When we last checked in on Santa Barbara-based metal giants DevilDriver, they were in the depths of a haunted forest set for the gothic, werewolf-filled music video “Dead to Rights” (check out our set visit footage here), a track from their highly successful album Beast. That record ranked among the band's strongest and most punishing efforts, and seemed a tough act to follow... but nevertheless, the moment of truth has arrived this week with their sixth full-length studio release Winter Kills – the band's first after departing long-time label Roadrunner and signing with Napalm Records. Thankfully, this unit seldom disappoints, and with this release they've somehow managed to crank the creative knob even higher.
Despite the label transition and Chris Towning replacing Jonathan Miller on bass, Winter Kills isn't a seismic shift in tone from its predecessor, but as far as I'm concerned, this is one of those “if it ain't broke” kinda bands, and DevilDriver's muscular, raging death 'n' roll style – with simple but infectious riffs, bolted-down groove rhythms and raging battle-cry vocals from Dez Fafara – is an efficient machine that doesn't really require much tinkering. It also helps that Mark Lewis, who produced Beast and has become a key player in the groove-metal sound (he also worked on Six Feet Under's Undead), reprises his role here.
With that said, the band does explore some new horizons – and in one particular case, venture far off their usual creative path: that case would be a cover of AWOLnation's hit single “Sail.” Yes, you read that right; as it turns out, Dez's kids are fans of the electro-rockers, and got him interested enough in their music to try a metallized interpretation. What's even scarier is that the band found a way to make it their own, simultaneously capturing a surreal, cosmic vibe thanks to some inventive guitar work... if I hadn't previously heard the original (and I'm betting a lot of metal fans probably haven't), I might have assumed it was an original (though more experimental) DD tune. It's the only odd one out, and it's also the closing track, so it doesn't derail the deliberate momentum of the others – which are consistently aggressive and gut-punching, as demonstrated in the title track here:
Equally powerful are cuts like the ultra-violent "Desperate Times," which packs all the pit-fuel riffage you could hope for, and the rhythmically explosive "Caring's Overkill" and "Oath of the Abyss," both of which really spotlight drummer John Boecklin getting his craze on with furious beats. "Ruthless" earns its title with a chilling opening shriek from Fafara, heralding the punishing buzz-saw assault that follows courtesy of lead guitarist Jeff Kendrick. The band incorporates more intricate melodic elements in tracks like "The Appetite" (check out the video below) and "Haunting Refrain," which sport excellent hooks and sweet leads, and fit well into the band's riff-centric paradigm; I don't think we'll be hearing DevilDriver assimilating metalcore anytime soon (which is good, because it totally wouldn't work), but they nevertheless demonstrate a firm grip on melody that hadn't really been showcased on previous records, and it serves their songwriting well. There are a few missteps, like the sort of meandering "Gutted," but for the most part the band is in top form here.
Proving they can stretch creatively without breaking their time-tested formula, Winter Kills is an excellent next step on DevilDriver's creative path (not a giant leap, but definitely a move forward), and this time proves that they can assimilate a vast and varied range of styles and make them their own. Another case in point: "The Appetite," which seamlessly integrates melodic death metal into their hard-grooving sound. Check out the video!