After almost two decades, vocalist Chris Barnes has put together his ideal line-up for his post Cannibal Corpse blood-and-butter, Six Feet Under. While the band’s latest album, Undead, arrived in my inbox flagged with a red exclamation point for skepticism, it has remained on my playlist. Somehow. My life the last few weeks has been a sitcom where some dude from a ‘94 Cannibal Corpse show smokes out of a skull bong and travels to 2012 and stays on my couch. As it turns out, we have a lot to learn from each other.

This album makes clear how death metal, in that 1990s Sunshine State style at least, doesn’t really exist today. This sucks, because with today’s million hyper-tech death bands, and all those expressive low-fi spirit grunters, death metal seems like the natural missing middle ground.

What makes Undead work is a balance between the tooth grinding intensity of its blasts and the bone-strewn muck of its down-tempo bits. Slower tracks like “Depths of Depravity” retain their groove, and establish an atmosphere where the fog is concealing an evil solid and substantial, and not just waiting to be burnt off by the sun. Faster bits in the Morbid Angel/Bolt Thrower shred off “Formaldehyde” remind me what happens when technicality is used in service to heaviness and not “vibe” or “satanic mist” or whatever. Before the new lineup — which includes former Chimaira members Rob Arnold and Kevin Talley — it’s a technicality Six Feet Under never really had at its disposal.

A track with the patience of “Blood on my Hands” just wouldn’t happen on a contemporary tech death album, its mainly mid-tempo riffage collapsing into a sickly harmonic lead that just curdles out of your speakers.  I can’t recall any death album of late besides Disma’s Towards the Megalith that recalled the ‘90s this way — although Undead is generally catchier than that release.

That is not to say our ‘90s death time traveller isn’t having some adjustment issues, too. The guitar tones are amazing, but the drums sometimes sound like they were recorded inside a vacuum sealed plastic bag. Nothing ruins a trip through Barne’s expertly barked murder grounds than hearing a hyper digitized cymbal and thinking that somehow Whitechapel has invaded. More outta touch than in style, the track “Reckless”  has a pretty stilted attempt at D-beat during its verses, especially in the age of groups like Disfear and Early Graves. On an album that knows how to groove, it’s a distraction.

Otherwise, Undead is one of the surprises of the year.

(3 1/2 out of 5 horns)


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