Oh Canada. How doth thee provideth the world oodles of death metal. The country never seems to run out of new bands to show off every year. Usually I can expect good things from most of those bands, too, which is all the more impressive. To kick off the new year ov death metal, I abducted Québécois Backstabber and their self-released debut Conspiracy Theorist. Ten tracks (seven proper, three instrumental) of modernized death metal with a politically charged message of subterfuge and paranoia sounds like an interesting proposition. Can these guys sell me their scandals, or will they simply appear to me as loonies in tin-foil hats?
Before we get to that, we must first discuss the sound Backstabber have adopted. I say adopted because there isn’t much wiggle room left for brand new ideas in modern death metal. It seems Backstabber understand that, so instead they make the best of what bands like Kataklysm and Deicide have already distributed to the public ear. The band does a pretty good job of it too, though they sound too much like Kataklysm at times (especially in the first half). Fat guitar tones, plucky bass burbles and gurgling growls abound on Conspiracy Theorist, stitched together by fervent drum patterns and a light touch of thrashy energy.
The formula works, for the most part. These songs are succinct and direct, with little cluttering the Conspiracy Theorist’s corkboard of newspaper clippings and color-coded string. Christian Mongrain-Thériault’s riffs on “Whistle Blower,” “Subterranean,” and “Geo Engineering,” among others, are effective and energetic, if perhaps generic. Éric Séguin bolsters those riffs with easily traceable bass-work that undulates beneath the guitars and works mightily in tandem with Patrick Gagné’s lively drumming. Christian’s growls—a middle ground between Glen Benton (Deicide) and Chris Barnes (in an alternate reality where Mr. Barnes actually has a respectable growl to speak of, that is)—feel dedicated to the cause, moving up and down the register at appropriate times to provide some extra dynamics (see “Geo Engineering” and “Ink Spill”).
Unfortunately, multiple listens will reveal holes in Backstabber’s argument. Song structures start to become altogether too familiar on a track-by-track basis. Sure, trem-picked leads in “Geo Engineering” distinguish that song from “Subterranean,” and the tempo of “No Privacy” is definitely not the same as it is on “Ink Spill,” but the bones those small differences attach to are near-identical. As a result of such strong adherence to a single configuration, Conspiracy Theorist loses mondo impact. It doesn’t help that some elements just aren’t interesting, namely the pinch-harmonics in album low-light “Banksters.” Maybe calling “Banksters” the low-light is a bit harsh, since it isn’t much worse than any other track here, but I imagine a death metal song about banking controversy would be a hard sell for anyone1. Finally, the three instrumentals—“Inaugural Address,” “The Hum,” and the title closer—fail to progress the album in any meaningful way, despite their thematically consistent sense of unease.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Backstabber’s debut. The band has potential and Conspiracy Theorist is a decent first effort. Hence, the score below is a reflection of what I would like to see on a sophomore record as much as it is a consequence of characteristics I simply didn’t like on this one. The song structures need a little more variety to carry solid riffs beyond the status quo, and the political concept requires greater perspicacity to maximize its significance. As it is, Conspiracy Theorist hardly constitutes essential listening, but sometimes it’s still fun to put on that tin foil hat and discomfort the shit out of randos on the street with warnings of alien invasion and governmental surveillance.