It's never a bad idea to try new things, but the changes on Death Angel's sixth album sometimes are a little too drastic.
Always one of the classier, more cerebral bands in thrash metal, Death Angel has done an admirable job of resurrecting their career after an extended hiatus. Their first album in 14 years, 2004's The Art of Dying was a spirited return that reminded us all just how much better the metal world is with them around. Four years later, Killing Season saw the band settle down with a much more focused effort, the album benefiting hugely from the tasteful production of Nick Raskulinecz. Because the San Francisco band was so young when they first started out in the mid-1980s (they were still teenagers when their 1987 debut The Ultra-Violence was recorded), there's been no shortage of youthful energy to draw upon these days, and as a result, Death Angel's new music has sounded just as vital and fresh as their old stuff did back in the day.
With the release of their sixth album, however, significant changes have been made. There's a completely new rhythm section, as longtime members Denis Pepa (bass) and Andy Galeon (drums) left the band amicably in 2009, replaced by Damian Sisson and Will Carroll, respectively. Also, and most crucially, the band employed the services of producer Jason Suecof to helm the new record. Although Suecof is a renowned producer in mainstream metal, playing a key role on albums by popular bands like Trivium, the Black Dahlia Murder, and Job For a Cowboy, his involvement on an album by a band as respected as Death Angel is enough to make longtime thrash fans just a little suspicious. No matter the band, Suecof has a way of imposing his own sound on every record he works on, with heavy focus on aggression, dexterous riffs and solos, and massively over-compressed mixes.
At first, Relentless Retribution starts off swimmingly, the confusingly titled "Relentless Revolution" encapsulating all of Death Angel's strengths: smart, catchy lyrics snarled by vocalist Mark Osgueda -- as fine an enunciator as Slayer's Tom Araya -- and superb, catchy riffs written by founding guitarist Rob Cavestany. Nothing too mainstream, aside from the production, just a damn good thrash song. Incredibly, all that goes out the window on the following track, as "Claws in So Deep" transforms into a blatant Trivium imitation, right down to the bland, unimaginative central riff and arrangements, not to mention the good-cop-bad-cop vocal trade-offs by Osgueda and Cavestany. Whether or not it's an attempt at attracting Trivium's younger fanbase is any guess, but such pandering is beneath this band, not to mention insulting to longtime fans (it's like an old master imitating an amateurish neophyte), and not even a tacked-on acoustic coda by Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela can rescue it.
The entire album turns out to be similarly up and down all the way through. The groovy "Death of the Meek" sees Osgueda showcase his tremendous range, capable of an authoritative growl and carrying a melody at the same time; the mid-tempo stomp of "Into the Arms of Righteous Anger" is pure aggro fun; and "Where They Lay" is a pure, old school thrasher proving these guys are nowhere even close to losing step. However, inconsistencies keep cropping up: "Volcanic" is an unnecessary solo turn by Cavestany, bordering on a modern rock ballad; "River of Rapture" and "This Hate" are pure auto-pilot thrash, while "Truce" is again a little too close to Trvium et al for comfort.
In the end, although it's not exactly the disaster some of us feared, it's more than apparent Death Angel is a better band without the distracting influence of Suecof, who is better off working more "extreme" young bands. We get plenty of glimpses of what makes Death Angel so great on Relentless Retribution, but it's impossible to listen to this album without wondering just how much better it would have been with input from someone like Raskulinecz instead.