A band fortunate enough to have a long history is an old crab on the sandy face of a familiar beach. The creature and its shell are unified, a home-thing with the dwelling on its back ever-changing. Trinkets and raw accoutrements found along a lifetime’s stretches of land altered by weather and by time are both burden and betterment that define not just the state of the thing inside but the scuttling, sometimes-sideways journey that needs to be taken for the sake of understanding itself.
Long-time Alternative Metal/Hard Rock act Sevendust seem to have an almost-tangible awareness of themselves, of what their parts and sum are worth despite years amidst the potentially fleeting glow of commercial success, side projects, financial turmoil, line-up changes (and subsequent returns), yet more side projects, and an eroding musical landscape now nebulous—over-categorized and increasingly more difficult to navigate, whether scuttling sideways or in any other direction.
In the myriad of compiled sound and soul “trinkets” that comprise “Black Out The Sun”, their ninth—and at one time rumored to be their last—studio album (released March 2013), this Atlanta-bred quintet puts that awareness into practice in excellent form. Where “Cold Day Memory”, their previous release—and the first to feature Clint Lowery on guitar and shared vocal duties since 2003’s “Seasons”—felt a bit disjointed or tentative at times, “Black Out The Sun” is more natural and deeply reminiscent of their earlier work. Whatever the transitional phase brought on by Lowery’s return to the songwriting process and made apparent in “Cold Day”, that re-acclimation has passed. What’s heard here is that same beach some years later, a familiarity refined by the lingering freshness of the new and all else between, be it good or bad.
All the elements one might expect within a Sevendust record are here from track to track: a tapestry of tasteful, tactfully heavy instrumental pace changes with an intermixture of synth backing and programmed samples; tight vocal juggling between frontman Lajon Witherspoon and aforementioned axe-man/singer Lowery; the steady thrashing of drummer Morgan Rose’s crash and china cymbals over his pistoning bass drum polyrhythms and throaty background screams; and the stable-but-always-energetic contributions of bassist Vince Hornsby and crunchy, effects-driven constructions of rhythm guitarist John Connolly.
There is an undeniable palpability to the energy that runs through this thirteen-track set. Guitar solos throughout are active but not too flashy, versatile enough to show the listener where the band comes from while keeping the tunes rolling forward. The lyrics are more personal—less vaguely angry—and seem to add weight to the music and attention to the dynamics ping-ponging between Witherspoon and Lowery’s singing, Rose’s screaming, and Connolly’s occasional, emphatic death growling. Most crucial was the “rock first, think later” mentality the band supposedly adopted in the writing and recording of the material, opting to rely a bit more on instinct and flesh parts out in-studio rather than enter with all songs written as was common previously. Here are a few highlights:
“Decay”, the first single, is a grungy, exotic-sounding little brooder that I instantly saw in the background of a Gothic anime like Vampire Hunter D or in instrumental form on the trailer for a big-studio horror film like Universal’s recent remake of The Wolfman. Measure after measure of rapid-fire sixteenth-note guitar “chugging”, an indispensable part of the Sevendust sound; Rose’s kick and snare combos hitting hard enough here to make me think Jack Nicholson’s coming through the door with an axe: What’s not to like?
“Dead Roses” is a tom-heavy double-timer decorated in multi-layered melodic guitar arrangement and a bendy, to-the-point solo that called to mind Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell before galloping off into a harmonized finale adorned with thirty-second-note bass drum flourishes.
On “Mountain”, the band musically and melodically—albeit briefly—channels Nickelback (Think “Burn It to the Ground” with lyrics that matter, blessedly more grit, and less radio-friendly corporate polish.). Here, particularly, the Southern-gospel-inspired richness of Lajon Witherspoon’s low-tenor/high-baritone vocal range is perfect counterpoint to the cleanliness of the sometime-unison, sometime-call-and-response harmonies that cohort Clint Lowery belts out.
“Till Death” is as eclectic as it is hard semi-Thrash. Marching-snare accents and plucky guitars feel like The Used. Witherspoon’s soft-edged melody is almost borrowed from Evanescence’s Amy Lee or Paramore’s Hayley Williams. Everywhere else, blastbeats, pinched harmonics a la Zakk Wylde (or maybe the boys from Mudvayne), and a Rose-and-Connolly scream-and growl-fest.
Landscapes and listeners change. Revisit the beach today—it is not the same. Fickle consumers and cynical fans in search of the next fad may well see the baubles before the band: All shine. No content. A crab faced with that state may likely be fast-fooded or left to curl up and die. Still, some would scuttle on and prove their relevance through resilience, a willingness to re-discover the shell they carry, and an active participation in the sideways journey that brought them back. With “Black Out The Sun”, another worthy gem, Sevendust have done so. Onward…