REVIEW: AUGUST BURNS RED – “Death Below”
The Pennsylvania-based metalcore band, August Burns Red have been a staple in the scene for over twenty years. With humble small-town beginnings, ABR has grown to be one of the powerhouses of the metalcore genre, known for their technical approach to songwriting, a unique aspect in a genre more wont to lean towards groove and pure heaviness. Twenty years later, ABR shows no signs of letting up, and they are back with their newest offering, Death Below, a follow-up to 2019’s Guardians.
At a time when metalcore was still a young upstart in the greater metal scene, struggling to find a distinct identity that properly straddled the line between “true” metal and the more straightforward elements in hardcore, August Burns Red chose to add a unique layer of flair to their songs: technical riffs borrowed from the more progressive subgenres of metal, along with crushing breakdowns, albeit with catchy non-standard rhythms. This recipe yielded tracks like “Back Burner”, “Composure”, “White Washed”, “Leveler” etc. which quickly became memorable in their catalog and representative of the better side of metalcore. Over the years, their songwriting chops have matured as the band picks up elements and tropes from an increasingly diverse array of sources, while still trying to stay true to the sound that put them on the map.
Kicking off Death Below with a short intro and then dropping into a seven-minute progressive metalcore juggernaut “The Cleansing” is a ballsy move, to say the least. The track features equal measures of note-laden rhythms and chuggy breakdowns, along with more melodic passages which is yet another strong card in the ABR deck. Some of the chord choices possess melancholic than is normally expected from ABR and metalcore and add another layer of unexpected depth to the track. To those naysayers that would quickly cast this new ABR away as becoming too pretentious for their own good, fret not, there is plenty of techy thrashy goodness in the form of “Ancestry” (featuring the vocals of Jesse Leach from Killswitch Engage). In fact, Death Below features quite the who’s-who of the metalcore scene with blistering guitar solos by Jason Richardson (ex-Born of Osiris, ex-All Shall Perish, ex-All That Remains, and currently solo virtuoso) on “Tightrope”, “The Abyss” with JT Cavey (off Erra, ex-Texas In July) and album closer “Reckoning” with Spencer Chamberlain (Underoath).
There are strong tracks like the single “Backfire” that lean more heavily into the metal side of metalcore, with more straightforward brutality and even a kiss here and there of blast-beats which cause the tracks to careen closely to the lighter side of deathcore, they serve ABR well in context. In contrast, modern metalcore rears its head pretty sharply on “Revival”, with a heavier emphasis on that mid-paced chunk. My personal favorite track on Death Below is quite clearly “Dark Divide” featuring the catchiest breakdown intro that August Burns Red has written in a good while, with pick-scrapes and sliding harmonics that add just enough spice to an otherwise ordinary breakdown. The track itself is high energy and can be quite the strain on a headbanging neck.
It is no surprise that the musicians in August Burns Red are among the best in the game. Guitarists JB Brubaker continues to be a riff machine and is firmly backed up by fellow rhythm-ster Brent Rambler. It is particularly enjoyable to see Rambler’s stake in the songwriting get more pronounced as he becomes a better musician and adds his own flavor to Brubaker’s riffs. In terms of drumming, few in the scene would deny that Matt Greiner is the one they looked up to when they decided to pick up drumming in the metalcore world. His focus on blast beats and more aggressive drum lines take vanilla riffs and push them into winning territory. Vocalist Jake Luhrs may come off as divisive in certain audiences, but his work on Death Below is rock solid, easily transitioning between various registers, with growls that would impress even the most ardent of extreme metal fans. Special mention must be made of bassist/multi-instrumentalist Dustin Davidson. It has only recently come to my attention how instrumental he is in the ABR songwriting machine. Davidson is a band unto himself, able to navigate guitar riffs with the best of them, writing creative bass lines in a genre that tends to leave the bass lines mostly simplistic and pushed to the background, and can even hold his own behind the kit, all while providing clean vocals. Another win to be awarded to Death Below (and most ABR records) is that the production is spectacular! In particular, I struggle to think of other bands that give the bass as much of a presence in the mix as ABR does, which is probably more praise for Davidson. The mix on Death Below is pristine without taking away even an iota of aggression. It really should be the gold standard for metalcore production, if it already isn’t.
Tight as the tracks are on Death Below, there is some level of creeping samey-fatigue that sets in. A common complaint with bands with a trademark sound and an ever-increasing catalog is that many of the newer tracks don’t quite have the same “lasting power”, especially in an age of hyper-consumption and tiny attention spans. While the riffs can be catchy, and the breakdowns can be groovy, I struggled to retain much of Death Below even after several listens. Though curveballs like the interlude “Fool’s Gold in the Bear Trap” and “Sevink” sufficiently do their job of punctuating what would otherwise be a monotonous run-through with easily replaceable tracks. Fortunately, the back half of Death Below is almost stronger than the leading half, which is another brave move. Tracks like “Deadbolt” and “Reckoning” are just high-octane techy metalcore with just enough punch to keep you moving.
Death Below is another winning entry in the August Burns Red catalog. Leaning more towards straightforward aggression, Death Below does still have moments that can surprise you. A well-produced progressive-metalcore party record!