It’s a fear of every band that they may fall into repetition, becoming slaves to their own formula and sound. Despite the strength of their music, Black Breath were one such band at risk of this; there was only so far their sound could take them. Black Breath are perhaps one of the more popular purveyors of the “Entombed-core” sound, sprinkling blackened thrash and hardcore influences over a base of death’n’roll a la Wolverine Blues-era Entombed. On their latest offering, Slaves Beyond Death, the buzzsaw guitar riffs and blackened thrash sensibilities are still there, but instead of sticking with this death’n’roll-meets-thrash direction, Black breath have honed in on and developed the death metal aspect of their sound to the point that they are practically playing purely death metal on Slaved Beyond Death.
This shift is most evident in Neil McAdams’ vocal delivery. Gone are the half-shouted growls of Heavy Breathing and Sentenced to Life, replaced instead by demonic rasping that seems to suit these new songs much better. McAdams’ vocal previous performances have always been defined by their clarity, and while his vocals on Slaves may be far harsher, they are no less clear, which is a testament to his top-notch abilities.The chorus for “Reaping Flesh,” a particularly stand-out track, has an incredible vocal-to-instrumentation balance, with McAdams’ evil-sounding voice taking center stage. That sense of evil permeates every aspect of Slaves Beyond Death.
The emotional atmosphere permeating the music on Slaves Beyond Death is one of cruelty and malice, replacing what was once a chaotic whirlwind of anger on the band’s previous LPs. Guitarists E. Wallace and Mark Palm still wield their guitars like the very buzzsaw sound they emulate. However, Slaves is an overall slower record from before, allowing the movements of each song to breathe. Take for example, “Seed of Cain.” Like many songs on the album, Elijah Nelson’s bass line is more audible, and the riffs feel more deliberate than any song on their previous releases. When drummer J. Byrum kicks the tempo up, there is a sense of importance and purpose to the speed. By far and away, Slaves is Black breath’s most finely tuned record, and every track feels carefully crafted. However, there are aspects that keep it from being truly special.
Slaves Beyond Death is a good record. It’s a great record, in fact. And in the context of Black Breath’s catalogue, it achieves the difficult endeavor of remaining consistent with the rest of the band’s catalogue while creating its own identity. But while much of what Black Breath try (successfully) on this record is exciting and fresh in the context of their career, the lineage of these creative decisions are sometimes woefully obvious. Entombed, Dismember, Cursed, Trap Them — all have contributed to the music Black Breath make, and it shows. Much of this is likely due to producer Kurt ballou. I love the work the man does, and will argue he has yet to produce a bad record. As he touches more and more releases, though, there are unmistakable “Ballouisms” that crop up, and old-school swedish death/crust worship is one of them. The reason he hasn’t produced a bad record might just be that, well, at a certain point they all begin to all sound the same. To be honest, this doesn’t negatively impact the album per se, but it’s prevalent enough to warrant discussion, and hopefully incur a more critical eye of the genre as a whole.
This gripe is more of a genre critique than critique of Black Breath or Slaves Beyond Death. By all measure, Slaves Beyond Death is one of the best records of 2015’s second half. You absolutely should listen to Slaves Beyond Death, especially if you found yourself wishing the band would lean into their death metal influences more. Just don’t expect it to defy, nor define, the genre.