Unearth are among the last of their kind. The New Wave of American Heavy Metal – if there ever was such a thing – has crashed, receded, and carried away a flotsam of recycled Gothenburg riffs, open string drop-D breakdowns, and post-Pantera toughguy groove. Bands not dissolved in the fizz of waning popularity and ill-conceived murder-for-hire plots have either distilled themselves into Top 40 radio rock (Avenged Sevenfold) or continue struggling to recreate the glory of their heyday (Killswitch Engage). Unearth stand alone, a testament to dogged consistency and an antithesis to the failed pop-chorus commercial pandering that doomed so many of their peers. From The Oncoming Storm to Darkness in the Light, there isn’t a weak spot in their catalog [I disagree. – AMG], and while they never achieved the popularity of, say, Trivium, that means nothing when they’re one of the only bands in this style that still matters.
Watchers of Rule doesn’t just affirm this; it drives the fact home like a nailgun to the head. Take the opening: just when the intro’s echoing leads start to wane after 45 seconds, “The Swarm” bursts in mid-note, trampling the tranquil instrumental opener beneath a stampede of blastbeats and fretboard-scorching harmonies. The guitars are lightning-quick and complex, the transitions natural and fluid – have these guys always been so technical? Aside from Trevor Phipps’ throat-shredding yells (delivered with irate, clenched-fist conviction) this could pass for modern death metal. It’s terrific, and the adept musicianship doesn’t end here: the main sweeping lick on “From The Tombs of Five Below” sounds like something from The Human Abstract’s first record, while the soaring solos on “Lifetime in Ruins” and “Birth of a Legion” are some of the most impressive the band have ever recorded.
Yet memorability is never sacrificed for the sake of technicality. Early highlight “Guards of Contagion” cruises with an infectious reverb-laced groove and gripping shout-along chorus, sure to become a live staple alongside old favorites like “Giles.” “Trail to Fire” and “Burial Lines” follow suit, the former streaming glorious guitar lines over a horn-raising refrain, the latter building off a twirling Amon Amarth-ian motif. Highlights abound – but unfortunately, these moments do make the straightforward romp of “To The Ground” and the breakdown-laden title track feel somewhat flaccid by comparison.
Speaking of breakdowns – whatever your opinion (is it still cool to hate them?), there’s no denying the smooth songwriting greatly augments their potency. Most notably, after two hurried verses on “The Swarm,” the bridge collapses as a simple melodic riff summons an explosive rhythmic barrage in one of the album’s finest moments. Suddenly it feels like 2006 all over again – cue the Warped Tour walls-of-death. “Never Cease” is another great example, its epic final minute propelled by a synthy melody, a bout of restrained clean vocals, and skull-shattering drumming.
Moments like this demand in-your-face production, and that’s exactly what’s provided. Is the mix compressed to shit? Admittedly, yes. But the treble is clear with forceful punchiness, the drums strike with a satisfying thunk, and somehow, even with the layered guitars weaving into each other and the dexterous spitfire drumming (courtesy of relative newcomer Nick Pierce) inundating the low end, the sound is never exhausting. The shallow dynamic range does make the intricacies easy to miss – but in an odd plus, this begets a record that affords something new with each listen.
Watchers of Rule isn’t a perfect album – there are a few flat moments, and the tempo seldom varies – but it is a damn fine one. Young hopefuls, take note: this is when metalcore is at its best, when skilled instrumentation accompanies stellar songwriting, when bands actually write wholly enjoyable pieces instead of littering 35 minutes with as many breakdowns as possible. Ten years ago this might have been a modern classic; today, it’s a life-affirming triumph, a reminder that even after music scenes wither, bands can continue without limping on the crutches of done-to-death tropes and stale rehashes of the past. Relentless as a starving pitbull, with more hooks than a Hellraiser film, Watchers of Rule may be 2014’s best metalcore record. The New Wave has indeed passed – but Unearth, looking firmly onward, don’t seem the least bit fazed.