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Leaner, Meaner and More Mature - 87%

lonerider, June 14th, 2015
Written based on this version: 2007, CD, Metal Blade Records

Before we look more closely at the actual music on “Nocturnal”, one general observation needs to be made: it’s really astounding how far The Black Dahlia Murder came along in the roughly four years between their album debut “Unhallowed” and this, their third and, in the eyes of many, best album. Back when their debut came out, The Black Dahlia Murder were frowned upon by many in the metal community – dismissed as pretenders embellishing their insipid riffs with clichéd Gothenburg melodies, mocked as a bunch of spoiled college kids merely posing as metalheads. The words metalcore or even (gasp!) mallcore were tossed around a lot, and while the latter is now hardly used any more, back in the day it was the ultimate term of derision and disdain for faux metallers everywhere. Fast-forward to the present day and it’s hard to understand how The Black Dahlia Murder ended up with such questionable renown in the first place, when even their debut, in spite of some minor flaws, was a very promising start for a talented yet still somewhat naive band. Rejected by some as formulaic by-the-numbers metalcore, what it actually represented was a fresh and interesting approach to blending black with Gothenburg-inspired melodic death metal. The well-earned respect these guys have since gained in the metal community, as well as the prolonged and successful career they have put together, seems to lend credibility to the latter assessment.

That being said, it’s still remarkable how much and how quickly the band matured in the years leading up to “Nocturnal”, for as talented as they were from the outset, they certainly exhibited their share of flaws as both songwriters and musicians. Suffice it to say that hardly any of those flaws remain on “Nocturnal”. This time around, the musicianship is top-notch, even splendid occasionally, as best evidenced by the inclusion of lots of nifty guitar solos, an ingredient that was largely missing on the band’s earlier output. Yes, the guys have learned to play solos, a very welcome feature that was almost completely absent on “Unhallowed”, and these solos go a long way toward making “Nocturnal” more diverse and the songs more memorable.

Other than the technically improved musicianship, it really is the songwriting which made the biggest leap as compared to the band’s very early days. “Nocturnal” is by no means a complicated album, putting the emphasis on concise songs mostly played at breakneck speed. Clocking in at well under 40 minutes, there’s no time for atmospheric intros, complex song structures and extensive instrumental passages. What we have here is straightforward, brutal, speedy death metal laced with plenty of melody and harmony guitars, which are not unlike those introduced by some influential Swedish forerunners; as is so often the case in this metallic subgenre, the mighty Dissection immediately come to mind. The album wastes no time outlining what the listener is in for, as the opening “Everything Went Black” comes ripping right out of the gate with massive guitar riffs. One of the most outstanding qualities of this record, one already made evident by the opener as well as the following “What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse”, is the band’s uncanny ability to change tempos seamlessly and effortlessly, repeatedly switching from hyper-fast and technically precise blast beats to thrashier, more orthodox rhythms and back again. “Virally Yours” sports some of the swiftest, most hypnotic tremolo picking on the album, but it’s the instantly catchy title track with its wickedly anthemic, incantatory chorus (“nocturnal majesty, sworn to black we’ll always be”) that takes the cake as the best song, condensing all the fine qualities of “Nocturnal” into one compact three-minute monster of a track. However, things don’t exactly slow down afterwards, including the two-and-a-half minute outburst of violent fury named “Climactic Degradation”. Then, finally, the closing track “Warborn” offers a welcome, although brief, respite from the unrelenting onslaught before itself erupting into a pummeling blastfest of a chorus. “Warborn” may be the most melodic song on display, but that doesn’t mean it lacks for brutality and viciousness.

So, “Nocturnal” obviously isn’t about introspection and progressive meandering; it’s about creating a blistering aural assault focused on aggression and ripping your face off. Nevertheless it succeeds at establishing and maintaining an almost darkly romantic and, yes, nocturnal atmosphere. That’s because the songs (short though they may be), the instruments and tremolo-picked melodies are given room to breathe. Back on “Unhallowed”, it felt like vocalist Trevor Strnad, whose seamless switching between guttural death and hoarse black metal vocals is one of the band’s enduring trademarks, was just ceaselessly singing over almost every note, every riff, every drumbeat. Maybe it was a matter of youthful exuberance. Maybe he somehow felt his lyrics were so good that he couldn’t bring himself to edit and shorten them. At any rate, it ended up taking away from the actual music. Luckily, this is a mistake that’s not repeated on “Nocturnal”. It seems like sometimes, all it takes to improve is for a guy to simply learn when to sing and when to shut up.

Choicest cuts:
Being as short as it is, “Nocturnal” is clearly meant to be listened to as a whole, not as a collection of individual songs. Think of it as a half-hour long ode to the night in ten parts, each of which is like an integral component of a larger opus, much like the pieces forming a classical symphony. Still, the centerpiece of this symphony is right in the middle, with the majestic title track and the ensuing “Deathmask Divine” (apparently inspired by the bone-chilling story of the infamous necrophile Carl von Cosel) sending a message that cannot be ignored: The Black Dahlia Murder have grown up into a mighty metallic force to be reckoned with.