I should mention three things before getting into the review: first, I’m a Byzantine mega-fan dork. I’ve loved this band since I first heard their debut full length, The Fundamental Component, and I’ve felt that they’ve gotten better and better with each release. The second thing I should mention is that I was given a chance back in January to crash frontman Chris “OJ” Ojeda’s vocal sessions at 7over8 Studios near my home in Myrtle Beach, and, while there for an interview with OJ and producer Jay Hannon, got to hear a couple of these songs in a rough, unfinished, vocal-less state. And the third is that I’ve been a participant in the band’s last two crowd-funding efforts; incidentally, I couldn’t be happier with where my little chunk of scratch went, and will continue to support bands via crowdfunding, with Byzantine’s experience as a perfect model for how this should be done. Keep all that in mind, if you want. Let’s jam.
Opener “Scold’s Bridle” (these dudes’ titles never disappoint) jumps off with the band’s traditional staccato tone and percussion assault united in a mid-paced stomp riff, soon colliding with some dissonant spacey licks and scream/sing vocal trade-offs. If you’re into this band and, like me, absolutely loved the twang-infused shred of the last record’s tracks like “Forged In The Heart of A Dying Star,” at about the 3:16 mark (following some always catchy clean vocals), “Scold’s Bridle” just destroys with one of the change-ups this band so flawlessly executes.
The next three tracks are a diverse, consistent chunk of perfection. “Justinian Code” is over eight minutes of trademark Byzantine schizophrenia. The formula that took shape in “Jeremiad” and “Expansion and Collapse,” and was even further refined on “Signal Path,” has officially reached the age of perfection touted on really expensive liquor labels. Everything that makes Byzantine Byzantine is dug in all over “Justinian Code”: the mechanical guitar and drum patterns, stop-on-a-dime dirty vocal savagery, genre-bending pockets of virtuosic instrumentation. The opening riff alone is the kind of epic rally cry that’s tailor-cut to ring out over an audience to get ’em pumped for an encore. I heard “Justinian Code” without vocals and, I believe, without new guitarist Brian Henderson’s soloing, and even then I knew it’d be a true gem in the record’s sequence. I was so right. And speaking of Henderson, he’s on “Justinian Code” bringing a hell of a lot more than just solos; his clean vocals during the track’s long melodic break are beautiful and versatile. Byzantine is a tough band to bring new talent to, but Henderson proves here that he’s more than capable of pulling his weight. “A Curious Lot” (a past pick of mine for our Singles Mingle series) follows it up with Byzantine’s most fully-developed, straight-forward mosher since Oblivion Beckons‘s “Nadir.” There’s tons of melody here, but none too catchy to make it feel like a vie at rock radio. There’s a tempered patience to the track’s aggression, but not the kind that’d weaken it. It’s a song that’s at once inviting and riotous, and that’s a hard balance to strike. Then comes “The Agonies.” This track was what OJ and Hannon were working on when I got to visit the studio. Check out the link above to read more about it, but without repeating myself too much, I’ve gotta say, man… I have the finished product in my hand, on my computer. Vocally, “The Agonies” (“you were the light of your family / a beacon of hope snuffed out before you”) sounds exactly like what was coming out of OJ’s mouth in person. The song’s amazing, and I hate that you weren’t there for it, but I can’t help but talk about how much of a testament this song is to the guy’s ability as a singer. Truly killer. Lyrically “The Agonies” revisits some of OJ’s well-trod past philosophical exploits, namely the insight into communities ravaged by prescription drug abuse, a topic with which, as dudes from rural West Virginia and Arkansas, we’re both well acquainted. As always, to take subject matter as depressing as addiction or as far-flung as the civil discourse of antiquity and make it engaging ain’t the easiest task. Listen to this stuff. Watch the dude shine.
To Release Is To Resolve then segues into “God Forsaken,” a track that, like “Posthumous,” sees the band push their repertoire further into the realms of melody and stark, acoustic exploration. Barebones, unplugged strumming and mournful blues licks punctuate the song’s verses, accompanying a vulnerability in OJ’s delivery that definitely feels like new territory. The track’s soft parts are a success on their own, but when compared with the heavier passages they preface, this material really lets the album soar in ways the record probably wouldn’t have been able to attain had the band only employed an “all kill, all damn day” approach. “You Sleep, We Wake” feels most familiar out of this batch; it could’ve easily come from the …And They Shall Take Up Serpents sessions, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t find itself in Byzantine’s live set in forthcoming tours.
The album ends with the combination of “To Release” and “To Resolve.” The former is an expansive number that sees the band run the entire gamut of its repertoire. A near-minute intro features an escalating instrumental tension of building riffs and sitar-style Middle Eastern effects that feed into a heavy, steady head-bobber accented by some of OJ’s best pitched scream work, with a few death-style gutturals thrown in for seasoning. “To Release” also gives veteran drummer Matt Wolfe and new bassist Sean Sydnor some excellent opportunities to show off how well they complement each other. While bass groove isn’t something Byzantine’s ever lacked, Sydnor’s finger-playing style implements a fluidity that, when paired with Wolfe’s rhythm, creates a whole new aspect of this band’s latest chapter to keep us excited. The former, “To Resolve,” closes the outing with a track that’s half strong hooks (a la “Oblivion Beckons”), half refrains and repetitions, opting for an effective, reflective closer instead of Byzantine‘s balls-out suicide mission to get out every last bit of aggression that’s built up over the course of the record (“Pathogen”).
Byzantine is the most underrated, criminally slept-on band in metal. There’s no particular subgenre that can hold them, there’s not much nerd-worthy instrumentation territory they haven’t populated and subsequently set afire, and there’s literally no vocal hurdle OJ can’t annihilate. To Release Is To Resolve is the latest chapter in the legacy of a band that’s truly doing the work of pushing heavy music in fulfilling, bold new directions. Hopefully this is the record that sees them receive the recognition they deserve, and as recently rechristened, bonafide road dogs, odds are they’ll be playing your city soon to make damn sure you get a chance to see in person why that recognition is so well-deserved.
To Release Is To Resolve is out April 7th. Order it from Byzantine here.