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Fine Icing on a Stale Cake - 50%

Chernobog, February 12th, 2015

Unearth are described as being a part of the melodic metalcore genre, and not surprisingly, it is the "melodic" part of the equation that is the strongest. Admittedly, Unearth are just one among many bands who have dabbled in the noble yet controversial experiment of melding the nuances of hardcore music (particularly the east coast brand) with the innovation of the Gothenburg scene, with Shadows Fall, As I Lay Dying, Killswitch Engage and "Waking the Fallen" era Avenged Sevenfold having contributed something or another to the genre. In each of these cases and more, the successes of the melodic metalcore sound has very often depended on what elements of the genre they emphasize, and how well they actually do so. In the case of Unearth's "Watchers of the Rule" we are presented with a rather interesting case of a band providing arguably the strongest balance of hardcore and melodic death metal that I've heard, but who do not execute that balance particularly well.

If you are a nut for either metalcore breakdowns (which I am not) or melodic guitar leads (which I am) then "Watchers of the Rule" has at least something of substance to offer you as a music fan. The guitar work of Buz McGrath and Ken Susi is pretty amazing, and all throughout the album they show themselves able to make even fairly bland musical passages interesting with a proper dose of sweeping guitar leads and twin guitar attacks that have become staples of their brand of metalcore. An overused approach it may be, at least it is preferable to hearing a band chug endlessly away at the lowest strings on the guitars, as is the case with "To the Ground". It is the song that comes the closest to what could be called "pure" metalcore, and it is also the most boring on the album. Listen to a song like "Burial Lines", listen to "To the Ground" then go back to "Burial Lines", and I guarantee that you will see why Buz and Ken's lead guitar work gets high points from me.

However, even if a bad or moderately OK song can contain a brief section of musicianship you enjoy, this does not necessarily elevate the song as a whole to the level of amazing, and this is my main gripe with Unearth's "Watchers of the Rule". Of all 11 songs on this album, there are only a few that truly work as an entire whole. There is the aforementioned "Burial Lines" which not only contains rather impressive lead work, but manages to avoid a major mistake on the part of Unearth (and indeed most metalcore and deathcore bands) which is that they finally realize that breakdowns lose their impact if you play them throughout the entire song. I don't believe that metalcore breakdowns deserve the hate that many metal purists have put upon them, but when breakdowns have worked well in metalcore, as well as in thrash and hardcore punk, it is because they serve as a brief catching of breath, as the moment of relative calm on a roller coaster before the drop. When a breakdown serves as the crux of the song, such as in "To the Ground", "Lifetime in Ruins" and "Tombs of the Five Below", it very quickly goes from something you want to bang your head to and becomes something that grinds on your nerves, especially if the band feels the need to repeat them as often as Unearth do. In fairness to Unearth, the heavy use of guitar leads over the music adds some variety to the mix, but that's like planting a garden in a desert. Even if you have a few beautiful trees to provide shade, everything around you is a pure wasteland.

In short, Unearth's "Watchers of the Rule" is an album that will leave non metalcore listeners somewhat divided. If you enjoy impressive leads and you have a weak spot for other melodic metalcore albums, you will at least enjoy the guitar work on this album, but it is debatable whether you would enjoy the compositions as a whole outside of the guitar work. The only complaint I can imagine that metalcore fans would have about this album is that it doesn't really do anything new for the genre, but I can imagine that such complaints would be few and far between, since Unearth provides exactly what a fan of this musical approach would expect. For non metalcore fans, my advice is to listen mainly for leads, avoid "To the Ground" and devour "Burial Lines", "Birth of a Legion" the title track and "The Swarm".

Metalcore's most trustworthy stalwart - 80%

Bloodstone, December 2nd, 2014

One of the pillars of Massachusetts metalcore, Unearth in the 2010's are sticking to their guns where most of their peers have either softened, otherwise changed style or split up. Their relatively harsh nature has kept them from achieving success on the level Killswitch Engage or Shadows Fall in their heyday, but hard work and dedication to their craft has nevertheless earned them a loyal fanbase and much respect from the metal community as whole. Watchers of Rule has no big surprises, but is an especially well written and energetic serving of tried and true and I think it's one of their best.

For those unfamiliar, Unearth's particular brand of metalcore is a fairly intense and uncompromising one, with no attempts at a radio hit throughout their career. The vocals are all screamed and pretty dry and abrasive for the style at that. This is still highly melodic music though, the lead guitars being very active much of the time and a major driving force of the songs. This band has always been heavy on melodeath even for metalcore, although the melodic component of their more recent output I'd say improves on their old stuff by having harmonized leads sounding less trite in that Iron Maiden-copying way that I've never liked In Flames doing either.

Some effort is made on the album to keep things fresh and not an ALL retro or rehashed affair. The band do push themselves to make the songs a bit more forceful and tightly packed with content than before, while still allowing enough breathing space for songwriting's sake. The production is 2014 sounding and thick in a pleasant way, and the guitars often have that modern djenty sound during the breakdowns. Also, there are hints here and there of Unearth having allowed some newer bands to inspire them, to vary things up. For example, "From the Tombs of Five Below" has breakdowns and sweep picking strongly resembling All Shall Perish, and "Never Cease" sounds like Threat Signal of all bands, with just that band's sort of Fear Factory/sped-up Meshuggah blend of riffing at it onset, and later a cool melodic guitar lead played over a breakdown that brings that Canadian group to mind as well. A more contemporary and bizarre "influence": the first 40 seconds of "To The Ground" completely rip off Lamb of God's "Black Label", for some reason. Maybe it's intended as a tribute or something, but it seems rather unnecessary.

Again, Unearth aren't shaking any foundations on Watchers of Rule and don't intend to. It is but a fun, workmanlike metalcore wall of sound that avoids wearing thin at only 42 minutes, and I for one am happy with that. Unearth play their shit like they give a fuck and modernize and touch things up just enough as to not come off as stale in their still markedly old-school style of metalcore. Sometimes that goes a long way.