I've lived in the extreme-music trenches for most of my life, but there are still occasions when a band will make me stop and shudder. Death metal offers quite a few of those moments, but over the years it's become so fragmented, it's now more a loose subset and harder to define. Still, there are iconic bands whose names always spring to mind, and for me, Florida unit Six Feet Under is one of them. While death metal purists consider them more of a splinter group, the band's foundation of ultra-violent horror lyrics, "death-n-roll" groove riffs and cave-troll roars has made them as memorable as many of the bands who first defined the genre – including Death, Cannibal Corpse and Obituary, whose alumni rank among SFU's founding members. The buzz for their ninth studio album Undead reached feverish levels, and advance tracks like "Formaldehyde" fueled fan bloodlust even more. I finally got the chance to plunge myself into this gore-drenched audio inferno, and I'll warn you straight up: this one's gonna leave a stump. Read on for the breakdown, and preview one of the new tracks!
Long-time fans of the band will note the revised and expanded lineup: core members Chris Barnes (former vocalist for Cannibal Corpse) and guitarist Steve Swanson are now joined by new axe-man Rob Arnold and drummer Kevin Talley (both formerly of Chimaira), as well as bassist Jeff Hughell (Vile, Brain Drill), who replaced SFU founding member Terry Butler. While the band is known for steady, straightforward drop-tuned chugs, Undead boasts some of the group's highest-velocity rhythms, mainly due to Talley's proficiency with supersonic blastbeats. "He holds the beat and plays harder and louder and faster than any drummer I've ever been in a band with," Barnes declared. "The guy punches holes in the bottoms of drums, that's how hard he hits!"
In addition to the increase in speed, the songs have taken on a different structure and feel, which the frontman credits to his collaboration with Rob Arnold: "Rob brings a fresh outlook to the themes of Six Feet Under," Barnes explains. "He has a vast knowledge of what I've done, and he has a clear vision and great skill for writing memorable riffs. Being around him and the music he was creating was really inspiring to me, and it really pushed me to write the best lyrics I could." Those lyrics are perfectly matched to Undead's more furious performance style, with more supernatural themes and literal ocean tides of gore, and supported by rough & chunky production by Mark Lewis, who previously worked on DevilDriver's incredible 2011 release Beast. The end product walks a thin red line between old-school technical death and modern, hook-filled groove metal... and maintains that balance for much of its 40-minute length.
The band wisely front-loaded the record with three monolithic cuts, opening with "Frozen At the Moment of Death," which lays out a slow and ominous buildup before busting into overdrive to showcase the new lineup's more aggressive side, while sliding repeatedly into down-tempo phases that maintain a constant sense of doom. "Formaldehyde," the album's first single, is another example of the band's expert balancing act, with Hughell laying down a dark but complex and crawly bass line as a foundation for some creepy solo action from Swanson, while the beat pattern shifts constantly, building relentless tension. Barnes' voice is nearly impossible to decipher (even by death metal standards), but to me it's served more as an instrument in itself; in this mix, he blends well with the lower range of the guitars, making him sound like a surly giant, multi-tracked with other shrieks and shouts to enhance the terror. The pitch-black "18 Days" taps into the same slow-burn feeling, but with frequent controlled bursts from Talley's supernatural double-kick, plus some seriously bizarre insectoid sounds called forth from the guitars, resulting in one of the band's scariest tracks.
From here, the album does a bit of a stylistic callback with "Molest Dead," falling more into the style the band forged back in '95 on their amazing debut record Haunted, but with a leaner, simpler structure. "Blood On My Hands" is a more atmospheric mid-tempo piece, with smoldering chord progressions and some crazed solo work. "Missing Victims" is a fairly urgent chugger, but lacks enough dynamic changes to really take off; not so for "Reckless" and the superbly eerie "Near Death Experience," both of which fall solidly into the "death-n-roll" category, featuring some of the album's hookiest riffs (while still mixing up tempos here and there). "Delayed Combustion Device" goes low and dirty, with raunchy bass and guitar rhythms stomping in lock-step; "The Scar" plays out in the same style, only with much less focus. I crossed my fingers hoping the track "Vampire Apocalypse" would rise above its cliché title... and thankfully, I have to say it's pretty badass, with muscular riffs (including some wicked harmonics) and explosive drumming. The album closes out on "The Depths of Depravity," a haunting down-tempo number that begins with clean guitars and a smoky ambiance, picking up the pace at the midpoint, building suspense before easing slowly back down into darkness.
If your loyalties lie with '90s-era death metal, Six Feet Under may have previously wandered too far off the path for your liking. But with Undead, I'm sensing a powerful pull back to the genre's origins, along the lines of Obituary, Cannibal Corpse and early-era Morbid Angel, no doubt due in large part to the diverse backgrounds of the band's current lineup, and also the sharing of songwriting duties between Chris Barnes and Rob Arnold. The famed mid-tempo grooves are still tight, but there's more technical wizardry on top, and the drumming on this release is phenomenal enough in itself to warrant a listen. Personally, I dig their smooth integration of creepy-crawly tempos with explosive shreddage and blastbeats, and while they may not have kept that mixture well-stirred for the entire album, it's still a seriously potent blood-red cocktail.
Speaking of which... how about a little sip of "Formaldehyde?"