards the future of Black Cobra’s irresistible relentlessness.