The New Classics

What’s this column about?

“We started in back of Aug. ’98. We did show after show after show and no one cared. We did VFW halls, living rooms, basements, no one cared. But a small amount of kids did actually cared, that’s why we continued doing it ’cause we had fun. But it wasn’t ’till like the summer of 2001 when we got signed to Eulogy. And that’s when people actually started talking notice, and the reason why that is, is there’s a high competition to get noticed. That bands instead of disappearing they practice, practice, practice. And they get better, better, and better.”

— Unearth vocalist Trevor Phipps

While home to plenty of hardcore and metal outfits in the past (I’m thinking the likes of Tree off the top of my head), New England seems to have become a hotbed for new heavy metal bands (once again)in the late-90s. The scene started to gain momentum with the likes of Godsmack (who are still soldiering on) and Reveille (remember them?) breaking nationally, all the while bands like Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, All That Remains and Hatebreed — to name only a few — were rumbling in the underground, waiting to explode.

Add Massachusetts-based Unearth to the list (and it’s not-too-shabby a list at that). The band toiled as most bands do, recording various demos and independent albums and touring incessantly in order to gain a strong following. Once the group hooked up with Killswitch Engage guitarist (and producer) Adam Dutkiewicz in the studio to record its third album, everything seemed to fall into place for the perfect metal album.

Unearth may have made its start in the hardcore realm. But, as seems to be the route of choice these days, the group began to add more and more elements from the metal genre to it’s template (just like Killswitch Engage and others before them). Over time the band’s sound evolved into a beast of chunky scales, killer rhythm and plenty of melodic breaks and bridges (think European metal to an extent) evened out with plenty of hardcore groundwork (pit-inducing breakdowns and shifting tempo changes) and the crux of any metal band’s sound: plenty of solos, hard-hitting bass lines and cascading double-drum avalanches.

With Dutkiewicz manning the boards, Unearth was able to add all the right elements to the album to create something that could be both crushing and beautiful: an album that could drawn comparisons to classics like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath yet still be modern enough to influence a whole new breed of musicians; an album that could pack more than enough punch from a variety of corners of the genre, yet never come across as overbearing; an album that was good enough to instantly gain the band a foothold on the metal scene and an album worthy to be called a new classic …

A New Classic

The Oncoming Storm
Metal Blade Records

“It was the first time we ever really pre-produced before a record. We’ve never really had the chance to pick and choose what we liked before we recorded anything so it made the record turn out better. The album sounds a whole lot better because we had more money to do it. Anybody could really make a better album with more money to work with, but Adam gave us a great price on it and worked really hard to make it sound like it does. Everyone always asks “What’s it like to work with Adam D.?” and honestly, it’s great, he’s one of my best friends and it was really cool. The thing is, we went and did all of the dirty work and everything, and Adam just made it sound like the greatest thing we could do. Everything turned out really cool.”

— Unearth guitarist Ken Susi on recording “The Oncoming Storm”

While Unearth’s sound can comes across as epic and expansive, it’s really pretty simple in terms of the song construction. Rather than crafting complicated structures and patterns (think Tool or, for a more metal feel, something like Meshuggah), the band opts to go for the throat quick. That’s not to say the sound is simple, rather the manner in which the band makes its music. There’s the solid riffs, the twin-guitar attacks, the machine-gun drumming and crushing groove of the bass. The band likes it’s hardcore breakdowns and serves up plenty. Along the way, Trevor Phipps attacks the vocals with a callous abandon, but keeps from going too far over the “guttural” edge with his screams. Sure, he might not offer up the melodic breaks like Killswitch’s Howard Jones, but there’s always that subtle hint of melody just under the surface.

When Unearth serves up epic, it does so in style. Songs like “Zombie Autopilot” and “Bloodlust of the Human Condition” just tumble over and over again, expanding with each passing second. The band isn’t shy with the anthemic riffs either. “Predetermined Sky” opens up a metallic surge of energy and, as an aside, the song almost perfectly encapsulates the band’s dual personalities as it unfolds as a metal goliath but stumbles to a hardcore dirge by the close. In fact, the band pulls off the same feat on “Lie to Purify.”

Along the way other elements of the genre are thrown in for good measure, whether it be some European flavor (“Failure”), speed metal (“False Idols”) or something more American and completely destructive (“This Lying World”).

Unlike other albums that instantly pulled me into a web, “The Oncoming Storm” doesn’t unfold as a masterpiece, it simply is one. You can jump in at any point throughout the record and be hooked. And the group doesn’t build from one song to the next, it simply offers up a barrage at any given moment. Even the piano interlude “Aries” has some sort of unique charm that manages to instantly intrigue.

The Test of Time

While Unearth has undoubtedly paid its dues, the band still seemed to explode onto the metal scene out of nowhere. The group created a template that has been stolen and emulated time and time again, which is impressive given the group’s relatively young age in the genre. Unearth has carved out a nice little niche for itself on the North American metal community and seems eager and willing to offer up more. I’m not sure how much influence going out on tours with bands that incorporate more melody into the metal proceedings could have affected the way the group chose to tackle it’s next album. And while I think the band has a great work ethic and solid chops to back up any claims of greatness, I wonder how much Adam D’s production added to what became “The Oncoming Storm.” If he’s on board will a follow-up simply be “Storm 2?” And if not, will someone else still be able to steer the band to another classic?

Usually I’m not so “in the dark” when it comes to speculating what the future might bring. (Not that you are ever really sure … just that you can have a pretty good idea at times.) I’m not sure if it’s because Unearth is somewhat of an enigma to me … or if it’s just that I’m not too sure what the group has up its collective sleeve.

One thing’s for sure … I obviously don’t know, and I’m apprehensive, but I’m excited nonetheless.

Until Next Time

Unearth draws parallels to Shadows Fall in the sense that the group was drawing raves and had a solid fanbase in place before completely blowing up. Now the two share a spot on my list of new classics. While most of the reviews I read about the band seemed intent on shoehorning them into some sort of sub-genre, at the end of the day it’s all just metal. So if you’re a fan of metal, and a little apprehensive with the “company” the group was keeping as music journalist after music journalist offered up comparisons to turn fans on or off, do yourself a favor and check out “The Oncoming Storm.” A better name for the album could not have been chosen as various elements from all corners of the metal genre merged together on this disc, much like a storm front, to form an explosive act of nature …

And that’s that. Until next time, take it easy. Stay tuned and enjoy the ride …

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