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Unrewarded glory - 84%

gasmask_colostomy, July 2nd, 2015

It seems fair to say in retrospect that Shadows Fall never had the best of luck. Back when they sounded like a melodic death metal band, they weren't in either the right place or playing at the right time to gain plaudits in that genre: the band were American, not European, so couldn't make the most of the receptive Scandinavian and German audiences, plus their earliest album was predated by the main melodeath movers by at least four or five years; then, when they moved over to metalcore at the beginning of the 00s, they were overshadowed by bands like Killswitch Engage, who get more credit for kickstarting the genre and have had continuing commercial success. All this sounds like Shadows Fall have lived constantly on the sidelines, yet they themselves achieved great commercial success with 'The War Within' and remain reasonably well-known today. However, I am of the opinion that they lost out in a big way and most of the loss comes at exactly the time of their second album 'Of One Blood'.

Listening to this album, the fact that this band had a whole slew of great ideas is shoved into your brain song by song, nor will you forget it by the end of the album. There are ideas to spare on the nine songs of this release and so much later music (we're talking maybe only months later in some cases) can be glimpsed in snippet form on songs like 'Fleshold' and 'Crushing Belial'. Chimaira, As I Lay Dying, God Forbid, Unearth, even some of the nu metal bands must have listened to this with excited ears, knowing that they could see a new direction that they were to pursue in the near future - it's unfair really. The reason why it is so unfair for Shadows Fall is that this album now sounds like a mash of all those later ideas, ripped out of different contexts and plagiarised to the extent of being overfamiliar and cliched. This album is to 00s mainstream metal what Hellhammer were to 80s extreme metal or what Michael Jackson's 'Thiller' is to pop and dance music of the following two decades. It's like the band provided everything, yet didn't work out what could be done with all the separate elements of their sound, only screw them together into sometimes messy, chaotic songs. 'Of One Blood' mixes together the existing sounds of melodeath, more conventional death metal, and rock-based vocal harmonies with the emerging disciplines of metalcore, deathcore, and modern metal (there's still not a name for this genre - think Lamb of God etc). This mixture is sometimes effective, challenging, and exciting, while sometimes it seems clunky, bizarre, or afflicted by attention deficit disorder.

The level of invention that goes on in a song like 'Root Bound Apollo' is absolutely frightening and shows all the instrumental players at the height of skill and daring. We can audibly hear the transformation of swift-footed melodeath riffs into slamming metalcore grooves with the mere introduction of a different type of palm-muting and downpicking or the emphasis of a hardcore-influenced drum beat. About 80 or 90% of the riffs are good and - for a guy with a slight aversion to pure metalcore - around half of them are really something worth hearing again and again. We do get some staccato parts with a chug and fill approach, but we also get plenty of hot-blooded charges and a few demonic extreme parts that really take me by surprise. The construction of these riffs into songs is incredibly tight and almost random: I can rarely predict the next movement of any given song, which gives the whole album a brilliant shot of adrenaline and excitement that cannot be effaced. 'To Ashes', for example, ends an acoustic segment with plaintive rock boyband vocals by spinning into a tremolo death metal riff in the vein of a despondent Amon Amarth. 'Of One Blood' really, really needs that excitement because the recording quality does threaten to derail the genre-busting course of the album. The instruments are all audible, but the jarring of one against the other, the many different levels of sound (the band don't so much play together as at the same time), and the dreadfully raw and ragged tone of the rhythm guitars and drums are potentially crippling to the songs. It robs the zip out of many of the bounding riffs, leaving them with a lot of bass and undistorted guitar drag at the low and high ends, though thankfully that cuts out when lead or acoustic guitars enter the mix, always making those high points.

Another little problem is the vocals, which, though clearly important to the development of the metalcore genre (and Shadows Fall really do pack every kind of metalcore vocal moment into this album), are sometimes sung in a lacklustre manner and recorded poorly, compounding the problem. I'm fairly sure that apart from Brian Fair's guttural and shouty voice, 'Of One Blood' also includes frequent additions in more melodic styles by David Germain and Matthew Bachand. These style switches are useful for the songs and are part of the continued development of melodic death metal, but the singers on this album aren't really great. The deep harsh vocals sound good, yet there is a common voice that sings in a gruff kind of hard rock manner that is weak and doesn't go well with the musical style. Then there's the cleans, which are a little too clean and choir boy for me, though occasionally those voices blend to great effect and create surprisingly poignant harmonies, especially during acoustic moments.

There are no very weak songs, and I get the feeling that the creativity increases towards the end of the album, with the last five songs being more complex and exciting than the first half. Sometimes the ceaseless changes become confusing, as on a song like 'To Ashes', which changes between metal and acoustic, melodeath and metalcore, and verse, chorus, and solo so much that it's practically bewildering, even if great in parts. 'Of One Blood' is a highly recommended album that comes with a warning - expect to work for your rewards.