It can be hard to tell The Black Dahlia Murder‘s albums apart. That’s at least partly by design. Although they’ve had uncommonly frequent and severe membership turnover — vocalist Trevor Strnad and guitarist Brian Eschbach are the only two founding members left, and in the band’s 19 years of existence they’ve had four lead guitarists, eight bassists, and five drummers, counting the current guys — their sound has never really changed from their earliest days. Basically, they play melodic death metal in the tradition of Swedish bands like At the Gates and early In Flames, as well as American peers like Darkest Hour and The Absence (former Metal Blade labelmates who never got as big as they should have). The songs always contain the same elements: catchy but headbang-y riffs; extremely fast, galloping, double-bass drumming; shreddy, almost classical guitar solos; and Strnad’s vocals, which are the thing that really sets them apart from their peers. He’s capable of switching from a guttural, choking-on-blood roar to a high-pitched, almost black metal screech so fast and seamlessly that it seems like the band has two lead vocalists working in tandem, trading off lines like Run-DMC. In fact, when I first heard their debut album, 2003’s Unhallowed, I assumed that was the case and thought it was a really cool idea.
They maintain a visual continuity across their catalog that perfectly matches their sonic consistency. Seven of their nine albums have some kind of creepy, foreboding, demonic landscape on the cover (eight if you count the photo of Las Vegas on 2005’s Miasma). Only the colors differ: 2015’s Abysmal is orange, 2013’s Everblack purple, 2017’s Nightbringers red, 2007’s Nocturnal blue, 2011’s Ritual and the brand-new Verminous green. I admire their commitment to doing one thing and doing it well, no matter who’s on bass. Craft, particularly in metal, can be much more rewarding than a relentless pursuit of innovation for its own sake. Bands like Obituary, Cannibal Corpse, and Immolation, who built their own roads and have been driving down them for decades, are the gods of this genre for exactly that reason. That said, if I had to pick a favorite TBDM album, it would probably be Ritual, where they added previously unheard elements like piano, acoustic guitar and strings, while still writing some of the best blast-your-face-off death metal songs of their career and letting then-lead guitarist Ryan Knight shred himself — and the listener — into exhausted satiety.
Verminous, which comes out this week, is also excellent. Its opening title track begins with dripping-water sound effects intended to imply that the album is playing, or was recorded, in a dismal dungeon somewhere, but the song itself is a blast of pure At the Gates-style melodeath, galloping along furiously and, every once in a while, dropping into a second-gear chug for a few seconds so the (presumably) furiously headbanging listener can catch his or her breath. There’s not as much shredding as will come later on, but there’s some nice dual lead guitar action and it ends with a really sweet fade-out.
It’s hard for a bassist to make him- or herself recognized in death metal, where that instrument’s usual role is to echo the rhythm guitarist, one octave lower, but like Cannibal Corpse‘s Alex Webster, TBDM’s Max Lavelle, with the group since 2012, throws in some surprisingly virtuosic fills and even gets a moment to himself here and there. And lead guitarist Brandon Ellis, like Knight a former member of Arsis, is the band’s VIP. His solos are positively symphonic; every time he starts one, I picture him standing on a darkened stage, lit by a single spotlight, wind blown by hidden fans. Drummer Alan Cassidy, also a member since 2012, rattles off blast beats with a little less intensity than his predecessor, Shannon Lucas, but demonstrates a capacity for dynamics and even subtlety on slower songs like “The Leather Apron’s Scorn.” The track that follows, “How Very Dead,” would be one of the catchiest songs in the band’s catalog, except for those blast beats. Similarly, “The Wereworm’s Feast” features a classically metal riff that more radio-friendly bands like Trivium or Arch Enemy would kill for. TBDM are really putting the “melodic” in their melodic death metal on Verminous, and as a consequence it’s one of their most immediately pleasurable albums, surprisingly welcoming to listeners unaccustomed to the relentless savagery of death metal. If you’ve never listened to The Black Dahlia Murder, this isn’t a bad place to start at all.