When the term ‘groove metal’ gets bandied about it usually conjures up negative thoughts about some third-rate Pantera ripoff (anyone remember Pissing Razors?) or something nu-related. I mention it here because it’s a term I’ve seen attached to the music of West Virginia’s Byzantine and such a label is ill-fitting for the versatile music the resilient modern metallers create. For the uninitiated, Byzantine have been around the traps since forming way back in 2000, before releasing their 2004 debut, The Fundamental Component, via Prosthetic Records. A day after dropping their excellent third album Oblivion Beckons in 2008, the band decided to call it quits. Fast forward to 2013 and Byzantine bounced back after reforming with their stylish self-titled comeback album, signalling a triumphant return.
Byzantine’s lively and intelligent modern metal formula comes across like a hybrid of Pantera, Meshuggah, Lamb of God and Testament, with these prominent influences whipped into a dynamic sound the band can call their own. Sure, there are an abundance of infectious grooves on offer, but there’s a hell of a lot more going on with the signature Byzantine sound. The band incorporates progressive and melodic elements into a thrashy base featuring a strong technical bent with great attention to crafting structurally interesting and catchy songs. Fifth album, To Release Is To Resolve is once again self-released (with distribution through Snakepit Music) on the back of another successful crowdfunding campaign. Despite the prompt turnaround, not all has been smooth sailing in the Byzantine camp since the last album. Significantly, gifted lead guitarist Tony Rohrbough and bassist Michael Cromer have parted ways, replaced by Brian Henderson and Sean Sydnor respectively. Although Henderson in particular does an admirable job filling sizable shoes and maintaining the trademark Byzantine sound, Rohrbough remains a significant loss and his inventive, warped leads and top shelf riffcraft are certainly missed.
To Release Is To Resolve begins strongly with the one-two bang of “Scold’s Bridle” and “Justinian Code,” a ripping pair of tunes clearly showcasing Byzantine’s versatility and impressive songcraft. They effortlessly shift between aggressive grooves, off-kilter rhythms, snaking progressive melodies and chugging thrash riffs. The strength of vocalist/guitarist Chris ‘OJ’ Ojeda is evident once again, with his elastic vocal range syncing nicely with Byzantine’s dynamic song-writing. He smoothly shifts gears from assertive melodic cleans to his staple mid-range growls and screams that accompany his Chuck Billy-esque thrashy snarl. The rest of the band is in fine form as well with the musicianship maintaining a uniformly high standard and the revved-up energy levels adding to the fun and infectious nature of Byzantine’s music. “You Sleep, We Wake” in particular maintains a cracking pace and aggressive edge, topped off with some slick soloing and meaty groove.
My main beef with To Release Is To Resolve comes down to the fact that the album doesn’t really bring anything new to the established Byzantine formula, nor does it reach the consistently high standards of the band’s strongest works. It’s still an inventive and enjoyable album with a handful of truly killer songs amidst some really solid ones, with no real clangers or missteps to speak of. In many ways it’s also a transitional album after the departure of a couple of key members and a shortish turnaround on the back of 2013’s excellent comeback release. Meanwhile, the recording would certainly have been improved with a wider dynamic range and beefier low-end. So although it doesn’t rank amongst the band’s most complete offerings, To Release Is To Resolve is still a very good album that is never less than solid.
By all accounts Byzantine are a humble bunch of dudes with an admirable work ethic and resilient DIY attitude towards their metal craft. They create catchy, intelligent and accessible modern metal that should have raised them to greater heights in the more mainstream side of the American metal landscape. As it stands Byzantine is a criminally underrated band worthy of your attention and To Release Is To Resolve is another typically dependable addition to an impressive body of work.