Xibalba is often described rather simply as a mixture of death metal and hardcore. But that doesn’t really do them justice. The California-based group’s fourth full-length, Tierra y Libertad, strategically combines sonic elements from across the board to create a fairly cohesive, entertaining sound. The band often sounds like they’re writing with a particularly brutal live show in the back of their minds, but make no mistake: this album is definitely strong enough to listen to and enjoy from the comfort of home and headphones as well.
Sludge is a prominent force on Tierra y Libertad, and the album has an overall down-tuned feeling. Songs like “Guerilla” (save the low-pitched vocals and constant double-bass blasts) resemble Eyehategod’s punk-leaning tracks in places. There are also a number of sludge-influenced breakdowns throughout the album, but there’s no danger of Xibalba doing anything too close to atmospheric here. On the contrary; during these parts, it’s easy to imagine people both stomping through the pit, or maybe pausing to catch their breath and staring at one another menacingly.
The best tracks like “Guerilla” and “Invierno” are mostly breathless and quick, with the sludge sections only serving to increase tension within and between songs. The only issue with these breakdowns is that they often come at the end of tracks and it can start to feel like they exist to take up space. “En Paz Descanse,” for example, starts with a quick drumbeat and solo, but the majority of the song afterwards drags on through slow riffs, and loses momentum over those four minutes. By comparison, on “Si Dios Quere,” the sludge breakdowns are shorter and show up more frequently throughout the track, transitioning seamlessly back to the fast-paced, hardcore-style parts of the song.
But let’s not get too wrapped up in the sludgy side; much of Tierra y Libertad is standard fare for brutal death metal, done well. There are long grunts over blast beats, group-chant vocals, and shouts of “Fuck you!” added sparingly. On the title track, the whole group shouts along with the album’s most memorable chorus over a mostly unchanging riff. With the addition of a solo and bridge, it becomes the song with the closest thing to having a “predictable” structure.
The only place where the album seems to lose focus—or maybe tries to become more than a tight, 30-minute pit fight—is on the 12-minute closing track, “El Vacio.” The song draws on doom influences and includes acoustic sections, but closes out sounding like a knockoff of the end of a Pallbearer song. While it’s a perfectly pleasant track to space out to, it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album’s sound and confuses the listener, making them wonder if Xibalba is going in a completely new direction or just experimenting because they can.
Tierra y Libertad reminds me of Revocation’s most recent album Deathless, as both bands started with death metal and injected outside elements into the often-staid genre (in Revocation’s case, it was thrash) to create albums that were downright fun to listen to. Though there are times when Tierra y Libertad seems like it’s a musical codification of the violence of the pit, the band is definitely thinking through song structures and adding new elements to make the album a worthy listen out of the live setting as well.