Shadows Fall / The Acacia Strain
Fallout from the War / The Dead Walk
B / C+
etalcore has become a dirty word, and rightly so. The fusion of metal and hardcore punk used to be risky, as long-haired metalheads and short-haired punks traditionally follow vastly different codes of dress and behavior. In the ‘80s, bands like Suicidal Tendencies, D.R.I., and Agnostic Front appealed to both camps by applying metal’s speed and precision to hardcore’s barked vocals and simplistic rhythms. In recent years, though, soundalikes have taken these elements and added clean, MTV-friendly vocals and melodic riffs cribbed from Swedish metal. What began as crossover experimentation is now often stylistic exercise.
Massachusetts bands are much the cause of this, although the fault isn’t really theirs; they’ve perfected the formulas that lesser bands have copied. Why the state produces so much good metal and hardcore is anyone’s guess; vocalist Guy Kozowyk from The Red Chord surmises that it’s simply the sheer number of young people. Whatever the reason, Massachusetts sure likes its metal and hardcore, as it is home to the New England Metal & Hardcore Festival, one of the largest festivals of heavy music in the US.
As for mixing metal and hardcore punk, several Massachusetts bands have become pacesetters. Shadows Fall marries 80s thrash and Iron Maiden with positive lyrics rooted in hardcore’s sense of community. Killswitch Engage adds emo to melodic Swedish death metal. The Red Chord throws death metal, grindcore, and hardcore into a blender. Converge grafts the jagged dissonance of Slayer onto hardcore. Each of these oft-imitated bands could be called metalcore, but they’re the ones writing the blueprints.
Shadows Fall’s 2004 album The War Within is one of metalcore’s top moments, with memorable songs, fiery performances, and impeccable production. Sales of the band’s last two albums approached 400,000, predictably attracting major label attention. Late last year, Shadows Fall signed to major label Atlantic. Thus, Fallout from the War is Century Media’s (the band’s previous label) last chance to capitalize on Shadows Fall’s success. It’s the stereotypical stopgap EP between albums: six leftovers from The War Within sessions, two reworkings of old songs, and three covers.
However, more care has gone into this package than the typical EP. The sound is perfectly heavy and clear thanks to producer Zeuss, who also worked on The War Within. The liner notes come with brief commentary on each song—something more bands should do. The performances are flawless and the songs kick hard, although they don’t reach the triumphant heights of The War Within. Jason Bittner has become one of metal’s best drummers (the DVD that comes with The War Within has incredible studio footage of him), and his fleet feet and thrash-inspired cymbal clutches turn B-grade riffs into grade-A grooves.
Surprisingly, the EP’s highlights are the re-recordings of "Deadworld" and "This Is My Own." The former was originally on the demo that got the band signed to Century Media. It’s unpredictably epic and melodic, while the latter has unexpectedly rich vocal harmonies. It’s obvious from these songs that Shadows Fall honed its songwriting over time, but the band seems to have lost its exploratory edge in the process. Still, this EP is a solid batch of tunes that bodes well for the band’s major label debut.
The Acacia Strain, another Massachusetts band, decidedly falls on the hardcore side of metalcore. One of hardcore punk’s trademarks is the breakdown, the interlude where a song slows down and switches into low gear. Arguably, the king of breakdowns was not a hardcore band but a metal one, Pantera. With the understanding that a breakdown has force only if it contrasts the rest of the song, Pantera would build songs to a fever pitch and then pull the rug out, dropping into slow, grinding grooves (check out Far Beyond Driven for some of the most brutal breakdowns ever recorded).
On 2004’s 3750, The Acacia Strain displayed a fondness for both breakdowns and weirdness. In true hardcore fashion, the riffs were chugging and visceral, but in between lay bits of melody, acoustic guitar, and movie dialogue. The album was somewhat sprawling, but it was also quirky and surprisingly deep. Like Shadows Fall, The Acacia Strain has pared down its approach, dropping its third guitar player and all sonic excess.
The Dead Walk is too dark and dancefloor-unfriendly to be pure hardcore. It does, however, have enough breakdowns for ten hardcore albums. In fact, the entire album is basically a string of breakdowns heavily indebted to Pantera. This looks awful on paper, but The Acacia Strain pulls it off decently. The band has a seemingly endless supply of breakdowns, and tops them with atmospheric, dissonant melodies. It sounds phenomenal; Adam Dutkiewicz of Killswitch Engage provides heavy production that perfectly balances clarity and grit. In "As if Set Afire," he briefly runs the entire mix through a high-pass filter, giving the song much-needed breathing space. Devoid of light and surprise, these songs are almost too focused; still, they make good body blows.