Ever since Elizabeth Short’s mutilated body was discovered in a vacant Los Angeles, California lot in January, 1947, the mystery surrounding her still as-of-yet unsolved murder continues to fascinate Americans and surface in contemporary popular culture. And really, who can blame them? The Black Dahlia Murder... it’s one of the coolest titles ever coined, immediately creating thoughts of beauty defiled, utopia suddenly shifting to dystopia, the strange link between sex and violence that society has always had an unquenchable thirst for. So when you assign such a handle to your band, you sure as hell had better create music that lives up to the moniker.
The Black Dahlia Murder certainly know what they’re doing. The current American metal scene is without a doubt a healthy one, but the sudden flood of metalcore clones threatens to completely kill the movement just as things were starting to look up. Consequently, hearing the BDM’s high-energy, slightly more traditional metal antics can be especially refreshing, after dozens of young bands who awkwardly chunk away at their guitars while hollering cliched nonsense in hoarse-voiced fits of suburban white boy rage.
Boasting a sound that owes as much to early ‘90s death metal greats At the Gates as to black metal champs Immortal, the Motor City quintet straddle both genres expertly. The line between metals death and black has been blurring more and more as of late, most recently by Poland’s Behemoth, whose ingenious Demigod masterfully swipes characteristics from both sides to create a stunning hybrid, and The Black Dahlia Murder seem bent on pulling a similar stunt on their new album, Miasma.
Unlike Behemoth’s grandiose, theatrical quality (a black metal trait), the BDM lean more toward the death side, characterized by highly technical chord structures and guitar harmonies, as well as more of a free-form approach to song structure, but their most interesting characteristic is the unique use of two contrasting vocal styles, as the band employs both a black metal screech, and a lower, death metal growl. Considering how metalcore bands tend to use vocalists who rely on the same old hardcore barking, The Black Dahlia Murder add a refreshing twist to the proceedings, and the fact that both vocal styles are provided by one person, in the form of the insanely versatile Trevor Strnad, makes it all the more impressive.
Miasma is a short, extremely condensed outing, the 33 minute album attempting to follow the lead of Slayer’s timeless Reign in Blood, and while some may cringe at the thought of paying full price for a disc not much longer than an EP, making a compact album was a wise move by the band, because while the music is certainly unrelenting, even at little more than a half hour, the album does threaten to become repetitive near the end. The disc kicks off confidently, as the doom-inspired riffs by guitarists Brian Eschbach and John Kampainen on the instrumental “Built For Sin” move in like sky-darkening storm clouds, and by the time it segues into “I’m Charming”, the skies open, the song catapulted by Zach Gibson’s furious blasting and machine gun-like snare beats. It’s the superb “A Vulgar Picture” that showcases the BDM at their very best, Eschbach and Kampainen delivering riff after pulverizing riff, punctuated by brief solos, the drumming closer to resembling classic thrash/speed metal than anything else, while Strnad screams and growls some of the most grisly lyrical content this side of Pig Destroyer. Two and a half minutes in, the band deftly shifts from pure speed to a highly effective midtempo breakdown, but a minute later, the song comes to an abrupt halt, leaving listeners catching their breath as the opening narration on “Novelty Crosses” begins.
Miasma is without a doubt one of the most intense American metal crossover albums of the year, but after repeated listens, it becomes clear that despite the huge amount of talent, The Black Dahlia Murder lack the kind of flair that all their heroes possessed. They seem have it all, the musicianship, the distinct vocalist, the grim subject matter, all but that one X factor: the songwriting skill. The album is impossible to hate, but the adjective “underachieving” seems to spring to mind a few too many times, especially when stacked against another strong American album from this past year, Darkest Hour’s Undoing Ruin. Instead, Miasma sits in a strange purgatory, somewhere between above average and mediocre. It’s up to this young band to make the crucial leap from merely “good” to “great” the next time out.