Six Feet Under is back in an attempt to reclaim the glory of the band's early years. Will veteran Chris Barnes succeed, or is this death metal dog too old to learn new tricks?
Some artists evolve and garner praise, while others mutate in the wrong way and take flack for it. Some artists get hammered for remaining what could euphemistically be called consistent, and others rehash the same four chords for decades and the masses lap it up. Which category do Six Feet Under fall into? Well, it probably depends on which of the two distinct camps, one of many metal subdivisions I might add, that you fall into. Hardcore fans of Six Feet Under will love the band's forthcoming full length, Unborn, for its unwavering adherence to the tried and true SFU formula -- that groovy stoner death 'n roll you've grown to know and love over the past decade and a half. The rest will yawn, dismiss it as more of the same old, same old from a band one lineup change over the line in recent years and go back to making their Graveyard Classics jokes.
If you're at all familiar with Six Feet Under's back catalog, Unborn will seem very, very familiar to you. It's Chris Barnes waxing un-philosophical about mental imbalance and gore over some simple but catchy death metal-infused groove courtesy of guitarist Steve Swanson and new man on the rhythm guitar Ola Englund. Barnes' trademark choking-on-marbles guttural stylings are the same as they ever were, with a hint of processing or studio effects in the mix. Barnes is in his mid-forties now, after all, but to his credit he's clearly lost none of the fire. The album barrels into the slow and brutal opener, “Neuro Osmosis", with Englund picking up where previous rhythm man Rob Arnold left off, adding a touch of depth and thickness to Swanson's lead work.
“Prophecy", a fist-in-the-air shout-along festival anthem, follows with more of the typical fluid swagger Six Feet Under has built a career on, but again it's all entirely within the box. And speaking of keeping with the familiar, what's a Six Feet Under Record without zombies? “Zombie Blood Curse” comes in next to fulfill the quota of at least one zombie-themed track per album, with more lyrical cliches (“You will die", “blackest night", “the dead come to life”) than you can shake a dismembered limb at. Nevertheless, it's a crowd-pleaser for the drunken gore fans, with whammy bar dives drowning in reverb during the guitar solo. Six Feet Under might have been through the ringer in the past few years as far as lineup changes go, but in the end, no matter who is brought into the fold, this band will always be about realizing Barnes' vision.
There are a few new nuances to be found on Unborn though, most notably in the drum work of skinsman Kevin Talley, who is beginning to come into his own within the band. Talley brings speed and technicality that previous drummer Greg Gall, a more meat-and-potatoes type of drummer, likely never would have attempted, and it's only for Talley's presence that the band even tries to break out of its usual well-trodden rhythms, albeit infrequently on tracks such as the hilariously titled “Alive to Kill You” and “Fragment”. His bass drum triplets and blast beats are amongst the best in the business, but it's rare that he's given the opportunity to showcase these talents. Swanson and Englund display a bit of variation here and there, such as the Middle Eastern-inspired lead riff on “Decapitate,” but it's still the same stoner death n' roll for the horror obsessed who cannot and will not put down the bong. Unfortunately, the bass talents of Jeff Hughell, a talented technician of the fat strings as proven by his previous work in Vile and Brain Drill, are left on the shelf, and he's subjugated to merely ceremonial holding down of the low end. It's not until the album's final track, “The Curse of Ancients” -- the slowest and longest of this offering -- that his fuzzy tone is discernible.
What we are left with in the end is a Six Feet Under album for existing fans of Six Feet Under. Unborn doesn't push any of the band's musical boundaries, except in the drum department, and there are no radical departures from the overall mission statement Barnes laid out in 1995. Is it predictable? Absolutely, to the point where one can even yell out the final words to the lines before hearing them (“flames...remains” in “Inferno”, for example). Is it catchy? Definitely. But is it getting stale and repetitive? Sadly, yes. And perhaps it has been for some time. Six Feet Under, barring a rather large fire being lit under the band's collective backside, is quickly relegating itself from being a band capable of putting out outstanding original material to a band turning into its own cover act.