Leave it to Cancer Bats to challenge metal convention by scaling back the production values which are normally strapped to metal albums (“bombastic” is an understatement) and just let the raw aggression and technical talent which is present in every damned microtone of each song be the things which make the album’s stylistic ambition undeniable instead. That’s precisely what the group has done on their fifth LP, Searching For Zero; from front to back and all throughout, the Cancer Bats keep the production lean and strictly needs-first (overdrive, dense bass and big drum sounds are the norm here, and the crystalline production which has been the rule in metal albums by everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Slayer and more for decades is not), but no one who hears these songs will mistake them for anything other than a set of ten metal gems.
From the moment “Satellites” begins its build toward the explosion which introduces the new angle that Searching For Zero is playing with, Cancer Bats will have listeners’ attention because, while it sounds like the band fans know, it also sounds fresh and new. Here, guitarist Scott Middleton and bassist Jaye Schwarzer crosswire classic metal sonics (like those that Judas Priest, the Ronnie James Dio-led incarnation of Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden) with some much grainier, scruffier and angrier clipped tones like those Black Flag was playing with toward the end of their run while singer Liam Cormier splits his time between seething (check out the prophetic feel of “If you can change, change what you can/ If you can’t, then hang on for dear life,” and how it mutates with repetition in the bridge into something far more sinister) and howling furiously as he makes his way through the song. Listeners, for their part, will have no option other than to bear witness to this new introduction and feel their pulses rise involuntarily; the power here is palpable and infectious, and so raw that listeners will find themselves looking to see if they got any rugburn or road rash from making their way through with the band. Even if they do find any though, they’ll be struck, overcome and sold; “Satellites” will have listeners rocked, locked and ready for more.
The hold that Cancer Bats put on listeners with “Satellites” remains firm through Searching For Zero‘s A-side. While “True Zero” really just holds the fort and lets listeners catch their breath quickly (at just less than three and a half minutes and with brisk, sludgy hardcore pacing, the song tempts listeners but doesn’t go all-in for them), but “Arsenic in the Year of the Snake” packs the kind of punch that fans always hope for from Cancer Bats. There, Cormier barks with the battlefield command of a seasoned veteran (as well he should) while Middleton just stomps out a perfectly frustrated and torrential pattern which inspires sneers and will have listeners itching to throw their fists in the air (which they’ll get the perfectly gratifying opportunity to do during “Beelzebub” – now with the spelling corrected from the first release of the CD – before “Devil’s Blood” runs out to quickly ravage listeners (the sound is great – like a baseball bat wrapped in razor wire – and it’s gone before listeners know what happened) and the side closes, waiting to either be flipped or restarted.
Of course, because it IS such a strong and baiting closer, listeners WILL turn the vinyl over as quickly as they’re able and, while the sludgy sound and languid tempo which opens “Cursed With A Conscience” feels like a bit of a letdown, the song makes up for it by throwing a decent swagger into the mix before clearing the way for “All Hail” – the track which perfectly crosses punk brevity (the song is only one minute and twenty seconds long) with metal’s punch AND STILL manages to be satisfying.
Even after several listens, it’s impossible to shake the startling shine off of “All Hail” – it is truly a beast unto itself. While other songs on the album have already blazed through and shown an undeniable punk streak running through them, “All Hail” holds the distinction of being a punk song which just happens to be getting played by a metal band. Here, Mike Peters sets the tempo and then just runs out like his life depends on it; forcing his bandmates to try and catch up with him which they do, but it takes them well-out of their normal comfort zones to do it. Middleton blasts out a thick and gruesome rhythm guitar figure which sounds a lot like Kerry King trying to play a Green Day song while Schwarzer sounds uncharacteristically thuddy and uncomfortable. It’s thoroughly bizarre to hear, but the strangest of all is Cormier’s performance; the singer sounds completely unhinged and ignores meter, choosing to just blurt his lines near unintelligibly and as fast as possible. Under normal circumstances, such an out-of-character performance would be seen as funny and disposable at best and despicably inappropriate at worst but, here, it’s awfully difficult to find the song as anything other than positively innovative within the context of Cancer Bats’ catalogue. It’s a perfect hybrid of the (normally) diametrically opposed camps of metal and punk, and the results play like they could be the foundation for a whole new school. It’s great.
After “All Hail” levels and rebuilds the musical playing field and leaves listeners dizzy from the exertion required to follow it, they’ll find themselves glowing. True, there are three songs left on the B-side of the side after “All Hail” lets out, but the album’s already been made by then and it’s find of difficult to remember exactly what the final three songs sound like – unless one stops his turntable for a while and takes a break, and then comes back to finish out the B-side. That is to say, “All Hail” is the cherry on top of a sweet, very experimental album for Cancer Bats; in these thirty-three minutes, the band questions a lot of the tenets by which both punk and metal govern themselves, only to throw them out completely and start fresh, lean and mean.
(Metal Blade/New Damage/Universal Music)
Cancer Bats – Searching For Zero – [CD review] hellbound.ca/2015/03/cancer-bats-searching-for-zero
[Editor’s note: Cancer Bats’ Searching for Zero has been nominated for a Juno award in the Heavy Metal Album Of The Year category.]