After years of meeting expectations, God Forbid finally exceeds them on their fifth album.
At one point on God Forbid's excellent 2008 DVD Beneath the Scars of Glory and Progression, the band lists the metal acts that have opened for them over the years who went on to become far more famous than they ever have. It's heartbreaking: Avenged Sevenfold, Unearth, Trivium, Underoath, Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Thursday…all major draws today. Meanwhile, despite putting together a very impressive run of albums, God Forbid still had to scratch and claw its way up the metal ladder, rung by hard-fought rung. Ever since 2004's breakthrough album Gone Forever, the hard-touring New Jersey quintet has been increasingly earning respect in the metal scene. But musically, they've always been a work in progress, showing steady growth with each new release. Cracking the Billboard 200, a first for the band, 2005's IV: Constitution of Treason was a tremendous step forward, with God Forbid confidently incorporating melodic vocals and groove into their form of metalcore. However, while other new American metal bands continued to strike while the iron was still hot, God Forbid disappeared, taking nearly four years to put out the most crucial follow-up of their career.
As good as IV: Constitution of Treason was, that album sounded like it was as far as God Forbid would ever get operating within the confines of that metalcore template: flashy Swedish death metal melodies followed by the usual one-chord, mid-song breakdowns. So it's understandable that the band would want to do a little soul-searching before writing their new record. Either they could take the safe route, like Unearth and Shadows Fall, and continue to churn out the same old reliable, formulaic stuff, or they could try something a little bolder. The outstanding, elegiac single "To the Fallen Hero" was enough to convince many of us they had the potential to transcend the tired subgenre, but the leap the band has made from that album to Earthsblood will come as a huge surprise to many. Much like Machine Head's revelatory 2007 album The Blackening, it's a case of a veteran band finally coming into its own, and not adhering to a formula.
Gone are the metalcore clichés used as crutches. Instead, Earthsblood casts a much wider net, resulting in a surprisingly diverse, broad-minded, classic heavy metal sound. After a rather dignified piano intro, "The Rain" kicks things off in a somber direction, goth-like synths underscoring the lead guitar fills by Doc and Dallas Coyle, the brothers in turn offsetting the screams of swarthy vocalist Byron Davis with their own cleanly sung lines. The thrashy "Empire of the Gun" is highlighted by a strong, soaring chorus that audiences will be singing along to, while the bracing "War of Attrition" and the varied approach of "The New Clear" shows how far God Forbid has come in mastering songwriting dynamics.
As strong as the first half is, it's during the last four tracks that the band truly starts to top itself. "Walk Alone" combines a simple, Judas Priest-riffing style with the band's trademark fast picking, only to erupt into a big chorus that dares to evoke post-hardcore yet doesn't compromise the visceral power of the track at all. The brooding "Bat the Angels" is something entirely different. The Coyle brothers now toy with atonal riffs and harmonies, while bassist John Outcalt and drummer Corey Pierce lock the song into a lurching groove. The nine-minute title track is epic in every sense of the word, achieving an almost symphonic majesty. The song shifts gracefully between complicated riffing and contemplative melodic passages (Doc and Dallas trade leads like Tipton and Downing). The stately "Gaia (The Vultures)" brings things to a decidedly morose conclusion, the dark, aggressive tones giving way to desolate sounding strings. Ironically, it's an understated way for God Forbid to end such a bold album, but it's also a testament to their complete lack of pretension. They never overreach, and their discipline pays off immensely. Underdogs no more, they've truly turned a corner with Earthsblood, in the process besting nearly every single "big" band that ever opened for them in the early days. God Forbid's time has come.