Two years on from their critically acclaimed Nightbringers, The Black Dahlia Murder return to our disease-infested hellscape with their 9th studio album Verminous. After such a successful album cycle showcasing a world-class new guitarist and a fresh batch of unbeatable songs, the pressure was on for Michigan’s finest to keep up the momentum going into 2020. Regularly cited as one of the most consistent bands on the planet, how will the quintet fare in following up their most successful record to date? Prepare to dive into the stinking catacombs of modern death metal’s most celebrated torch-bearers.
What’s immediately clear is that this latest offering follows a loose-concept. Every track feels like a step down into the depths of an ancient Steven King inspired sewage system. The record takes you on a hideous expedition through dank tunnels and claustrophobic crawl-spaces, mirroring the dark fantasy world extreme music fans feel most at home. Writing this review from a Coronavirus lockdown in southern Spain, no other record could possibly be more fitting of this pandemic reality. Taking a more aggressive and atmospheric turn from the slasher euphoria of their more recent work, including heavy doses of black, thrash and good ol’ fashioned heavy metal into their churning melodeath blast. From the beautifully detailed album artwork to the perfectly nuanced production, TBDM have created a record that positively drips with character.
The debut single and title-track sets the scene excellently, layering on the creepy atmospherics before thrusting you on a rollercoaster of Swedish-style riffs and unstoppable blastbeats. Frontman Trevor Strnad screeches gleefully about “wretched roaches” and “things that crawl” while new-guy Brandon Ellis shreds himself into oblivion delivering some of the best riffs of the band’s career. It all seems business as usual for TBDM, but where Verminous really shines is when the quintet break the mould a little. Cuts like ‘Removal Of The Oaken Stake’ and ‘The Wareworm’s Feast’, slow down the frantic pace, dabbling more and more in the classic metal style showcased on the tail-end of Nightbringers, but executing it far better than anything on its predecessor. However, as brilliant as these tracks are, the real treat comes in the form of the stunning ‘Sunless Empire’. Shifting from a blackened-soundscape into a massive classical tremolo riff, they then start slamming you with a creative rhythmic verse that is totally unique. The tension gradually ramps up before Ellis explodes with the greatest (and classiest) solo TBDM have ever produced, zipping by in his signature style lending a sense genuine emotion and grandeur to this absolute blinder of a track.
The more outright death metal tracks on here pack quite the punch too, ‘Child Of Night’ and ‘Godlessly’ are excellent hyperspeed ragers while the one-two of ‘The Leather Apron’s Scorn’ and ‘How Very Dead’ ramp up the gorey Carcass vibes to brilliant effect. It should be stated the Strnad’s vocal hooks have only improved over time, retching up some untouchable moments of horror-fantasy perfection on every track here. Verminous ties itself up nicely with ‘Dawn Of Rats’, a title that feels like a kind of tribute to Boston’s deathcore pioneers The Red Chord, ending the subterranean journey with an atmospheric touch and leaving you wanting to take the ride all over again.
As a long-time Black Dahlia obsessive who considered Nightbringers to be their crowning achievement, it took me a while to let this record get fully under my skin. Far less immediate than its predecessor, trading some of the catchiness for a more labyrinthine concept, it took some time to get used to. But once it clicked, it really fucking clicked. In one sense, Verminous feels like a return to their more aggressive early material, but coupled with real know-how and executed so gracefully that only a band of their experience could pull this off. Aside from the technical leaps they’ve taken, this is easily TBDM’s most emotional record yet, hitting spots that few acts in death metal could possibly achieve. It’s a grower, so if it doesn’t immediately grab you then stick with it and you’ll be greatly rewarded. This is right up there with the best of modern extreme metal – but honestly, what else did you expect?
Recommended Track: ‘Sunless Empire’