Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The United State of American Metal

So, I thought it would be appropriate, considering that we all just celebrated Independence Day, to take a moment to look at modern American metal. Not necessarily the mostly underground material, like Revocation, or the established but fringe material like Deicide or Autopsy. No, this is the kind of music that you could find at Best Buy or FYE—the kind of metal that a good number of people will be familiar with if you tell them "I'm into metal." And we're not going to look at cobras of any color, so STFU. These are all bands that I've listened to for years, and as long as you aren't going to take a hipster or TRVECVLT approach, can provide some fun listens. That's right, all these albums are great for moshing at the stoplight while the granny in the car next to you looks on in horror and slowly rolls up her windows.

Since this is an all-American review of more "popular" metal, I'm not going to apply my usual art/grip scheme. These albums are of limited philosophical value, because if they had something too deep to say, they wouldn't be popular. Still, that doesn't mean that they're of no value. So let's replace "art" with "Flags," meaning how pumped up the album gets you when you listen to it. Do you feel energized, aggressive, and ready to grill some steaks and blow shit up? Then that's an all-American, five flag album.

Our second field will be "Fireworks," instead of grip. It'll mean that the album is awesome like a fireworks show, and you want it to keep going on. When it's over, you're in awe, and remembering the coolness that you just witnessed. Okay, so it's basically the same thing as grip,  but with animated gifs. Animated gifs are totally metal. Awesome.

DevilDriver - Beast
Do you really expect some kind of idea or concept from DevilDriver? I'm not sure that they're out to do anything particularly fancy. Just play some metal, make some money, and score some chicks. Because what else could they do in life considering the tattoos they have on their bodies? Seriously, though, DevilDriver is often good for some fun times. I dug their debut back in 2003 (although considering what else I was listening to in 2003, that's not surprising), and although it was simplistic and stupid, certain songs had a catchy groove to them, and I enjoyed the follow up record, The Fury of Our Maker's Hands (2006). Unfortunately, their 3rd album was a disappointment, and although they demonstrated that they spent some time in the woodshed for Pray For Villains, it was only a good album when compared to The Last Kind Words. For their fifth full length, however, DD has stepped things up. Beast is undoubtedly their most aggressive release yet. Album opener "Dead To Rights" features a speedy tempo and complex (especially compared to DevilDriver) riffage while Dez Fafara delivers a steady stream of snarly vocals. I think his skills as a vocalist have certainly developed over time—you wouldn't believe this guy is 45! On the other hand, I think that the vocals are the weak part on this album, specifically in their overabundance. I realize it's Dez's band, but if he gave his bandmates more room to breath, the music would be stronger, and probably more memorable. The guitar parts have certainly become much more impressive, and I can hear a definite Meshuggah influence on tracks like "Dead to Rights" and "Hardened." The drumming isn't anything mind-blowing, but it's some solid metal drumming and certainly more interesting than anything that I've heard out of, say, Disturbed or Shadows Fall, in the past five years. This album will definitely get you pumped up while it's playing. Sure, it's not a Suffocation cd, but with tremolo picking, aggressive vocals, and plenty of double bass, it's a hell of a lot more metal than anything you'll find on the local "hard rock" radio station.

Unfortunately for DevilDriver, their albums tend to fade quickly from the mind after they've finished spinning. I place the majority of the blame for this on Dez. He just sings too much. I find that the grooves and riffs the band lays down are actually pretty interesting, but for the most part, this is a vocal driven band, and if you don't know the words, it's hard to remember the songs. And Dez isn't really a master of memorable vocal or melodic lines. "You're on the shit list, you're on the hit list"? Okay, sure. I mean, it's better than the grammatical monstrosity of "I could care less," (my favorite track off of their debut), but it's no poetry. I think that Dez's vocal delivery has improved, but it's still very samey from song to song, and with so many of the drum and bass lines sounding generic, it's hard to remember any great distinguishing moments from song to song, especially when the vocals overpower the admittedly interesting guitar offerings. I've enjoyed Beast every time I've spun it, but I'm never sitting at my desk and suddenly think of a song off of it that I just have to hear.

Unearth - Darkness In The Light
I first encountered Unearth in 2006, right before their album III: In The Eyes of Fire came out. The music video for the song "Giles" was included on the CD that came with an issue of Guitar World magazine, and when I heard it, I knew that I had to hear more of this band. They had aggression, they had speed, they had the intricate riffs that appealed to me as a guitarist, and goddamn, they new how to make use of a breakdown. "Giles" is still one of my favorite metalcore songs, and while 2006 was one of the best years for American metalcore, with great releases from Lamb of God, Killswitch Engage, Zao, and All That Remains, In The Eyes of Fire still stands strong in my mind as a milestone for metalcore. The memorable riffs, the aggressive vocal delivery, the neck-snapping breakdowns. All these things were powerful and fresh, and nothing was cheesy or "scene." Fast-forward to 2011, and "metalcore" has become stale and formulaic. Metalcore isn't music for real metalheads anymore, it's the subgenre of scene kids and Hot Topic employees. And along comes Unearth to show those posers that they're not only among the founders of the genre, they do it best (yes, I'm aware that Unearth put out a good album, The March, in 2008, but it didn't have the weight of In the Eyes of Fire).

Darkness In The Light is undoubtedly Unearth's strongest album yet. The production is rich, the riffs are flying, and the band still knows better than anyone how to make good use of a breakdown. Album opener "Watch It Burn" is rife with melodic lead lines and catchy grooves. A distinctly European melo-death influence rears its head early in the song, before punishing the listener with the first breakdown, but that's just a teaser for what's to come. The clean vocals heard later in the song are well performed, and although I typically associate that particular sound more with bands like All That Remains, they don't sound out of place. It's good to hear that Unearth has been able to incorporate strong elements of melody into their sound without sounding processed or "sold out." I'm particularly impressed with the guitar solos throughout the album, something that In The Eyes of Fire didn't contain.

Unlike Beast, Darkness hits you hard between they eyes and buries itself into your skull. Whether it's the melodic vocals of "Last Wish" and the quite moments of "Equinox," or the soaring guitar lines of "Arise The War Cry" or the shouted breakdown refrain of "Watch It Burn," this album will remain with you long after you've shut it off. Speaking of "Arise the War Cry," it's my favorite song on the album, and although the album has only been out for a very short time, I've already played that track at least ten times. From the sweep-and-tap explosion of notes the open the song through the great melody of the chorus to the war cry raising breakdown, the song shines. That's what an album should be—solid from front to back, and when it hits the end, you're more than ready to go again. At 38.6 minutes in run time, it's also nearly sixteen minutes shorter than DevilDriver's release, and I've long been of the opinion that forty minutes is the right time for a metal album, and fifty is just too long, unless you're Opeth. Unearth have absolutely hit the nail on the head here, and although the album only came out yesterday, I know that, like In The Eyes of Fire, I'll still be listening to it five years out.

The Black Dahlia Murder - Ritual

I think that the Black Dahlia Murder often gets a bad rap from the "underground" death metal heads, who (often without ever hearing the band)  deride it as deathcore. Well, that's absolutely not the case. I've been listening to The Black Dahlia Murder since 2003's Unhallowed, and I've never heard a synth-drop breakdown or a "chugga-chugga-chugga" mosh riff, or a "come on m*******kers!" vocal shout out. If you want that kind of thing, go listen to Winds of Plague (and if you really want to avoid it, you'd probably better stay away from Carnifex and Whitechapel too). What I have heard is a lot of double bass, a lot of tremolo riffs, and a lot of shrieking vocals. In fact, the dual-vocalist approach used to be one of The Black Dahlia Murder's defining characteristics. Now, however, it seems that everybody is getting on board with that style, and Job for a Cowboy's 2011 EP, Gloom, sounds more like TBDM than the band's own 2009 release Deflorate did. What TBDM needed was to refresh their sound and show that they still play this style better than anybody else. The absolutely delivered with Ritual.

I'll be honest, my favorite Dahlia record is 2005's Miasma, because for all the flaws of that disk, it had some absolutely killer riffs that have stuck with me for six years. Ritual has those in abundance. I don't know if they'll stick with me for six years or not, but TBDM knows how to build a powerful riff, with the entire band working in concert. Unlike DevilDriver, the vocals mesh with the music, never overpowering it. One of the biggest flaws in Miasma was the solos—sure, it was good to have them, but they all sounded the same. Even on Nocturnal, you thought "Oh, it's a TBDM solo now," and you knew what notes would be played, and how. Not on Ritual. The solos are all interesting, varied, and masterfully played. Not every song contains one, but the ones that do stand out. The band has always known how to make use of melody within the death metal framework without resorting to the Gothenburg formula (e.g. Dark Tranquility, Arch Enemy, early In Flames), and they continue to do so here. I think that their music sounds characteristically American, especially stand out tracks "Carbonized in Cruciform" and "Den of the Picquerist."

I was a little worried about this album at first, because the early half of the album is, while not weak, slightly slower and more churning than I typically associate with The Black Dahlia Murder. Third track "On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood" has a tempo and feeling that I usually associate with an album closer, and what I expect from TBDM is ripping typhoon speeds and ferocity. I shouldn't have doubted. When you take the album as a whole, you'll see that it's carefully crafted to have a balance of speedy and melodic moments. Downtempo melodic piece "Malenchanments of the Necrosphere" follows the Motorhead-on-speed moment of "Den of the Picquerist," and even contains some nice synchronized dual guitar chuggs a-la "What A Horrible Night to Have A Curse." And as soon as that song ends, the band plows full speed again into "The Grave Robber's Work." This is a great album to listen to front to back, as it doesn't ever bog down and bore you (like Deflorate did). There are plenty of great guitar lines, and the drums are nicely varied throughout the album to never slacken, but never get boring. I'll say again, the guitar solos are particularly good on this album, bringing flavor and variation where in the past they might have brought only exasperated sighs. The production is also great, as the band realizes that the guitars are the driving force of the band, and the drums are the railroad tracks they run on. Everything folds nicely into the mix, and every piece is discernible (including the bass lines), but guitar is the first thing you hear on a casual listen, followed by a rich kick drum. Like DevilDriver, The Black Dahlia Murder have consistently put out an album every other year since 2003. With only one disappointing album among those, I'd say that's a great track record. Today's TBDM is undoubtedly more mature than the band that put out Miasma, and they've used that maturity to good end. I look forward to hearing the band continue to develop.

Well, that's it! It took me an extra two weeks to get that last review up, but that's just how it goes some times.

1 comment:

  1. Blasphemy! "Nocturnal" is a masterpiece of modern American death metal! I shall brook no criticisms of it's perfection!