The Black Dahlia Murder: Finding Progress in Tradition

“We always felt a responsibility to be a dependable band, we want people to look at us like Cannibal Corpse,” states a cheery Trevor Strnad from a New York lockdown. Despite the dreary circumstances surrounding this interview, the long-time frontman of legendary death metal stalwarts The Black Dahlia Murder has a lot to be happy about. The band recently released their ninth full-length, Verminous, garnering widespread acclaim despite a truncated roll-out and skewed first-week sales due to COVID-19.

Much like their aforementioned forefathers, the Detroit quintet have built their name on being unbelievably consistent, garnering the kind of following reserved only for the greats of the metal scene. Surrounded by metal memorabilia and a truly gigantic CD collection, the semi-official nerd-god seems assured that their notoriously rabid fanbase will support their new album right off the bat: “They definitely showed up already!” he exclaims, “It’s insane the amount of dedication those guys have. They act like a street team for us!” 

Forever priding themselves as being a ‘people’s band’, TDBM have stuck fast to their vision, especially as it has never failed them through the ups and downs of their 20-year career. “There’s going to be no point where we jump the shark,” he assures me. “There’s many routes you can take to commercialise your band, but that just doesn’t interest us, we have a lot of pride in what we do.”

However, in terms of a shake up of their established sonic template, Verminous is the most dramatic step forward the band have ever taken. Finding solace in classic heavy metal with the addition of new guitarist Brandon Ellis, the record oozes authentic old-school vibes from every pore. Cuts like the title track and ‘Godlessly’ recall the all-out barrage of their early work, but as you dig deeper, it becomes clear that they’re not content just to stay in one place.

“It’s definitely [Ellis’] influence creeping in there” he divulges. “It began with Nightbringers, there was a little bit of rock swagger to some of the stuff he did. This sees him spreading his wings in that regard and that’s where his influences lie personally.” It’s clear that the young virtuoso is particularly fond of the classic shredders of the 80s, but injects his playing with his own sense of flair and youthful energy. “He’s had so much influence on us since coming into the band, he’s bought so many unique ideas for songwriting and he’s had us looking at songcraft in a different way.” 

It only takes a casual listen to tracks like ‘Removal Of The Oaken Stake’ and ‘Child Of Night’ to hear this influence loud and clear. Instead of the constant blast that we’ve come to expect from Black Dahlia, Verminous sees them, in Trevor’s words – “closing the hi-hat and just kinda rocking out.” Tapping into the attitude of Judas Priest and the evil atmospheres of King Diamond, these influences are seamlessly fused into their established style and executed with the technical prowess and finesse of a band who know exactly what they’re doing. 

A real sense of excitement bleeds into every aspect of Verminous, something lost on most extreme bands today, making for a complete conceptual package rarely seen in the genre. It gallops and swings into a myriad of moods and styles while tieing the theme together and maintaining the gleeful energy that this band made their name for. Whether they’re thrashing away on ‘The Leather Apron’s Scorn’, or taking things a little slower on ‘Hour Of Rats’, the record seethes with purpose.

“It just feels like a really heightened time of creativity for us,” he proclaims with enthusiasm. “I feel like this is the beginning of the new era in a way, we’re inching towards doing some new things, definitely being more progressive. We’re trying to make the songs have a bit more depth this time around and I feel like it’s more epic at times too. We tried to evoke a bit more of an emotion. ‘Sunless Empire’ for example, has a very melancholic vibe to it.” 

This song in-particular is an absolute gem in the discography, a love-letter to the underground and extreme music in all its forms. Its empowering delivery is something to behold in itself, but then you’re transported into a whole other dimension by a true guitar-hero moment from Ellis in the solo. Unquestionably the best song Black Dahlia have ever put their name to. But all this talk of new ideas begs the question: Did Nightbringers mark the end of an era for the band, and Verminous the opening of a new chapter? 

“I feel like the era is marked by Brandon coming in, and Nightbringers was the first step in us being more creative and more stylish,” he redresses. “I think that’s really what he’s brought to the rest of us, the confidence to do something with more of our own personality and style in there. We’re thinking less about being the fastest band on earth or the most technical and just really focussing on the heart of songwriting and trying to make lasting songs that evoke an emotional response from people”

One of the key ways to evoke an emotion in your audience is strong vocal lines, something Trevor has paid particular attention to this time around. Instead of delivering his twisted storytelling in rapidfire bursts like a death metal Dani Filth, he’s slowed things down and sprinkled (perhaps for the first time) some repetition into the mix, best demonstrated in the anthemic chorus of ‘Child Of Night’.

“I tried to write my patterns and stuff at a slower rate, with a slower delivery where I’m not cramming so many syllables in. If people can hear what you’re saying it gets embedded in them,” he explains. “I definitely made a conscious effort to shut up at some parts. The songs felt more epic, and I thought that if I could ramp things up on my end to make things more hooky that would be honouring what [the band] did. There’s more parts where I repeat the verse or whatever this record, it’s just that cheap songwriting effort to drill that into people’s heads.”

It may be cheap, but it’s tried and tested because it works. Despite the aforementioned classic bands that cast their shadow of influence over Verminous, I asked Trevor if there were any other specific influences for this change of tact. “It kind of feels like every other band is doing that except us!” he laughs. “I just wanted it to be more towards classic heavy metal releases and like CarcassHeartwork, not so lyrically dense and just trying to pick my battles and really put the lyrics where they’re going to count. Really try to do more with less, and to hopefully make those moments more potent because it’s less crammed full of info.”

Touching on the melting-pot quality of The Black Dahlia Murder, its easy to wonder if Verminous could be a gateway to newcomers of extreme music. The absorbing cover art and old-school quality to the record could certainly be enticing for someone looking to dip their toes into this world. Immediately involving in it’s depth and detail, bugs crawling from crypts as a central sewage stream runs through the scene, glowing with green light. Classic Dan Seagrave covers like Entombed’s Clandestine come to mind, sucking you into the “evil place” embodied by the music. I ask if being an entry point for newcomers to extreme music is something the band considers when writing a new record.

“I do think about being a gateway band for people in what I do thematically [and] visually with the band. I try to represent death metal in the same way that excited me at thirteen with the album covers having a very classic vibe.” He continues: “Some people would say our lyric topics are clichè, but for me I look at it as tradition. We’ve never said that we’re the most original band and that’s never been our statement really. I think that metal, in a lot of ways, is one of the only genres that puts so much focus on the past. You look at pop music and it’s just disposable to people, but in metal there’s these classic records that are the foundation of it and people keep returning to it. So we take shit from all different eras of metal and all different styles, it’s really just a cocktail of what we like and what we’d like to hear from music that we listen to.”

Part of what makes a great death meal record, aside from brutality, is a vibe that is conjured by the music. Whether created on purpose or stumbled upon by accident, that feeling is of equal, if not greater, importance than technical musicianship and heavy production. As themes and storytelling are clearly things Trevor considers when writing for Black Dahlia, I ask if this is something he enjoys piecing together as an album starts to take shape.

“Definitely, we try to really hone in on the whole theme and really get a synchronicity between the artwork, the kind of samples we use in the record, the lyrics. This is the most thematically tight we’ve had things, and there’s what I call like easter eggs in it, these little licks that only happen once or little smart transitions that you go like “oh wow!”. It’s just an effort to really give things more depth than we have before, and of more value for repeated listens, things that will reveal themselves a bit more slowly over time.”

With all this talk of new creative avenues, Trevor explains that the song he feels most excited about from Verminous is the brilliantly-titled ‘Removal Of The Oaken Stake’. “I think it’s treading into this new territory we’ve been talking about. To do a song that’s more mid-paced for us feels kind of ballsy, it has to have the right attitude or it’s not going to work.” 

In classic Dahlia fashion, the lyrical concept of this song turns the camp up to the max to incredible effect. “I had this lyrical idea for a vampire who’s been staked and he’s basically in purgatory waiting for someone to pull the stake out, so he can grow the skin back over his bones and come back to life.” He explains with glee, the flicker in his eye a clear indication that he hasn’t lost any love for weaving these vignettes of horror. “I’d been sitting on that concept for a while just waiting for a song with the right, forlorn kind of vibe. As soon as I heard the opening to the song I was like “yes I think I know what to do here with this!””.

What makes songs like this so brilliant is that, despite sounding different for the band, they don’t stick out from the tracklist in a way that feels unnatural. Already this new direction feels like part of who the band are now, this isn’t so much a leap into the unknown, but more of a logical progression. 

“That’s what I hope, you know I feel like in a lot of ways this is an extension of what we did with Nightbringers. Nightbringers was more of a barrage with a lot more information per song and it kinda beats you over the head a bit more. This one, I think, is all about the dynamics, it’s all about the bigger picture and the ride of emotions that it takes you on.”

As a long-time fan (obsessive) of The Black Dahlia Murder, its hard not to be salivating at what could come next with the confidence they’ve gained in releasing Verminous. Within this one record there are so many dimensions that have the potential to be explored further going forward. “It feels that way to us too, I think. Everyone is excited for the future and to see where we can take these things again, and it does feel like a kind of opening of a gate or some new territory, it’s exciting for us.” 

This new style suits them perfectly. Things only hinted at in the past now feel more realised, opening up a whole new foundation for the band to build upon. Trevor seems to agree: “There’s still so many things we haven’t done, it feels like we’re at such a creative time. It just feels good to have [Verminous] received well after I had all this time to fester on it and think about it. I see this band as being in our infancy creatively, I know we’ve made a lot of records and we’ve been around a lot of years but there’s no signs of slowing from any of us and we feel like a real brotherhood in the band right now, it’s just like a good time for us and this feels like a real high.”

As the interview drew to a close, I began to realise that this band is exactly what heavy music needs in 2020. Consistent without being stagnant, evil without being po-faced and self-aware enough to be straight fun. In an extreme music scene where everyone is desperately trying to be taken seriously, it’s refreshing that a band who play circles around anyone can make such a hostile genre so inclusive. The Black Dahlia Murder are death metal’s most wholesome band. Much like their godfathers in Cannibal Corpse, they know the power of being unashamedly schlocky and just writing great songs. Now armed with Verminous and an exciting vision for their future, it’s hard to think of anything that can stand in their way.

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