West Virginia’s Byzantine reside near the top of my go-to list for catchy and accessible modern metal jams. The resilient scrappers boast an impressive track record amidst numerous setbacks and an everlasting underdog tag. However, the departure of talented lead guitarist Tony Rohrbough prior to 2015’s solid Release Is To Resolve album was always going to be a tricky obstacle for the band to overcome. Replacement Brian Henderson held the fort admirably but the album felt like a transitional step for the band, and when craving Byzantine, it hasn’t regularly returned to my listening rotation. Byzantine’s sixth album The Cicada Tree rings in further changes following the departure of long-term drummer Matt Wolfe, replaced by the impressive Matt Bowles. Significantly, The Cicada Tree finds the DIY experts on a major label, joining the Metal Blade juggernaut, and embracing their progressive tendencies more than ever before. Hints of their prominent influences, including nods to Pantera, Testament and Meshuggah, are still present, but as usual Byzantine discover innovative ways to transcend their influences into a crackling melting pot of creativity and powerhouse hooks.
Stretching their progressive wings doesn’t detract too much from the band’s bread and butter style of dynamically elastic and livewire technical thrash, math, and groove-infused modern metal. The chunky rhythms, riff-driven punch, technical flourishes, and earworm hooks remain intact, with cuts like opener “New Ways to Bear Witness” boasting that signature Byzantine sound, boosted by trademark technical proficiency and frontman/guitarist Chris “OJ” Ojeda’s terrifically versatile performance and catchy vocal hooks. Similarly, “Vile Maxim” injects oodles of crunchy riffage and slick, aggressive instrumentation into a groove-laced structure featuring a wonderfully catchy clean vocal melody and killer old school guitar shreddage and harmonies. Tightly packed with similarly memorable riffs and choruses, The Cicada Tree builds a solid case for longer term replay value, particularly when considering its more intricate and progressive aspects where deeper investigation helps unlock the album’s subtle nuances.
Signature Byzantine tunes buffer the more exploratory progressive and rock-based elements to positive effect, while the winding and adventurous prog-heavy numbers, including lengthy songs “Dead as Autumn Leaves” and “Verses of Violence,” mix airier and reflective passages with harder-edged metallic crunch. Although Byzantine has employed prog in measured doses effectively in the past, initially I was on the fence on the success and execution in which they integrated these elements on The Cicada Tree. However, after multiple listens I needn’t have worried, the proggier elements only serve to expand their already dynamic musical landscape into increasingly adventurous waters. Not everything runs smoothly however. “Map of the Creator” takes a while to hit its stride and the progressive light vs heavy structure features a few globs of cheese and clunky moments. And the cover of The Cars “Moving in Stereo” is both unnecessary and out-of-place.
On his second outing with the band, Henderson, in combination with Ojeda, stamps his style and joint ownership of the Byzantine sound into a quality performance, complete with mind-bending leads, mutating chugs, groovy thrash riffs, and hugely expressive, sublime solos. Overall the duel guitar work effectively melds simplicity with complexity, as fluid melodic and progressive flourishes intertwine with plenty of aggressive axe-work. The epic ‘Verses of Violence” is a resounding triumph of the old and new, a twisting prog piece that never gets bogged down by its nearly nine-minute length. Though Ojeda’s powerful multi-faceted vocals take control, however, it’s the beautiful lead work and terrific dynamics that lends the song its power, especially the ferociously heavy back-end. Meanwhile, the excellent title track is moody prog-rock bliss with a chorus you’ll be humming for days.
Hopefully a heavyweight label will help Byzantine achieve the credit and recognition they’ve long deserved. Listeners exclusively down with the extreme nature of metal will probably be immune to the band’s charms, but long-term fans and curious onlookers should be pleased with what Byzantine have cooked up here. Despite my initial reservations, Byzantine struck with another urgent, dynamic and consistent offering that retains their signature sound while heaping an extra dose of prog in the mix for good measure. A few minor issues and song sequencing preferences aside, The Cicada Tree signals a triumphant step forward from the last album, with proggy tendrils wrapping themselves more forcefully around the band’s crunchy modern metal sound and offering a strong hint of where their future inclinations lay.