Nothing starts a fight between metalheads quicker than a conversation about metalcore. It’s in the genre’s nature to be divisive. Not only it is an “impure” blend of metal and hardcore punk, but it’s getting more and more “impure” as younger metalcore bands like Bring Me The Horizon, Architects and Parkway Drive incorporate elements of nu metal, hard rock, pop and even EDM to their sound. Of course, self-serious metalheads are going to hate it.
Now, I’m not into this Imagine Dragons-core thing. I’m never gonna begrudge bands for trying new things and exploring the boundaries of their sound, but I love my metalcore served traditional with chuggy-ass riffs, skull-splitting breakdowns and life-affirming lyrics delivered by a burly, hypermasculine frontman. A brand of metalcore veterans August Burns Red have always been great at.
Well, they have a new album called Death Below coming out on March 24th and I’m here to tell you it is an inspired and emotional scorcher. August Burns Red is celebrating their twentieth anniversary this month and they’re at the top of their game.
Death Below begins with a spacey and dramatic intro called Premonition where frontman Jake Luhrs narrates a vision of apocalypse in spoken word. I hate metal intros that don’t serve a purpose, but Premonition properly sets up the urgency and emotional tension of what you’re about to listen to.
Ironically enough, Premonition gives way to my least favorite song on the record The Cleansing. An almost eight minutes long, hyperactive, black metal-influenced powerhouse with blast beats and a shitload of guitar riffs. I don’t hate it. I don’t even think it’s boring. The Cleansing is half of a great song that overstays its welcome past the clean bridge. August Burns Red always had a tendency to go off rails with proggy stuff at any given moment, but it’s by far their most overt indulgence on Death Below.
The following song Ancestry was originally released on November 3rds as the first single from Death Below. It’s extremely riffy. It would be hard to know what to pay attention to as a listener if it wasn’t for Jake Luhrs and Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach commanding duet. Ancestry is a song about grieving an abusive parent and the topic seems close to Jake’s heart. It’s absolutely impossible to remain stoic at his furious and passionate delivery. I dare you not to feel anything when he screams: “my judgment is clouded by the blood we share”. It reminded me a lot of Killswitch’s Rose of Sharyn in terms of performance.
Ancestry is a great example of what makes August Burns Red a great band. Because while the dense, stuffy riffing by JB Brubaker and Brent Rambler might take you aback initially, when Jake and Jesse start leaning into the song, it becomes the soundtrack to confusion and heartbreak. It harmonizes almost preternaturally to Jake Luhrs’ righteous anger and distress.
Tightrope features Jason Richardson from All That Remains. It’s one of the more conventional August Burns Red songs on Death Below. It’s good without being especially memorable. The intensity pedal is stuck in overdrive, making it a little flatter than it could’ve been. I know Richardson’s guitar playing is supposed to be the showstopper here, but I could’ve done without this one on the record. Fool’s Gold in the Bear Trap is another weird one. I don’t hate it. I don’t even dislike it, but I thought the spacey, expansive instrumental first half was such a welcome breather from a dense song like Tightrope, I’m not sure why the band chose to finish it so bombastically. But the purpose of Fool's Gold in the Bear Trap really is to separate the record in two.
Because Death Below starts getting really, really good after that.
The second single Backfire is a little leaner and meaner than its predecessor. It has these absolutely massive breakdowns and this really nice melodic bridge. The outro really is the shining star of the song, though. Luhrs repeats over and over again: “Endless belief in a liar leads to a violent backfire.” It’s really hard not to get pumped up while listening to it.
Speaking of getting pumped up, Revival might be one of my favorite August Burns Red songs ever. Holy shit that song is great. The chemistry between Jake Luhrs and JB Brubaker is on full display. The underlying riff morphs with every verse. Sometimes even between two lines. There’s this super cool bridge where Jake does spoken word again, telling a righteous story of rebirth while Dustin goes on somewhat of a bass solo. Revival ends with one of the nastiest breakdowns I’ve heard in recent years while Jake screams: “I just wanna feel something. I just want to feel everything.” It’s a great song to come back from the dead to. Literally and metaphorically.
Sevink is a short electronic interlude that once again prepares you for the last leg of this record. It’s a strategic breather and another song that allows Dustin Davidson to go wild. Dark Divide is a chuggy wrecking ball. The riffs are creative and hyperactive, but unlike songs on the first leg of Death Below, they have a lot more breathing room. Crazy riffing is a signature of August Burns Red, but sometimes JB and Brian throw too many ideas in the same songs. Not on Dark Divide, though. It’s dense, but catchy and well-constructed.
Deadbolt is one of the catchiest songs on the record and somewhat of a throwback to old metalcore. The clean chorus really anchors the song and gives it a strong identity. The Abyss is featuring JT Cavey from Erra and Texas in July. It’s a moodier affair than anything else on Death Below. I first thought it was out of place on the record, but it has grown on me with the listens. I loved its atmospheric intro and bridge and the powerful breakdown. I would’ve loved the band and JT to lean more into these aspects, but it’s still a fun song.
The close Reckoning is another lengthy, complex and ambitious song in the vein of The Cleansing. It’s also better. It features the vocalist from August Burns Red’s Christian metal contemporaries Underoath Spencer Chamberlain. The byzantine riff around which it is constructed morphs subtly but continuously throughout the song, highlighting the tremendous piece of storytelling by Luhrs and Chamberlain. Reckoning is perhaps the proggiest song on Death Below, but it’s well-constructed and leads up to moments of great dramatic intensity.
So, there you have it. Death Below is a super inspired August Burns Red record. Maybe it’s two songs too long, but it has some of their most scorching and emotional material to date. It is the sound of a band that is mature and knows what it is good at. I enjoyed the second half better than the first, but if you’re into the band, it’s a can’t miss record.
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