DevilDriver Accurately Forecast the Weather With Winter Kills

  • Dave Mustein

Am I old enough to be able to wax nostalgic about metal? Maybe not yet, but if there were a metal band appropriate for me to wax about it would be Devildriver. The band’s early releases filled hour after hour in junior high and high school, and even when I stopped listening to the band, I still had a soft spot for them; I’ve always thought of Devildriver as one of the more inventive artists in the NWOAHM movement. Winter Kills validated my teenage beliefs, providing an excellent re-introduction to Devildriver’s brand of not-quite death metal, with an hour of heavily energetic entertainment that should (but probably won’t) silence the haters.

Winter Kills isn’t your average run-of-the-mill mehtalcore slab. Guitarists Jeff Kendrick and Mike Spreitzer are capable of riffing far beyond binary grooves, and John Boecklin’s drum performance is distanced from death metal only by its lack of blast beats and exaggerated tempos. The album slams with feral heaviness; the end of the title track undulates with heavy parabolic loops that will likely fuel a lifting session and a circle pit or two. Complexity is present, like in the intriguing melodies of “The Appetite” and the impressively soulful shred of “Haunting Refrain.” Though the grooves in “Ruthless” appear simple, double bass and stuttering rhythms demand our ear canals’ attention by the track’s close.

The album isn’t radically new territory for the band, yet it’s still unquestionably good music. It seems like the band’s departure from longtime host Roadrunner has freed them to develop better songs than they have before. Even with an hour of music, it’s tough to pick out any definitively “bad” sections. The old-fashioned chug-a-long “Gutted” is as appreciable as the bouncing harmonious choruses that never fail to bring Dez Fafara’s tacky lyricisms to the tip of your tongue. DevilDriver have learned to master the clichés that most bands horribly imbalance. The clichés themselves aren’t inherently conducive to poor material; they’re just ineffective when they cause an artist’s music to lack distinctive character. DevilDriver’s songwriting balances the numbers of breakdowns and bellows, preventing Winter Kills from strictly exhausting its welcome and enabling even the simplest octaved chords to be worth a headbang.

Unfortunately, DevilDriver have always felt like they’re playing death metal in a sealed plastic bag – it’s damn heavy, but it’s got that kind of commerciality push that keeps it from being accepted with the rest of the broots. It’s not quite varied enough to listen to purely by the virtue of its musical integrity, and the production’s just a little too tepid to appreciate all the heaviness. Dez’s vocals (not to mention his lyrical tomfoolery and radioactive reputation) have always been the feeblest component of DevilDriver. The tone isn’t bad, but his emphasis and range pale in comparison to most extreme metal vocalists. It’s painful to see these shortcomings limit DevilDriver’s potential to tours like the Mayhem Fest circuit, when their instrumental abilities could propel them far further.

Notably, Winter Kills includes the most interesting song of DevilDriver’s career in “Sail,” a thirteen-minute marathon that mutates through several incongruous elements. It begins with a semi-serious major-themed swing (“blame it on my ADD, baby!”) that’s slightly infected with clean vocals, which is followed by an abrupt pause that dives into an industrially grooving pulse. Clipped, forcefully gated guitar rhythms abound until they curiously fade out around the eight-minute mark, before returning in a traditional stomp. “Sail” isn’t a particularly cohesive song, but it’s interesting to see DevilDriver attempting such nontraditional structure. And like the instrumental capacity they’ve displayed here, this innovative drive gives me hope that in the future the band will be able to execute an extensive, epic album with tight cohesion as well as intelligent individual parts – one that I’ll be able to reminisce about for decades to come.

Winter Kills comes out August 27 on Napalm Records. You can listen to “Ruthless” here and you can find preorder packages here.

Editor’s Note: It’s been brought to our attention by Napalm Records that “Sail” is not, in fact, a thirteen minute track. The promo we received from the label erroneously had “Sail” combined with the album’s two bonus tracks — “Shudder” and “Back Down to the Grave” — as one.

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