[30 October 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
When Detroit’s the Black Dahlia Murder turned heads with their 2003 debut Unhallowed and scored a significant commercial breakthrough on Miasma a couple years later, the feeling among some, including yours truly, was, “Sure, it’s great to see a band that’s infinitely more interesting than As I Lay Dying win over the kids, but if they ever get their songwriting to the same lofty level as their musicianship, look out.” The fact is, despite becoming a very popular American metal act in the last four years, the band’s albums haven’t quite measured up, not exactly sounding like the work of a band that’s primed to grab that proverbial brass ring and lead the charge. As likeable as these guys are, it’s always been especially frustrating, because they’ve got all the ingredients—technical chops up the wazoo; a cool hybrid sound of metalcore, melodic death metal, and black metal; and one of extreme metal’s more charismatic, dynamic lead vocalists in the beer gut-and-glasses sporting Trevor Strnad—save for that one key element.
After the potential that Miasma showed, 2007’s Nocturnal was a slight step up, but while it was clear the Black Dahlia Murder was clearly comfortable in their little niche, such stubborn adherence to that formula continued to yield merely decent results. Not awful by any stretch, but certainly not mind-blowing, either. Instead, despite several very strong moments, it felt far too safe to warrant more than a mild recommendation.
So here we are with attempt number four at really knocking one out of the park, and while structurally Deflorate has the quintet sounding as pre-diddly-ictable as ever, there’s more of a sense of urgency in the songwriting and performances. Much of the credit has to go to producer Jason Suecof, who is renowned for whipping bands into shape in order to create a scorching, pulverizing record, and there’s no denying that somebody lit a fire under these guys’ butts this time around. The mix is typically crisp, achieving the kind of balance between blast-beating brutality and textured melodies that the Black Dahlia Murder’s style demands, drummer Shannon Lucas sounding both punishing and lithe, guitarists Bryan Eschbach and Ryan Knight letting loose ultra-slick dual harmonies from start to finish.
Of course, all this means squat if the songwriting isn’t up to snuff, and while Deflorate isn’t the kind of quantum leap on par with All That Remains’ The Fall of Ideals or Kylesa’s Static Tensions, for once these guys actually deliver ten songs that hold their own remarkably well. The nimble guitar melodies on the swift opening track “Black Valor”, which range from palm-muted thrash riffing to black metal-inspired tremolo picking, are assured instead of ostentatious, while the approach on the surprisingly contagious, three-and-a-half-minute “Necropolis” is downright tasteful, the simple hooks in the verse riff and the chorus commanding our attention. “Denounced, Disgraced” and the ferocious “Death Panorama” expertly toy with that aggressive/ornate contrast that the band likes so much, but the clear winner on this album is the closer “I Will Return”, which emphasizes black metal the most of the ten tracks and delivers the record’s strongest, most refined melodies.
All the while, Strnad does what he does best, putting in a typically schizophrenic performance on record, alternating between distinctive shrieks and guttural growls as he’s wont to do, even managing to enunciate impressively. What he’s screaming and roaring about hardly matters (and we won’t even try to explain the cover artwork, for that matter), especially when we’re so relieved to hear the Black Dahlia Murder finally starting to live up to its potential. We all knew they had a really good album in them, and Deflorate is just that.