The Acacia Strain is described in its press materials as being a deathcore band, but, if you read up on the group, it turns out that lead vocalist Vincent Bennett, who is the only remaining original member of the outfit, has gone on record as saying, “Deathcore is the new nu-metal. … It sucks. And if anyone calls us ‘deathcore’ then I might do something very bad to them.” Right. So the Acacia Strain are NOT deathcore. Nope. Nope. Uh-uh. While the group employs images of death and devastation in their music, they seem to prefer the hardcore metal classification. Whatever you want to call the Acacia Strain, their latest album, Coma Witch, is not for the faint of heart. And before I say anything else, the message of this music is so dark and misanthropic, that if you have any inkling of suicidal ideation (and excuse me for yelling here), DO NOT BUY THIS RECORD. There are people out there who want to help you, and there’s no shame in calling a crisis line and talking about your troubles and sorrows.
Coma Witch is only for those with a strong center and disposition, and can appreciate the lyrics and themes for what they are, whether it’s just roleplaying or something more. Coma Witch also takes shots at organized religion on “Holy Walls of the Vatican”, which is obviously worthy of derision from those who have sought light in the darkness. Still, if you can look past all of this, and take Coma Witch for what it’s worth, what you have is a bracing, unapologetic, mesmerizing album. And it could very well be easily one of the best metal albums of the year.
The group is riding a crest of growing popularity, as evidenced by its chart positions: 2010’s Wormwood peaked at No. 67 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, and 2012’s Death Is the Only Mortal went to No. 51. I would be highly bemused if Coma Witch didn’t rise to the Top 40, based on their most recent trajectory. However, chart positions really mean nothing in the context of the music, as Coma Witch is full of chugging, head-banging riffs that reach for the throat and do not let go. The album is actually separated onto two discs. The first disc is the “album proper” and its 10 songs are very similar in thudding and relentless sound. The second disc contains the more than 27-minute epic “Observer”, which is not only the record’s pièce de résistance, it is only linked to the first disc by thematic as it is full of shifting movements and is played at a generally slower pace. While “Observer” could have easily fit onto the first disc — the whole album, both discs worth, is about 65 minutes long — it’s a definite Being There move, and shows an artistic streak by separating Coma Witch’s oil from water.
The first disc begins with the sound of something that sounds like tornado sirens going off with a sampled bit of dialogue, before bringing the crunching, punishing guitars to the fore as Bennett yells, “Rest in peace.” For this band, there is “no goodbye and no farewell” as evidenced on the song, “Human Disaster”, which also seems to condone murder. So, yeah, this is bleak stuff and you have to take it with a grain of salt as a metaphor for the evilness that walks among us all. “Cauterizer”, meanwhile, focuses a bit more squarely on the rhythm section of bass and drums, and I have seen criticism online that the song just doesn’t offer much in the way of headbanging thrills as the first single from the album. However, it does fit as a jigsaw piece in the whole. If you overlook that the song boasts less heaviness in sound, and is more about the heaviness of its lyrical content, then it may do something for you, as it seemed to for me. “Send Help” continues in the same vein, with its guitars forming more of a rhythmic element in the same way that Alex Lifeson of Rush used his instrument in the ‘80s not to lead, but to provide a cadenced backing to synths, bass, and drums. The Rush reference is actually apt, as the bass riff that opens “World Demise” seems lifted in spirit from the fingers of Geddy Lee.
But as good as the proper album is, nothing — absolutely nothing — will prepare you for the masterwork that is “Observer”. It is, in short, brilliance, pure magnificence. It appears to be the story of a suicide gone wrong. There is the sound of a car engine running in a garage, followed by the sound of breaking glass as our protagonist is rescued, followed by the sound of a heart monitor beeping as surgery is seemingly performed, one that appears to result in the coma of the album’s title. However, weaved through this are interludes and movements, making it very much in line with classic progressive rock. The Acacia Strain has never been known for its long songs, so this number is an incredible progression and risk for the group to take. It’s highly theatrical and dramatic, woven with spoken word bits, and is a prime example of how metal is closely linked with other genres of music, even classical.
This all said, Coma Witch, because of its darkness and blasphemy, may not be a record for everyone. There is material to truly fear here, and I do worry about the messaging and its effect on people who may be going through a crisis, who may choose a dark path and decide to end their life after hearing this. However, all art has to transcend its messages and themes. If we judged art on moralistic merits alone, there would be plenty of examples of music, books, movies and paintings (and so on) that would be deemed unworthy of a canonical status. Personally, the lyrics and themes are not my cup of tea, and it took strong moral determination on my part to just see them as fantastic fiction.
That said, one has to look beyond that and see how the lyrics and music hold up and compliment each other. They do. And given the massive artistic strides that the Acacia Strain take with “Observer”, this is a welcoming addition to the hardcore genre. Just whatever you do, don’t call this deathcore. Even though death is at the forefront of this music, and there is a belief that the grave offers the ultimate solace with no hope of resurrection, spiritual or otherwise, I believe that Bennett and his band truly trust in their hardcore vision. And calling them what they don’t want to be tagged as could result in something nasty. No one deserves to be chopped up into tiny pieces, so I’ll just call this music great music and slowly, ever so slowly, back away and hope that no axe man knocks on my door and that the Grim Reaper is many years away from taking my soul.