So Grim So True So Real: The Black Dahlia Murder
So Grim, So True, So Real offers a new way to think about a given band’s discography. In this feature, we will highlight first, the low point in a band’s body of work (So Grim), and then the album which, to the best of the IO team’s estimation, most people hold in the greatest esteem (So True), and finally one album which holds up as the best listening experience, regardless of what fans and critics insist (So Real).
The Black Dahlia Murder are an easy band to get into. They’ve got DVDs and a crew of merry fools to entertain even the most jaded metal enthusiast. How can you not smile at a band that employs a grown man to run around in a gorilla suit when they play a song titled “Statutory Ape?” The Black Dahlia Murder were the band that started my obsession with death metal after cutting my teeth with Lamb of God. At the time, they were a young, hard-working and hard-partying underground band you could root for. They’ve put out an album every two years like clockwork since 2003 and, according to the band, play around 200 shows a year. This work ethic has made them one of the premier death metal acts of the last 15 years and put them on track to become the Cannibal Corpse equivalent for a younger generation of extreme metal fans.
There was a time when The Black Dahlia Murder were not well thought of by many, even after the release of the critical darling Nocturnal in 2007. The band has been inexplicably mislabeled as a “core” or “scene” band. Despite rising from the hardcore scene in Detroit, the band has been a melodic death metal band since their first official release, Unhallowed. As hard as you look, you won’t find one example of the band using a tritone breakdown or clean singing in their discography.
Perhaps The Black Dahlia Murder’s willingness to tour with bands like As I Lay Dying and Thy Art is Murder is to blame for the miscategorization. Perhaps it’s the fact that they’ve played Warped Tour. Maybe their use of now defunct social media outlets like MySpace or their penchant for brightly colored comic-styled t-shirt prints -- both elements shared by “core” legends like Job for a Cowboy and Suicide Silence -- started the confusion. Regardless, let the rumors be forever quelled: The Black Dahlia Murder never have and never will be a “core” band. They are keepers of the flame, champions of the metal orthodoxy, at least from a musical standpoint.
Though consummate storytellers both musically and lyrically, The Black Dahlia Murder are a lot like you and me. They are just as much metal fans as they are metal musicians. Lead singer Trevor Strnad is a veritable metal encyclopedia. The man probably knows more about metal than any other living human. His brain should be “Carbonized in Cruciform” to ensure the annals of metal knowledge entombed within his braincase are not lost to the degradation of time. Or he could just keep writing his column, “The Obituarist,” on Metal Injection where Strnad shares gems from the metal underground with readers less likely to find them on their own.
The Black Dahlia Murder make metal fun. Unlike so many overly serious metal elitists, Strnad and his bandmates acknowledge the ridiculous aspects of the genre, which in turn brings people in versus pushing them away. They take silly band photos and release music videos where they perform at bowling alleys. Yet, at the same time, they honor the traditional elements of metal like fantasy, gore, and horror without making either side of their collective personality feel contrived.
Eight albums in, The Black Dahlia Murder show no signs of selling out or slowing down. They continue to release some of the best melodic death metal the genre has to offer and they remain my favorite death metal band.
So Grim – Abysmal (2015)
Two years ago, there was cause to worry about The Black Dahlia Murder. 2013’s Everblack failed to live up to the expectations set by Ritual, and after hearing Abysmal it was conceivable that they were heading in the same direction as other once-infallible metal bands, like Lamb of God, who seemed unable to recover from subpar albums.
Abysmal doesn’t live up to its namesake, but it isn’t good either. That would normally be okay, but for a band whose music has so often had me convinced that pledging fealty to a nefarious supernatural force would be the wisest choice for my next career move, it is a letdown. Abysmal adds nothing new and is filled with riffs that lack the spunk present on prior albums. The gothic melodies that so effectively evoked a feeling of longing, despair, and creepiness on past releases like Nocturnal and Miasma are regrettably replaced with mostly generic riffing. Songs like “Re-Faced,” “The Fog,” “Stygiophobic,” “Asylum,” and “The Advent” don’t go anywhere and are thoroughly forgettable. The lack of infectious guitar melodies makes the heavier moments on songs like “The Advent” that much less convincing due to a lack of contrast.
This deficiency in variety also affects Strnad’s vocals. He sticks to a mid-range bark for the majority of the album, effectively putting a muzzle on one of death metal’s more versatile vocalists. It’s a shame because the lyrics are still top-notch and significantly more personal than those on prior albums, depicting Strnad’s struggles with anxiety and depression.
Despite Abysmal’s flaws, “Receipt” boasts impressive technical riffing and contains the best guitar melodies on the album along with “Threat Level No. 3.” The latter song’s neo-classical chorus riff can go skull-to-skull with the band’s best work. “Vlad, Son of the Dragon” is generic but enjoyable and minus some uncharacteristically uncomfortable transitions, “Abysmal” is a serviceable slab of melo-death. Unfortunately, two excellent and two good songs a great record does not make.
So True – Nocturnal (2007)
Released during the apex of metalcore and deathcore’s popularity, Nocturnal provided a breath of fresh, if still a bit familiar, air to the metal scene. Guitarist Brian Eschbach’s songwriting is in top form on this album. It sounds composed in the most traditional sense of the word: each riff flows effortlessly into the next. Listen how the guitars in the chorus of “What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse” build tension with a high pitched tremolo-picked section before diving into a low chug, followed by a tasteful guitar solo which is subsequently crushed by Strnad’s low guttural vocals on the bridge. Nocturnal is chock full of these moments. It’s melodic, it’s heavy, it’s unforgiving. Beethoven would love this shit.
Nocturnal perfects the template carved out by The Black Dahlia Murder’s previous album Miasma by cutting the fat. Miasma has some great moments, but it also has passages where it drags. Conversely, there is virtually no filler on Nocturnal. The album never lets up with infectious and hummable harmonized guitar melodies. You can sing many of the main guitar lines like those featured in the chorus of “Deathmask Divine” and “Warborn.” They are epic and operatic in scope. They evoke a sense of longing yet still manage to be unapologetically catchy and romantic in a dark, evil sort of way. After all, “Deathmask Divine” is about falling hopelessly in love with a corpse.
Strnad is one of the most versatile screamers in death metal and he uses his talents most effectively on this album. With a voice that is instantly recognizable, he transitions quickly between highs and lows which adds a refreshing level of unpredictability to his performance. Nocturnal’s sense of melody is complemented beautifully by knuckle-dragging moments of brutality like the bridge riff in “Of Darkness Spawned.” Strnad makes excellent use of his guttural low vocals here which sound especially heinous contrasted with his rabid high pitched barks. This section also features some of my favorite lyrics in The Black Dahlia Murder’s discography: “My Lord, I kneel before you, now paint me bloody red / Bathing in blasphemy I beat the path that’s travelled less.” Both evil and poetic indeed.
Nocturnal’s album art matches the feel of the record perfectly. It depicts a lonely, long forgotten place filled with dark memories and evokes visual comparisons to Minas Morgul from The Lord of the Rings. Somewhere, someone in that cold castle is brooding in the darkness, repeatedly playing Nocturnal on a pipe organ while lamenting their horrific existence. Nocturnal is not only the best album by The Black Dahlia Murder, it is among the best melodic death metal albums of all time and will forever serve as a reference point for bands to work towards.
So Real – Nightbringers (2017)
It’s rare for the eighth album by any band to be hyped as much as Nightbringers, which was the most pre-ordered album in the history of Metal Blade Records.
It’s even rarer for an album to live up to such hype, but Nightbringers delivers and is the band’s best work since Ritual. It brings the “fun” element back to The Black Dahlia Murder after the grim Everblack and grimmer Abysmal. It’s short, to the point, and most importantly, it combines elements from every era of the band with new influences thanks to the addition of Brandon Ellis, formerly of Arsis, on lead guitar.
Out with the old and in with the new. When Ryan Knight, also formerly of Arsis, joined the band for Deflorate in 2009, he was a huge improvement over former guitarist John Kempainen in terms of technical ability. The dude can shred. However, a certain haunting aesthetic was lost. Kempainen’s harmonic minor solos were melodic and tasteful with a tone that sounded as though they were being transmitted from beyond the grave. Ellis’ playing is certainly more shred-happy than Kempainen’s, and potentially even more technically proficient than Knight’s, but he has brought back a higher level of musicality to the solos on Nightbringers. The fluidity of his playing almost makes you forget that he’s playing a guitar. His tone harkens back to Kempainen’s and his extensive use of vibrato, like that heard on the title track, adds a spooky dimension to his solos. Ellis’ songwriting influence is also felt on “Kings of the Nightworld,” which is a death metal version of a medieval jig and the most incongruous song The Black Dahlia Murder have released to date.
Older and beloved elements of the band make a hasty return on the album as well. The album opener about the reported transgressions of Tim Lambesis, “Widowmaker,” impresses from the first riff which violently announces that the neo-classical melodies so sorely missed on Abysmal have returned with a vengeance.
The first four songs on this album are so good that it’s impossible to put on “Widowmaker” without listening through to the title track, which is one of the band’s best songs. It features a bridge that is particularly malevolent, memorable, and unabashedly anti-Christian. The section features a harmonized guitar melody that recalls Nocturnal before exploding like an atom bomb as Strnad shouts: “Unholy fiends driven by will!” The moment of silence when the drums and guitars drop out adds more weight to this climax than any bass drop could. This is gimmick-free death metal songwriting at its best.
Not everything on Nightbringers works though. It’s sometimes hard to hear the rhythm guitar parts on certain stereo systems. They can even sound thin when compared to past records. This is a huge bummer, especially when the guitar playing is so damn good. I could take or leave “Jars” and the bridge to “Catacomb Hecatomb," which is presumably supposed to be the heavy high point of the song, does not hit as hard as intended. Luckily, the rest of the album makes up for these minor shortcomings.
If you want to show someone the culmination of everything The Black Dahlia Murder have been as a band, you play them Nightbringers. This is the album that solidifies them as a legacy death metal act. The band fixes all the issues that arose on Abysmal and proves that they can still put out an album capable of rivaling their finest work.
Yes, Nocturnal is still The Black Dahlia Murder’s opus, but Nightbringers encompasses the best from every phase of the band’s career. It is everything a Black Dahlia Murder album should be – catchy, melodic, evil, and fun as hell. So grab your cloaks and bring on the cover of dusk, for tonight we shall all be Kings of the Nightworld! We metal fans have some dark revelry to undertake and Nightbringers shall provide our soundtrack.
-- Chris Butler