DevilDriver has always been a bit of an underdog story. Not in terms of success, but in terms of cred. Many metalheads have made the transition from nü-metal goofclown to full-on ripper—myself included—but none of us to had make the transition in the public eye like Dez Fafara. His first band, Coal Chamber, was arguably one of the silliest acts of the nü-heyday (no small feat), and his metamorphosis from mesh-clad demigod to fledgling hesher has been a minor feelgood story.
He made the transition at roughly the same time as Robb Flynn, but Mr. Supercharger’s return to heavier metals is more of a tail-tucked, post-sellout mea culpa, so he isn’t awarded similar sentiment. But Machine Head and DevilDriver have been occupying a similar headspace, dutifully filling the post-metalcore mosh quota for the still-mad-at-my-dad crowd. DevilDriver differs in that they’ve been more prolific, thus sneaking a larger catalog of quality tracks into the metalverse. They achieved this by keeping a very real pulse on legitimate, underground heavy metal, trickling out Gothenthrash-tinged viscera like “Ripped Apart,” “These Fighting Words,” and “Resurrection Boulevard” while doing just enough to keep well-wishing cheerleaders like myself hanging around their periphery.
The problem with the bulk of DevilDriver‘s material is that it’s obviously geared for teenagers. Not as blatantly as, say, Arch Enemy‘s, but despite an inherently cool vocal approach, Dez’s emotional range only fluctuates between two settings: Adolescent angst and tough-guy posturing. Thus, you end up listening to DevilDriver because:
A) You need to drive somewhere very quickly, or
B) Your boss is a dick.
A successful DevilDriver record (like The Last Kind Words) gets to the Promised Land on the basis of its Real Metal to Meathead Mosh ratio. Taking their handicap into account, 60/40 is considered a colossal achievement. So how does Winter Kills stack up?
Well, this is a pretty tough one to score, because, paradoxically, the more bro-tastic jams on Winter Kills have more potency than the cerebral churners like “Curses and Epitaphs” and “Sail.” After six albums, the band has mastered the art of torquing tired idioms into earnest battle cries, ripping out rote thrash-til-the-breakdown jams that will make 30-year-old men hunt down their high school gym teachers and scream “desperate times call for desperate measures!” in a fit of uncoordinated rage. Winter Kills, unfortunately, is at its best when it’s fucking dumb.
Attempts at contemporary, djent-y stutterstep on “Gutted” fall flat, as do Dez’s attempts to emote atop the suffocating double bass of “Caring’s Overkill.” There’s a song called “Haunting Refrain” that, predictably, lacks a haunting refrain. As Winter Kills progresses, these lulls create cravings for the band’s one-dimensional circle pit fodder. Luckily, the aforementioned “Desperate Times” provides ample punch, as does the vortex-inducing title track.
But therein lies the problem with DevilDriver‘s very existence: They’re pushing-forty dudes that still sound like they’re mad about being grounded, and enjoyment of Winter Kills is predicated on a grown-ass adult’s willingness to accept that the album’s best track is built around a chorus of “Fuck you, I’m ruthless!” It’s solid guilty-pleasure material, assuredly. But after all these years, it’s time to abandon the prospect of DevilDriver becoming something better than they actually are.