Time sure flies at the AMG palace. Though I’ve only been writing here a little over a year, it certainly doesn’t seem like three-and-a-half years ago that I started perusing this blog for the first time, back when I was a snot-nosed college senior rolling around with my windows down and blasting Black Breath‘s newly released Sentenced to Life. At the time, I felt so hip for listening to this so-called “Entombedcore” right as it was catching on, when bands like All Pigs Must Die, Early Graves, and Black Breath themselves were at the forefront of a sound that combined the throat-shredding fury of mid-aughties hardcore with a guitar tone and riffing style heavily inspired by Swedish death.
To me, no album showcased this better than Sentenced. The songwriting was tight and fierce, and the riffing merged chunky hardcore grooves with Swedeath tremolos so seamlessly, it was like these Seattle natives had been doing it since birth. It wasn’t just a personal favorite, either – the album earned widespread critical acclaim (even from Happy Metal Guy), and with it Black Breath seemed poised to take over a metal scene still reeling from djent and floundering in retro-everything. Of course, 2013 and 2014 passed, the Entombedcore buzzword all but disappeared, and Breath remained quiet on the new-releases front. Finally, late 2015 has arrived and the group’s third LP Slaves Beyond Death is finally here – was it worth the wait?
First of all, yes, the rumors are true: Slaves has a much less pronounced hardcore influence than its predecessors. Opener “Pleasure, Pain, Disease” wastes no time advertising this, beginning with a salvo of jumpy old-school death metal riffs and continuing with a barrage of rapid D-beats and a neck-snapping tempo shift that never quite veers into hardcore territory. It’s an impressive start, cementing the fact that Breath more than have the chops to pull off this transition into full-on death metal. Later tracks follow suit, whilst taking a long draught from Dismember‘s Everflowing Stream. See the sweeping tremolos that catapult “Reaping Flesh” into its second half, or the delightfully thrashy riff that appears in the title track’s final third, before breaking into a maddeningly quick solo that recalls the infamous “Suffer a thousand deaths!” moment in Stream‘s “Dismembered.”
As if to further distance themselves from their hardcore roots, some songs pull from even further back in the metal canon. Highlight “Seed of Cain” reeks of classic Metallica, its acoustic intro overlaid by Ride the Lightning-style harmonized leads. Sadly, the group also repeat one of the few mistakes of that album, choosing to close Slaves with near-eight minute instrumental “Chains of the Afterlife” – which, while featuring more Lightning-inspired guitar flair and an absolutely stellar closing melody, may have functioned better as a penultimate track leading into a savage, in-your-face closer.
This brings me to Slave‘s biggest flaw, and the reason I can’t rate this album higher. At eight tracks long and over 49 minutes in length, the record is a full 15 minutes longer than Sentenced, with not a single song clocking in at under five minutes. This might have worked if the whole record upheld the strength of the first half. But sadly, after aforementioned “Cain,” “Arc of Violence” and “A Place of Insane Cruelty” slow the pace down considerably, lingering on lumbering mid-paced riffs and menacing grooves that would have worked great – had the songs not exceeded six minutes. “Burning Hate” ups the tempo and redeems things somewhat, but stills lacks compared to the first four tracks.
Fortunately, Kurt Ballou’s production, while not harboring much range, is as forceful as required for this kind of music, with a clear soundscape that perfectly captures the biting guitar tone and frontman Neil McAdams’ throaty growls. Enough to redeem the record? Not quite. I guess the most frustrating thing about Slaves is that Breath absolutely nailed their sound with Sentenced, and the apparent need to extirpate any hardcore influences led to a record with no direct, in-your-face tracks or moments that might have offered a welcome counterpoint to the chugging expanses in the second half. With some terrific riffs, leadwork, and songwriting, the potential is clearly there for a Black Breath full-on death metal album to work and work well. But while Slaves Beyond Death is certainly good and worthy of a listen, it’s also just a little too bloated to make me want to revisit in its entirety.
DR: 5 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Southern Lord Records
Websites: blackbreathsl.bandcamp.com | blackbreath.com | facebook.com/blackbreath
Releases Worldwide: September 25th, 2015