Album Review: DevilDriver – WINTER KILLS

Matt Albers

Side projects seem to be novelties at first glance. Opportunities for members of other bands to explore different musical endeavors or generate revenue from another demographic, but doomed to only produce one or two albums before reuniting with the original project. Actually, there are many exceptions to this rule, in which plenty of bands that start out as side projects only to spark their own long-lasting career and dedicated fan base. In metal, fans need look no further than examples like Six Feet Under, founded by original Cannibal Corpse vocalist Chris Barnes, or power metal super-project Avantasia, the brainchild of Edguy front man Tobias Sammat has released five studio albums since their 1999 inception. Not to mention Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford’s many unique endeavors, including not only his solo project Halford, but also the industrial 2wo and Pantera-influenced groove metal of Fight. Big names and supergroups like Velvet Revolver, Down, Audioslave, Hellyeah, and A Perfect Circle are some of the first to spring to mind. Really, the idea that any side project is set to fail by design could be nothing more than an illusion, or a 50/50 shot at best.

DevilDriver is one of those bands that started as seemingly an experimental side project of Coal Chamber vocalist Dez Fafara. Originally forming in 2002 during the recording process of Coal Chamber’s final album Dark Days with the working title of Deathride, DevilDriver released their self-titled debut in 2003 on Roadrunner Records (the same label that produced Coal Chamber). Critically considered sloppy and uninspired, the departure of founding guitarist Evan Pitts with replacement Mike Spreitzer brought the band’s acclaimed 2005 sophomore release The Fury Of Our Maker’s Hand which brought them more success that continued through their equally respectable 2007 album The Last Kind Words. Through extensive worldwide touring over the years, opening for bands like Opeth, GWAR, Slipknot, Danzig, Fear Factory and more, as well as major international festivals and runs on Ozzfest, DevilDriver eventually became an international headlining band themselves, securing themselves as a member of the New Wave Of American Heavy Metal.

In 2009, DevilDriver’s fourth album Pray For Villians saw the band experiment with more melody and catchy hooks which landed them appeal from various rock and metal critics and reviewers that may not have otherwise given them a second look. This album was met with mixed reviews by their fans, but it was their fifth and final album on Roadrunner, 2011’s Beast that would showcase the band’s lowest point and overall weakest effort. The album wasn’t necessarily bad, but it seemed like DevilDriver was simply going through the motions. Beast still had the veracious speed and signature groove that DevilDriver had become known for, but most of the songwriting and structure was either too familiar and basic or sounded like they were pushing themselves too hard to keep up with popular deathcore or djent bands with elements like very inorganic breakdowns and time signature changes. To add insult to injury, this was the last album to feature founding bassist Jonathan Miller, who quit the band after recording his parts to check himself into rehab for alcohol.

Album art for DevilDriver's sixth album (and first on Napalm Records) WINTER KILLS

Album art for DevilDriver’s sixth album (and first on Napalm Records) WINTER KILLS

            After departing Roadrunner Records, DevilDriver signed with Napalm Records to release their sixth album Winter Kills at the end of summer 2013. With a disappointing final album on their old label, most might expect that DevilDriver had reached the first point where they were officially past their prime. These expectations could easily be shattered after hearing the album’s opening track “Oath Of The Abyss.” Quickly building to a pounding catchy yet technical groove, the first song from Winter Kills could easily be remembered as one of the best metal album openers of 2013. After the release of the first two singles off of the album, “Ruthless” and “The Appetite,” it’s clear that Dez Fafara’s vocals have undergone some sort of change. Regardless of whether it was vocal stress after years of screaming or developing a new style, Fafara’s signature graveled howls or choppy barks now feature a noticeably more refined higher pitched screech on Winter Kills. It’s not to the point of a black metal wail, but it is a vivid change from the higher tones from DevilDriver’s previous work.

All songs on Winter Kills (or at least the original ones, more on that later) grab you and pull you in. Some do so more effectively than others, but it’s nearly impossible not to have fun and want to bang your head along with the music. While the signature California groove is a constant throughout, songs on the album do vary from one another and stand alone. “Ruthless,” “Desperate Times,” “The Appetite,” “Haunting Refrain,” and “Tripping Over Tombstones” exhibit the combination of crunch and melodic guitars that die-hard fans crave. With duel and varying guitar work, the band does a fantastic job of incorporating and building a dark, ominous and almost threatening tone in songs like “Oath Of The Abyss,” “Winter Kills,” “Curses And Epitaphs,” and “Caring’s Overkill.” At only three and a half minutes long (the shortest song on the album) “Gutted” showcases the chuggy bounce of Dez Fafara’s love of punk and hardcore (“Desperate Times” also features a prominent yet natural breakdown). As usual, guitarists Jeff Kendrick and Mike Spreitzer show off their infectious riffing and consistently impressive solos, while former Bury Your Dead guitarist Chris Towning solidly fills in the bass duties. The one member who easily gets the least amount of much deserved credit is drummer John Boecklin. His thunderous, blindingly fast double bass-led talents can become unfairly overlooked, as he seemingly effortlessly carries the band with technical precision and intricate fills. Listening to his fast, precise abilities on Winter Kills leaves no wonder as to why Boecklin lists Ministry as one of his personal drumming influences.

With the countless positives that Winter Kills has to offer, the album is not without its negatives as well. The good news is, those negatives are few and far between. The bad news is, those negatives lie mostly in Dez Fafara’s vocals. While he has used some vivid imagery in past songs, Fafara has never exactly been a lyrical genius, often falling into the typical metal front man stereotype of writing lyrics about standing up against people who get in your way, as if to scream at them that you’re simply better than them; not to say that it isn’t enjoyable or effective, just all too familiar and almost uninspired. On Winter Kills, this same motif is amplified even further into monotony with constant use of unnecessary swear words (again, not necessarily a bad thing, but the best lyricists – especially in metal – don’t need to resort to gratuitous swearing). Even lyrics without swearing can still sound a tad cheesy. Here are just a few examples: From “Ruthless” – “I’ll see you in blood, left for dead / Face down in mud, fuck you I’m ruthless / Despite the odds, Left for dead / Face in the mud, I’m fucking ruthless.” From “The Appetite” – “If you think I give a fuck / Better think again, good luck.” From “Oath Of The Abyss” – “Take the Oath, the Oath of the Abyss / Take the Oath, it’s time to enlist.” And finally from “Gutted” – “Death smiled / Covered up your past / So you do your best not to flaunt it, BITCH!” Ah yes, screaming “bitch” for no apparent reason certainly does conjure the likeness of Jesse Pinkman.

But the decidedly polarizing factor of Winter Kills has to be the album’s closing track: a cover of the song “Sail” by electronic indie rock band AWOLNATION. Dez Fafara was allegedly inspired to cover it after hearing one of his sons playing it. While kind of fun to hear a metal band take on a pop song, DevilDriver’s rendition sounds more like they’re just playing the song rather than covering it with their own spin on it – with the exception of the double-bass led groove during the chorus. One of the best songs on DevilDriver’s last album Beast was a cover of “Black Soul Choir” by the 90’s alt-country band 16 Horsepower (one of the best songs being a cover is one reason why that album had such a weak impact). DevilDriver was able to drastically change something so seemingly different and make it their own while still showing tribute to the original artist. A band covering a new song is not a new concept nor is it a bad one, but it can be dangerous for the band’s career, especially when their cover gets active airplay for its novelty appeal. No matter the band’s previous or future success, the fifteen minutes of fame received from such a random cover can ruin their credibility. Case in point: Remember when Framing Hanley covered Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop?” It was everywhere, right? Now, name one other Framing Hanley song… Can’t think of anything? Exactly, nobody can. Case closed. Ultimately, the cover of “Sail” may have been best suited as a bonus track, and therefore should have been left off the final cut of the standard album. Closing with the tenth track, “Tripping Over Tombstones,” would have ended Winter Kills on a positively strong and organic note.

For all the complaining and nitpicking one can conjure for Winter Kills, the truth is that it still comes up too short to really cause any concern to claim that this album did not deliver. Because it does. This is easily DevilDriver’s best album since The Last Kind Words. It has the same driving, vicious brutality yet accessible melody, rhythm, and groove that DevilDriver has been known for at their highest peak of writing capabilities. Going into this album thinking that the disappointment from Beast would carry over only enhances its already great, impressive, and fun nature that earned DevilDriver the reputation they’ve maintained for over ten years now. Winter Kills is a great album for metal fans to listen to, even if you’ve never liked or listened to DevilDriver before; its right up there with the best albums they’ve ever done. There’s even a special edition digipak that includes a live DVD of a DevilDriver concert in Germany and the bonus songs “Shudder” and “Back Down To The Grave.” If Winter Kills is any indication of where DevilDriver is headed in their new home of Napalm Records, then it’s safe to say that the future looks bright.

Final Score: 4 out of 5 (B+/A-)

Recommended If You Like: Lamb Of God, Soulfly, Arch Enemy, Daath, Goatwhore

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