UNEARTH – The Wretched; The Ruinous
RELEASE YEAR: 2023
BAND URL: https://unearthofficial.com/
When the official Century Media Records release calls the Boston, Massachusetts quintet Unearth “nothing short of standard-bearers and keepers of the faith for American metalcore” it’s not just a suave public relations rhetoric. As metal was largely losing its raison d’etre at the dawn of the XX Century, Unearth founders Trevor Phipps (vocals) and Buz McGrath (guitars) stood next to Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage to resuscitate it through marriage to hardcore eventually defeating both the nü metal and grunge/alternative insurgencies. You may disagree, as is your prerogative, but metalcore saved heavy metal at the start of the XXI Century inspiring the resurgence of both the old and the young, need we just mention Megadeth’s return to thrash on The World Needs A Hero²⁰⁰¹ or Kreator’s on Violent Revolution²⁰⁰¹ or Slayer’s on God Hates Us All²⁰⁰¹ as examples of the former and God Forbid’s Determination²⁰⁰¹, Into Eternity’s Dead Or Dreaming²⁰⁰¹ or Darkane’s Insanity²⁰⁰¹ of the latter. And while Sepultura, Machine Head, Metallica or Fear Factory were still testing to see if it was safe to come up for air again without getting their heads blown off by the dying trends, Shadows Fall, who had arguably started the revolution with the groundbreaking sophomore release Of One Blood²⁰⁰⁰, led the pack who would lay down mile stones like Killswitch Engage’s self-titled²⁰⁰⁰ and later Unearth’s debut The Stings Of Conscience²⁰⁰¹, which was followed by two albums which defined the metal and hardcore fusion (contracted to metalcore for easier reference): Killswitch Engage’s Alive Or Just Breathing²⁰⁰² and Shadows Fall’s The Art Of Balance²⁰⁰².
To some, Unearth’s debut was unmatched on the subsequent fantastic The Oncoming Storm²⁰⁰⁴, an album which sailed on both the popularity of Killswitch Engage’s The End Of Heartache²⁰⁰⁴ (released just 3 months prior) and the production by Killswitch Engage’s main guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz. But I disagree, although, I admit to a serious bias which may cloud my judgment. Both albums came out at the pinnacle of my life, fresh back from war and out of the U.S. Army, first girlfriend soon to be wife, just shy of the age of 30, getting ready to start college, the world of possibilies (I would later largely foolishly squander) wide open for the taking. This was the soundtrack, these were the anthems of the young rebel who’d take on the world in all its duplicity and misery. Hope and faith were at all time high and so were my physical health, stamina, and, no two things about it, sexual prowess. Maybe that is why I count The Oncoming Storm, which isn’t even their finest (that honor belonging to the subsequent masterpiece III: In The Eyes Of Fire²⁰⁰⁶) as one of my all time favorite albums?
I mention Unearth’s second album for a reason: it had been 19 years and it was the first time I heard something like The Oncoming Storm with Unearth’s first video single, the title track off of their 8th full length The Wretched; The Ruinous (the cover likely purposely similar to Watchers Of Rule²⁰¹⁴) released earlier this May, which prompted me to request the album promo from our dear chief editor, Andrea, via her powerful connections. The sound, the impeccable songwriting, the musicianship (complete with that Panteric southern groove metal twist at the end), heck, the very vocals (featuring, though, a surprising “no heroes of our time” chanting) they are all back from that classic era. Fine, the predecessor Extinction(s)²⁰¹⁸ already hinted at those stylings but not quite like this. How did they pull it off without the founding guitarist Ken Susi who had amicably left for As I Lay Dying in 2022 replaced by Peter Layman? Well, the short answer is they did and they didn’t pull off The Oncoming Storm in 2023 since only a handful of tracks are in that vein and those, unsurprisingly, are among the best on the disc. I like how the horrifying excellent Heaven Shall Burnesque “Cremation Of The Living” (where, though, Phipps sounds a lot like Heaven Shall Burn’s Marcus Bischoff) naturally follows the opening title track in the similar fashion “Failure” did “The Great Dividers” on The Oncoming Storm, but (and this is a big BUT) McGrath seems to no longer operate a guitar but the very hammer of Thor, no doubt, to no small courtesy of Will Putney’s (Body Count, Thy Art Is Murder) superb production. “Mother Betrayal”, the most varied and creative track actually points to the mechanical steel precision of III: In The Eyes Of Fire as well as, interestingly, God Forbid from the same era plus the fragrantly melodeathly riffing is evocative of Evocation (see what I did there?), but the classically In Flamesian “Call Of Existence”, with its comparatively shockingly positive and uplifting message of moving forward, overcoming in death, renewal, revival, restoration, persistence through failures, rebirth through tragedy and opposition to the illusion of powerlessness, and the Machine Headian and cleverly Biblical “Invictus”, where “given the garden of eden we failed to know” and “we failed our own”, all bring back The Oncoming Storm, and, finally, the closer “Theaters Of War”, where we are all actors, marries the familiar with progressive guitarwork straight from Misery Signals’ book.
Now, I did say that the album partially alluded to The Oncoming Storm, didn’t I? The remaining tracks, while containing enough Unearthly fiber to still assure you your smartphone didn’t accidentally skip to another album, mark the progress made from the fantastic Killswitch Enagesque The March²⁰⁰⁸ and Darkness In the Light²⁰¹¹ through the practically death metal but satisfactory Watchers Of Rule and the great Extinction(s), something the aforementioned closer effectively sums up. Of those of note are the explosive (no small thanks to the section Chris O’Toole <2014-bass> and the freshly returned <2022> fantastic classic Unearth drummer <2002-2007> Mike Justian) deathcorish “Broken Arrow”, about the justifiable fear of renewed nuclear proliferation where it’s “time to dance with the atomic bomb” with the powerful guitar tone reminiscent of Rising Stuck Mojo and a very catchy chorus, and the slightly shoegazing again, classicly In Flamesian “Into the Abyss”, as well as the Panteric “Eradicator”, which brings us to the flaws.
On one hand, the album is a triumph of an enduring and creative band who stood the test of time and relevance on a merciless market. On the other – look at the running time: 36:50, just a couple of tracks longer than Slayer’s Reign In Blood vs. 40:42 for The Oncoming Storm or 43:47 for III: The Eyes Of Fire (but see my least favorite Watchers Of Rule – 35:02). In other words, that kind of length is understandably reserved for brutal death metal albums, not melodic metalcore. And looking at the two of my least favorite tracks: “Dawn Of The Militant”, “Into The Abyss” (wait, didn’t I say that one was of note?) as well as the superfluous and momentum killing if admittedly beautiful short interlude “Aniara” I see the reasons for the short album duration. As for “Aniara”, beautiful though it may be as “Aries” was, anyone who reads my reviews knows that I generally find intros and interludes as useful to albums as most Americans find the current U.S. House Of Representatives to the preservation of the American economy. As for “Dawn Of The Militant”, while I understand that Unearth was going for the pure hardcore attitude (heck, they had made a video!) and with an admirable result (even with the same sample of the emergency broadcast “this is not a test” announcement Prong had used on Cleansing) the song could have been longer and definitely catchier whereby the dichotomy of that sexy thrash riff and melodic chorus would have made it into an older brother of “Black Hearts Now Reign”. As for “Into The Abyss”, it is a love and hate for me precisely because it is sonically and musically very good but appears incohesive as if they were just learning to write good melodeath tracks based on old In Flames (something they actually had been doing back on The Stings Of Conscience). Then again, what if I am getting it all right here and that is exactly what they were going for here and are 100% satisfied with the result? Only they know.
As you can see from the final score, I find The Wretched; The Ruinous a very good album and Unearth continues to be one of my favorite metalcore bands next to Darkest Hour, plus, the influence of their unique riffing on, say, modern dissonant death metal bands like Ulcerate is incalculable (just count how many times “Unearth” appears in my reviews), and, if you’ve been a fan for 22 years there’s nothing here that is likely to make you change your mind. I suggest, Unearth, making a video to “Broken Arrow”, one of your best modern songs to date, and use it as a blueprint for the next album. Meanwhile, y’all check out videos for the title track, “Mother Betrayal”, “Into The Abyss” and “Dawn Of The Militant” before making the right financial decision.