Hmmmm. You know that feeling you get when you can see entirely where a band are journeying to and you know exactly why they’ve gone there, yet you’re still not sure you really like where they spit you back out? Good. I guess that’s the side of the fence I’ve fallen on with Black Breath’s speed-freak of a third album, Slaves Beyond Death, out now on Southern Lord.
Now, let’s get one thing straight, I’m (still) a huge advocate of Black Breath. The Razor To Oblivion EP and the 2010 full-length debut Heavy Breathing were both game-changers for many in a heavy metal scene that needed some punky, hook-laden, hardcore aggression reinjecting into its sludgy, crusty veins. The sophomore follow-up Sentenced To Life was even more clinical and polished, standing out as my record of the year in 2012 and convincing me that Slayer’s thrash crown was well and truly primed for reassignment. The band slowed down their live assaults in 2014, due in no small matter to powerhouse drummer Jamie Byrum’s horrific multiple leg fracture after a nasty car accident, but since he’s healed up those considerable wounds it’s been full steam ahead for the ‘Breath and their trusty mainstay producer/engineer Kurt Ballou at his God City Studios. What’s emerged from the ashes is Slaves Beyond Death – a full-blown, pedal-to-the-metal, no-holds barred, balls-to-the-wall, death metal record. And whilst there’s no doubting the quality and power of the technical musicianship on offer, I can’t help but feel that it’s lost Black Breath some of their trademark crunch and swagger.
At eight tracks in length, in one sense this is the shortest album to date from the Seattle slickers, but yet at 49 minutes in length, it’s a good nine minutes longer than the jaw-dropping battering slam that was Heavy Breathing and more than fifteen lengthier than the breathless half hour that was Sentenced To Life. This is no issue in itself, but it does lead to some prolonged passages of blitzkrieg-ed fury that perhaps eventually reach the point of boredom by bludgeon, as is typified by the shred-tastic opener Pleasure, Pain, Disease. Mark Palm and Eric Wallace are as ever on turbo-charge in their fret-destruction, but it’s at the expense of vocalist Neil McAdams, whose range of rasps and screams seems to have dropped and have been drowned underneath an overtly guitar-heavy mix from Ballou.
The title track Slaves Beyond Death does well to pick the pace and throw some tempo chops and changes in there whilst showcasing Byrum back on thunderous form behind the kit. Wallace’s solos are pretty slick, McAdams can be heard a little more than elsewhere on the record and there’s a good attempt at a classic ‘Breath breakdown, so I was hoping this would be the jump-start the record needed. Reaping Flesh is Black Breath delving even closer to their well-worshipped gods in Entombed and Dismember (HM-2 pedals are clearly always a worthy Xmas pressie in the Palm and Wallace households…) but there’s a bite, a chomp and a swing that’s missing where it once stood out for the band and all the fretboard-pounding, for me, doesn’t hold the same interest for the listener that it once did. Perhaps death metal diehards will disagree, but I feel the differentiation to the classic Entombed records has now disappeared to the point of over-saturating the same blistering guitar work-outs.
Seed Of Cain starts off sounding oddly like Metallica’s The Unforgiven before launching into yet more sheet-metal slicing riffs and chugging rhythms. As thrashing death metal goes, it’s still technically superb, but McAdams still feels ineffective through the din and Byrum’s drums have sacrificed their deafening stomp for sheer speed and a tighter snare pop.
Arc Of Violence for me is the highlight of Slaves Beyond Death, mostly because it drops back into that smouldering, mid-paced, sludgy, filthy groove that Black Breath have nigh-on perfected over their past three releases. McAdams hits harder behind the mic on this one and there’s a fuller bass tone that drives the band down the more interesting passages we all know they’re capable of. This will be a total rager live, even if it is perhaps a touch too lengthy.
A Place Of Insanity segues more ripping leads with some oddly sweet guitar harmonies and again a deeper bass groove leaving matters looking up as McAdams stands “gazing into the abyss”. But Burning Hate returns to the same hulking DM brood, lacking the leadership channels of direction that the likes of Black Sin (Spit On The Cross) and Feast Of The Damned once delivered in spades on previous releases.
Instrumental closer Chains Of The Afterlife feels like a bizarre summarisation of Metallica’s entire career. Beginning with Fade To Black chiming chords, it slowly progresses to a Master Of Puppets army boot to the chops before ending with the more modernised Death Magnetic stand-alone riffery.
Don’t get me wrong, Slaves Beyond Death is a fearsome slice of death metal deliverance that will cut you down to size in an instant if you’re all about guitar precision and scintillating steel-toed aggression. Maybe it was inevitable that Black Breath would end up with the purer Swedish DM sound that they’ve always revolved around, but this has for me departed from the Southern Lords’ well-established template of black-thrash-death-rattle-n-roll. Pick it up, give it a spin, see for yourself, but I can’t see Slaves Beyond Death digging up the same impact for this fantastic band as its predecessors managed to exhume.
Scribed by: Pete Green