Black Breath’s debut EP was re-released last year by Southern Lord, and to say that it seemed like a rather odd fit would be an understatement. The Seattle band has nothing to do with the trendier side of doom, drone, and black metal that tends to be the label’s specialty. In fact, they couldn’t be more uncool, just a group of five scruffy musicians from Seattle who play simple blue-collar thrash and hardcore, drawing equally from the likes of Possessed and Discharge. But upon hearing the four-song, 12-minute Razor to Oblivion, you’d sign these guys if you were given the chance, too. After all, this is a band that came along at the worst possible time, when the wave of young thrash revivalist bands has long since crested, and hammered out some no-frills proto-thrash with enough enthusiasm to render their much more hyped peers pointless in the process. Fast, blasphemous, crusty, and utterly filthy in tone, Black Breath is a band that appeals to metal fans’ basest instincts: it’s primal, headbang-inducing, and totally badass.
When word got out late last year that Black Breath’s first full-length album would be produced by Kurt Ballou, it only heightened expectations even more. Along with serving as the brilliant guitarist for the great Converge, Ballou has made a name for himself in recent years as one of the finest producers in metal and hardcore, working with such diverse-sounding acts as Torche, Genghis Tron, and Trap Them. Aside from finding a perfect middle ground between clean production and a much rawer feel, Ballou’s greatest trademark as a producer is his guitar tone. Whether he’s playing or someone else is, he gets just the right sound, and we know it when we hear it: heavy huge, abrasive, yet very warm, the kind of distortion that feels comfortable when heard at maximum volume through headphones. For a band like Black Breath, which puts so much emphasis on its gargantuan, crust punk-inspired riffing, pairing with Ballou was certain to be a perfect fit.
Indeed, the partnership between the artists and their producer pays huge dividends on Heavy Breathing. The guitars by F. Funds and E. Wallace are front and center, sounding like a cross between Nausea and Entombed, and whether it’s sustained riffs or crunching palm-mutes, the sound is massive. Couple that with a rhythm section that is not only tight but throttling, and you’ve got a situation where the band could hammer out some good old formulaic crossover thrash/hardcore just like the EP, and nobody would mind at all. It sounds that fantastic.
A funny thing happened between Razor to Oblivion and Heavy Breathing, though. While the d-beats still play a very prominent role, the band has honed its songwriting to the point where the album feels damn near ambitious compared to the EP. Instead of launching into simple three-minute blasts with only one goal in mind, they’ve embraced dynamics on the new record, clearly unafraid to shift gears every once in a while. “Black Sin (Spit on the Cross)” is a tremendous example, as it explodes into a full-on speed metal pace, drummer J. Byrum providing some fluid, Dave Lombardo-esque fills as vocalist Nate McAdams bellows away, only to move into a mosh-inducing groove breakdown midway through. The tremolo picking on “Escape From Death” soon gives way to hardcore crunching and eventually a subtly melodic coda. The stomping “I Am Beyond” carries itself with a swagger not unlike sludge greats Eyehategod, while the surprisingly low-key “Unholy Virgin” carries itself with a potent 6/8 beat.
With Heavy Breathing‘s strong predilection towards groove, the one seminal album that keeps springing to mind the further it goes on is Entombed’s Wolverine Blues. It might be far less technical than what younger metal audiences are listening to, but the one big thing it has going for it is that like Entombed, this is extreme music that moves, exemplified perfectly by “Virus”, which goes from a rampaging punk tune to a wicked, Celtic Frost-tinged jam in the blink of an eye. Who needs technical chops when you can swing like these guys do? Entombed had it 15 years ago, and Black Breath does now. Southern Lord will be hard-pressed to put out a better album this year.