Black Breath are back, but not as we know them. Since their 2012 album Sentenced To Life death has brushed by, literally, in the case of drummer and main songwriter Jamie Byrum, and now Black Breath are back to spread the word. And what is the word? No, not the bird. The word is death. Still on Southern Lord, and with Mark Palm replacing Zack Muljat on rhythm guitar, the first hint of change is Paolo Girardi’s cover art. Turn to the back, and ‘Black Breath’ is peeling away in rags, adorned with leathery wings and crossed scythes. The second is the two minute intro to opening track Pleasure, Pain, Disease; that’s not very punk, is it? The third is Neil McAdams’ vocals; lower–pitched than on Sentenced To Life, 2010’s Heavy Breathing and 2008 E.P Razor To Oblivion, now they are more of a gravelly growl than a scream; more roar of an undead grizzly bear or something than howler monkey (who I think would still lose to McAdams in a howling competition). Slaves Beyond Death is very much a move towards death metal, shrugging off a lot of the hardcore punk in the process.
But don’t start thinking that Black Breath are getting smart, even if the times are a changin’; this is not a complex nor a technical listen. It’s messy, it revs away like a buzzsaw, and like your finest butt scratcher, it scratches an itch to the highest quality. Recorded at Kurt Ballou’s God City studio, blast beats of the splatty–est (you read it here first) nature alternate with grooves you could use as a half–pipe, Reaping Flesh being an excellent example. For the most part the punk influence that their previous two albums contained is gone; consequently, Slaves Beyond Death doesn’t possess the immediate wildness of Sentenced to Life and Heavy Breathing, and doesn’t have the same instant hook. That said, Black Breath still lurch and charge along with what could be nothing else but Black Breath riffs. There’s what I like to think of as one of their classic ‘diminished charging’ riffs at 4.17 in Slaves Beyond Death, the classic groove with a stop–start in the middle at 4.25 into Seeds of Cain, and the swagger that accompanies ‘I will return!’ in A Place of Insane Cruelty, the layers coming and going very effectively throughout the album. Entombedcore or not, Black Breath have their own sound.
The lyrical subject matter confirms this move towards death metal; generally speaking, the narrator is attacking the listener, hunting them, torturing them, eating them, killing them, so on and so forth. These horror and gore–themed lyrics are not massively poetic or original, but complement the sledgehammer attack of the music. They don’t mention how much they hate Christianity on this album; by this point, it’s more of a read–between–the–lines thing.
Something I did find surprising was the length of the songs. Slaves Beyond Death consists of 8 tracks across 49 minutes and 17 seconds, creating an average track length of 6 minutes and 7 point something seconds. Despite what these song lengths imply, Slaves Beyond Death is an unsubtle album, and in some ways relies on energy to see it through. By seventh track Burning Hate I was beginning to think that if Slaves Beyond Death wasn’t so good, it could be accused of almost being one–dimensional, the aural equivalent of a slasher film. Eighth and closing track Chains Of The Afterlife changes all that. The song builds, and builds, possessing a grandiosity atypical to Black Breath, especially compared to earlier songs like Black Sin (Spit On The Cross) or Unholy Virgin. The dual guitar intro reminds me of Fade To Black, switching into a jaw breaker of a riff before returning to a mournful, marching riff which leads into the best guitar solo I’ve heard in ages. This is epic, and as we all know, if it can be pulled off, being epic rarely fails. As my comparison to Fade To Black suggests, this final track is Ride The Lightning quality. I stand by my statement that Slaves Beyond Death is a slasher, but it’s so good it exceeds such confines. Black Breath are back. The word is death.