Release Date: 29th March 2019
Record Label: Metal Blade
For Fans Of: Carnifex, Thy Art Is Murder, Slipknot
How about this for an opening statement: The Valley is Whitechapel’s strongest release to date.
While that is bound to rustle some feathers and spark a chorus of ‘nothing can top This Is Exile!’, and those who have already heard The Valley may well disagree, there is more to the above statement than clickbait/click hate. Not only is it one of their most interesting listens in over five years, but is also more accomplished in achieving its goal.
Let’s look back at the last few releases from the Tennessee deathcore titans. With This Is Exile considered one of the defining records of the then relatively young genre, and A New Era Of Corruption serving as a solid companion piece, Whitechapel could be forgiven for sticking with what they know for their self-titled release. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? But when it came to album number five, 2014’s Our Endless War, the routine started to wear a bit thin. Follow up release The Mark Of The Blade saw the band dip their toes into new territory, sprinkling clean vocals and a more stripped back arrangement to a few choice moments on the record, and was met with a divisive response. The militant deathcore purists saying clean vocals have no place in deathcore, while others praised the ambition of the band. Despite it being an admirable move, it failed to display any conviction. Maybe the musicians were still coming to terms with this new sound?
The Valley sees the new era of composition (thank you, thank you) take full form. Opening track and music video ‘When a Demon Defiles a Witch’ serves as an advert for the album as a whole, displaying the signature deathcore assault the band are known for, while also incorporating clean guitars and sparse percussion during the bridge. It is also the strongest opening track the band have had since ‘Father Of Lies’ from This Is Exile. Phil Bozeman’s vocals are as strong as ever, reiterating that no other deathcore vocalist comes close to the power he projects, but also uses the track to display his versatility. Not only does he perform some piercing high screams to contrast his signature lows, but his clean vocals have significantly improved, drawing comparisons to Maynard James Keenan at his softer moments. Whereas on the previous album the clean singing came across as box-ticking, it feels natural and well executed and reveals that one of the fiercest voices in metal can also sing like an angel (watch out, Corey Taylor).
Second track ‘Forgiveness Is Weakness’ offers a short sharp burst of the classic Whitechapel sound, illustrating the band haven’t abandoned their roots but are simply expanding their sonic spectrum. Once again, Bozeman jumps between guttural lows and shrieking highs, displaying versatility even within extreme metal confines. ‘Brimstone’ provides a slow, doom march to contrast the previous track, demonstrating the band’s command of a variety of tempos and grooves, but it is the following track ‘Hickory Creek’ that stands out on The Valley. Featuring nearly exclusively clean singing (approximately two lines are performed with harsh vocals), the song resembles one of Stone Sour’s softer numbers, with Bozeman’s voice even resembling Taylor’s at times. Even when distorted guitars introduced, the track never reverts to extreme metal riffing, but sticks with a more hard rock vibe. Bozeman and guitarist Alex Wade have spoken of various influences on the record and cited Swedish doom/rock band Katatonia as an inspiration, serving an appropriate reference point for Whitechapel’s softer moments.
It should be noted that it’s not just clean guitars and vocals that have been explored on this latest release. Second single from the record ‘Black Bear’ was met with apprehension due to its nu-metal influence (nu-metal isn’t a dirty word, get over it). Driven mostly by one main guitar riff, the track could be found on an early Korn album, and offers yet another alternative to the rapid-fire deathcore attack for those not convinced by the band’s ‘alt-rock’ ventures.
Lyrically, the album addresses Bozeman’s relationships with his mother and stepfather; the former a drug addict diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder who died from an overdose while Bozeman was in his teens, and the latter a symbol of hate whom he held responsible for the death of his mother. With the opening track featuring lines taken from his mother’s journal, and multiple songs detailing the hatred Bozeman felt towards his stepfather (‘Brimstone’ recounts a dream he once experienced fantasising about murdering the man), there is a darkness present throughout the album, but rather than using it as a method of evoking sympathy, it appears as an outlet for many complex emotions that Bozeman has endured. Furthermore, this adds an understanding to the newer, softer passages found throughout the album; would you really want to honour your deceased mother with a voice that sounds like Satan?
With their seventh album revealing the band members still have a few tricks up their sleeves, it is clear that Whitechapel are more than just a deathcore band who rode the hype train. To demonstrate this level of creativity after thirteen years as a band and not worry about the fans’ response indicates true musicianship, and one can only hope that they continue down this path.
Recommended Tracks: Hickory Creek, When A Demon Defiles A Witch, Black Bear
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