Like every reviewer on the face of the planet, my first thought when seeing the title of The Black Dahlia Murder‘s latest full length was Wayne’s World: “Shitty Beatles? Are they any good?” “They suck.” “Then it’s not just a clever name.” To be honest, in the case of Detroit’s finest, I had a hard time believing that this was any kind of In Flames-esque “naming this record based on its meaning for the band” logic. That’s not really TBDM‘s style, and well, let’s be honest, even at the very worst these guys have always put out very good music that I consistently get into fights over.
That said, TBDM has laid the groundwork for some pretty high expectations around here. The thing with the last couple records has been watching them evolve and progress, moving from being a band cut very much from the At the Gates cloth to being something else, and frankly, something better. Their music has gotten darker, more varied, and more inventive; and with the addition of Ryan Knight’s writing from Ritual on,1 they’ve developed into a band defiantly in contravention of Angry Metal Guy’s Law of Diminishing Recordings™. And if there’s a band deserving of an Amorphisesque renaissance, I think it’s definitely these guys. They’ve had a workmanlike productivity in their nearly decade and a half career, producing great non-emo melodeath at a clip of roughly every two years, despite internal turmoil and a grueling touring schedule.
Abysmal, however, seems like a throwback. That Miasma dropped 10 years ago is fitting, because in some ways this record could be described as Miasma II. While the production has better tone—though amazingly Abysmal is louder, clocking with a DR5!—everything about Abysmal is tight, fast, and well-paced. While The Black Dahlia Murder has never been known for having bloated songs or overwrought ideas, their later material hasn’t been the kind of blast-fest of thrashy melodeath that Abysmal is, with Everblack clocking in as the band’s most expansive work ever. Even if the record starts with two tracks—”Receipt” and “Vlad, Son of the Dragon”—that feature a nearly neo-classical turn, Abysmal is a lot more immediate than Everblack was.
Abysmal is a confirmation that what The Black Dahlia Murder does best is write songs. The tracks on here are sharp, hooky, frantic and driving—evoking the ’90s approach to melodeath carried on by scene defying loners like Mors Principum Est. So what do I mean by this? Well, let’s start by talking hooks: these guys write some of the most memorable riffs on the planet. “Asylum” has an intro that’s immediately recognizable, “Threat Level No. 3” shows them schooling bands on how to smoothly transition from an amazing neo-baroque melodic structure into an addictive verse riff. The album opens up with violins before merging into sick harmonies and Björriffs2 galore. “That Cannot Die which Is Dead”3 shows that even when they’re lacing together melodies, these guys can hook you with chug riffs.
But great tracks aren’t built from hooks alone—yeah, you heard me!—but rather they require pacing, variation, and smart repetitions to be successful. All of the songs on this album live up to these standards: ideas don’t overstay their welcome, but neither are the guitar duo guilty of not knowing what to do with what’s at their fingertips. These songs are instantly memorable and while—admittedly—there’s a ‘formula,’ it never feels like the band is playing it safe. The record starts strong with some of the record’s best stuff—”Vlad, Son of the Dragon” and “Abysmal”—and while that has the risk of making the mid-paced or chuggy material on the back end of the album seem worse by comparison, the album flies by so quickly that a listener just gets caught in the flow. Even with some deceleration “Asylum” is a burner, which pushes the album into its last throes with a “Miasma”-like intensity.
Finally, what I love about this band more now than ever is how ridiculously good the guitar work is. I don’t know if Knight is doing all the soloing—I can’t imagine he is, but I don’t get liner notes with reviews—but as I’ve said on multiple occasions, Knight’s addition popped the band up from “yeah, alright!” to “omg it’s Fretboard Jesus!” in one hop. Each of these songs sports next level guitar solos, and I’m always so impressed by the way a good song can become a great song with a truly interesting solo. As a listener it makes me realize just how bad obligatory solos have become when you get a band that just seems to knock out masterful solo after masterful solo. Furthermore, this inventive approach to the melody bleeds in throughout. Moments that once were good Björriffs reach the next level when one of the guitars starts laying in a sexy counter melody.
This album feels like a throwback to early 2000s TBDM… sort of. With increased classical influences, a shine and compositional brilliance the band simply didn’t possess when they were so young, Abysmal outclasses that material. It’s not a direct continuation of the direction of Everblack, but I don’t think every record needs to be about pushing the boundaries of their sound. Sometimes it’s OK to just write a bunch of really great songs, put them into the perfect order and hit the road. Abysmal is the perfect antithesis to a pretentious scene glutting itself on 80 minute records that can’t get out of their own way; it’s tough, fast, refined, and slick. And when it’s all over, you want to start it over again. Abysmal? Just a clever name.
- I know he joined the band on Deflorate, but I have also been told directly by Trevor that Ritual is the first record he influenced the writing of. ↩
- This is the official Swedish name for riffs that sound like At the Gates, and I support its usage. ↩
- Winner of the “Most Tortured Song Name of 2015 Award” ↩