Galloping melodeath that has remained unchanged over a decade and a half.
Black Dahlia Murder fans expect consistency. It’s kinda their thing, and it exists in many forms: release schedule (like clockwork, they’ve put a record out every other year dating back to 2003), their trademark galloping melodeath which has mostly remained unchanged over a decade and a half, single-word album titles and vocalist and lyricist Trevor Strnad’s fascination with the gruesome and the morbid.
That impossible dependability was recently rewarded when their superb new LP, Nightbringers, set a record for Metal Blade’s highest pre-order ever. Of course, when you give the people what they want – and what they want is an AC/DC-esque, slightest of slight evolution of your sound – you’re likely gonna remain popular. And so, in typical TBDM fashion, the record begins in a full-on sprint and basically remains on that pace for its entirety: nine songs in 34 minutes – no fat and no time to catch your breath.
It’s almost as if Nightbringers, and its predecessor Abysmal, are running away from 2013’s Everblack, where the band experimented with longer song lengths that reprioritized groove and atmosphere over speed. Nightbringers in particular, being TBDM’s shortest offering since 2009’s Deflorate, suggests they value adrenaline-based songs as much as their fans. It’s to TBDM’s benefit.
The band – Strnad, guitarist and songwriter Brian Eschbach, lead guitarist Brandon Ellis, bassist Max Lavelle and drummer Alan Cassidy – are at their best when they’re trying to outrun the demons, ghouls, goblins and psychopaths that Strnad conjures with blast beats, tremolo-picked riffs and guitar solos that wail, squeal and shriek. Ellis, who also plays in Arsis, replaces the recently departed Ryan Knight (who himself had a short stint in Arsis) and is a fine choice. His showy solos throughout the album rightfully trade majesty for Knight’s fluidity, but never does the flashiness devolve in attention-grabbing.
No, that’s Strnad’s job. He continues to makes the case that he’s among the best and most versatile vocalists in extreme metal. He’s simply a joy and a wonder to listen to. One minute he’s using his upper register shriek to vomit up syllables in a panic to keep up with the band (“Of God and Serpent, Of Spectre and Snake”), the next he’s sliding into the pocket of the song with his guttural death growl (“As Good as Dead”). As he is wont to do, he also can expertly alternate between them during a single verse (“Widowmaker” and the title track, but also most of the record). It’s stunning, really. You could argue he’s showing off by doing it, and you’d probably be right. But when you’re that good, you may as well put on a clinic.
And he’s equally gifted as a lyricist. His macabre visions continue to be as revelatory as they are unsettling. This time around, topics include some of the most demented material Strnad has ever created. There’s a cannibal who stores his food in jars: “Preserved my sustenance to last the entire winter long/ These jars, my precious meat brined and pickled cuts of human beef/ Row after row, a pantry full of enemies/ Maintained and organized, a vast collection dear to me.” Then there’s a nutjob who cuts a baby out of a pregnant woman because he’s convinced it belongs to him: “Tonight I’ll use this blade to get exactly what I want/ The child within you incubating for nine hardshipped months/ The hopeful little angel, bet he looks just like his mom.” And then we have a man who works at a morgue to satisfy (and hide) his necrophilic desires: “Concealing so carefully my lust for the dead/ Their insides are glistening, curiosities fed/ Forensically frolicking while God is in bed.”
If there is a downside to TBDM after all this time, it’s that after eight albums of what’s essentially been a variation on a theme, they’ve painted themselves into a corner. There are only so many times they can rewrite their Americanized melodic death metal before they start to sound a bit too much like their influences or their contemporaries, even if it’s accidental. Here, they veer a tad close to doing a Carass impression on parts of “Catacomb Hecatomb” and, perhaps fittingly, channel Arsis during “Kings of the Nightworld.”
But this is nitpicking. As a whole, Nightbringers stands among their finest albums and demonstrates that the The Black Dahlia Murder’s narrow well hasn’t run dry yet. The Waterford quintet is still a premier act in extreme music, perhaps because they haven’t tinkered with their sound any more than was absolutely necessary. In other words, they have yet to make an ill-advised departure like Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus or Slayer’s Diabolus in Musica. “I am the one who cannot die,” snarled Strnad on the band’s debut. “I am the the killer for all time”. He was playing a character, yes, but as a member of a band with one of the longest winning streaks in metal, that might actually be true.