Let’s judge an album by its cover art, and specifically, its depiction of hands. Black Breath’s 2012 album, Sentenced to Life, and their new one, Slaves Beyond Death, both feature a lone hand on the cover. Take another look at Sentenced, if it’s been a while: darkness, leather, spikes, and a wielded big-ass hammer that slams the message of METAL home. It’s a good reflection of the music, too, a speedfest full of crusty-core mosh riffs, gang-shouted lyrics, and guitar solos awash in tasty HM-2 buzz.
Slaves is a different beast, with artist-du-moment Paolo Girardi providing a painting in golden-washed sepia. Here we have a giant hand as puppeteer, omniscient and overbearing, with a fist-full of chains hooked into the heads of mere mortals. It’s an image reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch’s tortured landscapes, and the classical connotations are there, I think, to show us the seriousness of the album. The difference is that if Sentenced was focused on indicators of metal, markers of coolness, than Slaves takes on a larger canvas, metaphors for life and death, traditional and horrifically timeless.
What have they done with my beloved crustcore?
Well, they’ve replaced it with death metal. Specifically, with riff-grinding death metal that’s classic Gothenburg updated for today’s parties and dead-set on half-drunk head-banging. The first song “Pleasure, Pain, Disease” starts similarly to Sentenced, with a slow fade-in of delicious guitars, but then the similarities end. Instead of a head-first plunge into mosh-ready rage, we’re mired in a mid-paced grooving stomp, with fuzzing death riffs and raspy vocals providing additional weight. The seriousness of the cover art makes sense then. It’s the HM-2 tone hooking us from a distant land full of 1990s sounds. As Slaves trucks along, the drums keep you locked into a death march while the guitars keep piling on vintage riffs. It’s certainly some excellent retro-sounding buzzing death metal, and certainly different from what Black Breath have attempted before, but it’s also leaving me puzzled.
Why? There are endless guitars on this album, a whole toolshed of buzzsaws, but they’re a love letter from the band to both the Swedecore sound as well as classic rock theatrics, which means all kinds of dual guitar excess: there are extended intros and outros, solos galore, wall-to-wall fuzzy whah-fests, and closer “Chains of the Afterlife” is wholly instrumental, just seven minutes of guitarists Mark Palm and E. Wallace playing the shit out of a tone, as if it’s a mystery to be solved. The markers of hardcore are missing: there are no breakdowns, no gang-shouted lyrics, and no real ‘chug’ to the riffs. The speedy sections, Christ inverted, are exceptions instead of the norm. The vocals seem stuck at one volume and tempo, as singer Neil McAdams has adopted a deathy rasp instead of his usual expressive bark. There are few instances of him letting go and just wailing, so instead of vocals leading the song, they just become another texture under the guitar sound.
I try again, until finally I realize something precisely because McAdams’ vocals are buried in mix: don’t listen to this and expect anything like hardcore. Instead, listen to this and expect Black Breath. Expect music from a band that’s already impressed me.
I trudge along with them and the more time we spend together, the less it’s like we’re pushing a boulder uphill. Now I’m with them, my head banging in time through the easy chorus of “Reaping Flesh,” the double-timed madness of “Seed of Cain,” and even the deepest riff on “Chains.” When Black Breath bust into the faster parts the hooks dig deepest, and there are plenty of occasions when they lift off and fly. All this guitar action is overtop of some controlling drumming from Jamie Byrum, almost to the point where the rhythm is what is leading the songs. This makes sense as the album spends so much time in a mid-paced groove. It’s when the songs actually have the space and the speed to rip that Slaves has its peaks — kinda like how death metal is supposed to work.
The main issue I have with this album is that it’s not what I wanted, not what I expected, that the Black Breath I know and love have ended with Sentenced. That in no way detracts from some excellent death metal songs on Slaves that are sugarcoated in that hallowed Swedish tone, but it’s an adjustment. Ultimately, I hope this album will be a transitional one for the band, one that will help mold them into an even more powerful, more creative band, hopefully with songs that grab me immediately. I applaud them for challenging themselves with a style of writing which will pay dividends for all us, given time, but I have plenty of options for throwback Swedish death metal, both bands past and current. While Slaves is enjoyable, Black Breath won’t necessarily be my go-to when I need my fix of that particular sound.