Having never been a supporter of Six Feet Under and their caveman, cartoonish take on death metal, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of a few songs on their 2012 album Undead. While the album as a whole was pretty rancid, there were tell-tale signs of a band maturing a bit (finally). When I heard they had another album ready less than a year out from Undead, despite line-up changes, it didn’t seem to bode well for continued maturation and the marination of musical ideas. Well, it shows what I know, because Unborn is a shockingly big step forward for these guys in terms of writing, playing and all things death related. The addition of Ola England (Scarpoint) on guitar was apparently just what the witch doctor ordered and SFU has never sounded more serious, badass and listenable as they do here. The riffs are light years better and more convincing than ever before and the songs are more consistent and enjoyable. Hell, even the dreaded Chris Barnes gives his “One Man, One Cup(ped Mic)” schtick a rest and showcases some much-needed growth and versatility with his roars and grunts. While SFU will never be a band I consider elite or essential, they really had me doing double-takes with some of the material here.
Opener “Neuro Osmosis” starts out with acoustic plucking before lurching into slow, grinding death. The big shock comes when they start incorporating beautiful, melancholy trill riffs that smack of Insomnium or Rapture. It works as an effective counterpoint to the mega rasps of Barnes and the song ebbs and flows in a way you’d never expect for these guys. They keep the quality rolling with the simple, but straight ahead Slayer-esque stomp of the title track and as the song spins, it sounds more and more like Pro-Pain during their The Truth Hurts era. It’s still as neanderthal as death metal gets and runs in the same vein as Jungle Rot, but it’s an engaging, heads-down, groove-based ditty and it works. The same goes for “Zombie Blood Curse,” which reminds me of the first Denial Fiend album. The mixture of aggressive, simple and hooky riffs and overblown death rants results in a mindless, but fun romp without a trace of innovation or progression. Other above-average tracks include the vaguely Bolt Thrower pummel of “Incision,” the pounding, Prevail-era Kataklysm fury of “Inferno” and the nifty, corkscrewing riffs throughout “Psychosis.”
Sure, some of the songs like “Decapitate” are more like typical SFU, but even these seem more convincing and impressive than ever before. The only songs that truly fall short are “Alive to Kill You,” which is just too generic to leave much impression, and “Fragment,” which never really goes anywhere despite a few cool .
The huge difference between Unborn and older SFU material is the guitar-work. Ola Englund brings a whole new dimension to the band and his playing takes the songs to the next level. While a lot of the riffing is still simplistic and rudimentary, Englund and Steve Swanson add newfangled melodic flourishes and unusual phrasing that really captures your attention. Be it the Finnish doom/death flavor in “Neuro Osmosis,” the ominous buzzing, insectoid effects in “the Sinister Craving” or the blackened riffery in “The Curse of the Ancients,” there’s a whole new feel and power to the music that was never there before and man, it helps a lot. Add to that, Chris Barnes pulling off his most tolerable performance to date, and things just had to improve! I’ve always hated his trademark echo chamber growl and always thought he sounded like an overloaded garbage disposal. While he still lapses into disposal mode here and there, he mixes it up with more traditional death shouts, screams and grunts. Yes, he still sounds like he recorded his vocals from inside a dead cow’s ass, but at least this time the mic is outside the ass. I also appreciate the limited use of his uber annoying little piggy squeals.
Another factor working in their favor is the shortness of the songs. Most are about three minutes, so they hit and go without ever getting tedious or bothersome. That and a decent production job with ample guitar power makes Unborn a snappy little morsel of caveman death.
While the front half of Unborn is significantly better, this is still a respectable release by a band I just never liked or got into. If you liked SFU in the past, you’ll be impressed by their growth. If you hated them before, you may be pleasantly surprised by how much better this stuff is compared with their past junk. Barnes made a decision to steer his band away from quasi-parody and I admire the results. Still not a must hear, but they’ve definitely risen above serviceable. Leave your brain at the door and thrash.