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Black Breath

Sentenced to Life

(Southern Lord; US: 26 Mar 2012; UK: 27 Mar 2012)

It’s all there in the cover art: a sledgehammer shattering a pane of glass.  It’s a reverential nod to Black Breath’s destructive predecessors, and a clear-cut symbol of what to expect on the Seattle, Washington band’s battering sophomore release. Sentenced to Life follows on from Black Breath’s debut full-length, ‘10’s Heavy Breathing, an album slathered in the crusty lacquer of D-beat fired death ‘n’ roll, tussling with a raging ‘80’s-fuelled hardcore bite. Round two (or three if we’re counting the band’s wonderfully pugnacious debut EP, Razor to Oblivion) finds the band in fighting fit shape once again. It’s an album that carries the unmistakable calling card of rollicking Swedish death metal in its back pocket, but leans more heavily on the jaw-crushing punch of metallic hardcore to deliver the knockout blow.


Written following Black Breath’s last European tour, and recorded with Kurt Ballou at his God City Studios, Sentenced to Life is gritty and lacerating, like all of Ballou’s productions, perfectly matching the band’s animalistic savagery.  With 10 tracks delivered in half an hour, Black Breath’s latest release concentrates on accentuating the rage, ramping up the intensity, and very little else. Not that such a singularly vicious vision matters. Black Breath’s status thus far has not been founded on notions of subtlety or restraint. The band’s unadulterated punk zeal, blitzkrieg tunes and sterling live reputation mean that while its songs may not be revolutionizing the world of underground metal, there’s enough raw talent and brawn to stand out. The D-beat scene is littered with acts that can throw a pose well enough, but there’s no mistaking that Black Breath is the heavyweight title-holder.


Black Breath could never be accused of fraudulent affectations, not once the opening trio of tracks on Sentenced to Life have zipped by in a blur of distorting buzzsaw riffs. Neil McAdams spits out plenty of old-school hardcore venom on the title track, and the band delivers a veritable kick-ass anthem, with boisterous gang-vocals adding to the fist-pumping fury. Black Breath brings a lot of nostalgia to the proceedings throughout. Not to suggest the band is derivative, but you can’t escape the wonderful clobbering mood of down and dirty punked-up ‘90s squat shows.


Paring back the debt to European crunchy death metal has streamlined the onslaught significantly. “Home of the Grave”, “Doomed” and the blistering, bass-heavy crossover thrash of “Mother Abyss” are all extraordinarily lean and mean. Black Breath wasn’t renowned for the depth or breadth of its tunes to begin with, and that’s no criticism. Its sound (perfect for manically headbanging in a sweaty subterranean vault) was flawlessly rendered. Sentenced to Life‘s songs, many of which have been stripped down to skeletal blasts, allows the band to channel that riotous spirit with even more deadeye precision.


Admittedly, that hardcore deconstructionism means that the solos and harmonies are heavily reduced, but they’re not entirely absent. The Slayer-like, mid-tempo “The Flame” contains some fantastic dual leads, not to mention some good old monolithic percussion. “Obey”, an epic for the band at five minutes long, crawls along menacingly. With blackened crusty thrash being its primary root, its wailing solos late in the song offer up a wonderful counterpoint. “Endless Corpse” seems almost glacially paced in comparison to the majority of the album—at least until the band unleashes hefty contorting chords—and it injects some rich harmonics.


Albums like Sentenced to Life are best evaluated in terms of their pulverizing might. With little room for variations or diversions, Black Breath has obviously set out to trample all comers—and that objective is resoundingly achieved. It’s not new territory for the band. It did the same on its debut, and Sentenced to Life retains that same belligerent blend of punk and death metal. But the key difference this time round is the reduced field of fire. By discarding some of the sinuous fuzz of d-beat, the resulting bare bones tracks are darker, more intimidating, and deliver the uppercut with lightening speed.

Rating:

Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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