I understand the desire to label West Virginia’s Byzantine underdogs. Rising up in the midsts of what I guess will be forever known as the New Wave of American Heavy Metal, they took flight alongside acts like Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, and their local brothers Lamb of God with a trio of popular albums before somewhat imploding in 2008 thanks not only to the changing scene but strife within the industry and the band itself. You can paint that picture, and talk about being overshadowed by larger acts, but let me tell you a different story, one that ends with how The Cicada Tree, the band’s latest and first for Metal Blade, is not only tied for the best album they’ve released to date, but is an adrenaline-fueled highlight of 2017.
For me, it was all a matter of timing. I had just gotten back into extreme music in 2001, after being away for much of college, lost in a haze of punk, jazz, and “alternative” music (it was the 90s, so give me a pass). It was also the dawn (for me) of those Music Choice stations on television, where the metal station would go through a steady stream of songs, featuring album artwork and little pop up factoids about the band in question. It was the first time I heard “Hatfield” off of the band’s 2004 debut The Fundamental Component, and its mix of dissonant, off time riffing and progressive groove immediately struck a chord, as did the artwork of Nikio Rantalainen. Their follow-up, …And They Shall Take Up Serpents was on another level, thanks to Chris “OJ” Ojeda upping this vocal game 1000% and seamlessly moving between a powerful clean vocals and a wicked raspy growl that still annunciated every syllable. In addition the music did an even better job of combining those progressive, syncopated elements with massive hooks and groove without falling into routine.
And then, a day after releasing their third album Oblivion Beckons they broke up. It was one of the few times I could feel the effects of losing a band I loved. I was always content to say that,” Well, they can’t take away the music they already made” but this was something I connected to during a tumultuous time in my life – in the span of a few years I had gone through a serious surgery with my brother (here’s my plea to please be an organ donor if you can), became a father and then soon afterwards lost my own father. Byzantine was a band whose music – every riff, breakdown, chorus – spoke to me in an almost biological way. Which is why in 2012 I backed my first ever Kickstarter to help fund the band’s self-titled and independent return to metal. From the opening screech of “Which Light Shall Never Penetrate” I was back in, with 2015’s followup To Release is to Resolve further cementing their stature.
At each step since their reformation, Byzantine has take steps to refine the songwriting to a point where the essence of what brought them to label attention at the the beginning of their career is now so sharp and laser focused on The Cicada Tree that Metal Blade has got to be thrilled with their foresight to sign the band. Opener “New Ways to Bear Witness” packs everything that makes the band great into a blistering five minutes. The solos are copious and move between elegance searing, the breakdowns are brutal and choppy in that signature Byzantine way, and Ojeda’s singing has only gotten more powerful in the 13 years since “Hatfield” wormed its way into my system. The guitar work between Ojeda and Brian Henderson has gotten to a point where they are so in sync they can move from the tight chugging of barnstormers like “Vile Maxim” to a more open interplay on the quieter moments on tracks “Map of the Creator” and “Subjugated.” Each song is epic, heavy, and full of those small moments that sting you, whether it’s that transition from brutality to a more dreamy, gaze-infused chorus in “Verses of Violence” or the snap your neck start/stop of “Trapjaw.”
All this and I haven’t even spoken about the two cover songs that close out The Cicada Tree, and its here where I’ll proffer my kudos to the rhythm section of Sean Sydnor (bass) and Matt Bowles (drums). “Moving in Stereo” off the Cars 1978 debut is inspired. Free from the unique cadence of Ric Ocasek’s unique vocal delivery the band focuses on the staccato slap of the new wave rhythm, and Sydnor makes the bottom end mammoth in the verses and chorus, with Bowles’s drums recalling an almost Fear Factory vibe. But everything is blown away by their cover of Fishbone’s “Servitude” – not only because it’s one of the great unsung songs of the band’s career, but it was already a nasty, brutally heavy song with a killer hook and syncopation – a PERFECT blend of the elements that Byzantine could make their own. Bowles is a beast on the track, particularly on the bridge before the final verse and the tribal outro. If you’re going to cover one of my favorite bands of all time, this is EXACTLY how you do it.
You can keep the fiction of underdogs, you can talk about being overshadowed by other bands. I’ll stick to my story, which is back in 2004 I discovered the music of a band that resonated on an atomic level with me in a way few other bands did. And now with The Cicada Tree Byzantine are back to do the same thing to someone else who might be discovering them for the first time, or might be sitting back, slightly older and the worse for wear but able to feel that pull in their gut when drums, bass, guitar and voice meet in that perfect moment of heaviness and grace.
Having an album this good at this time in my life overshadows anything else.