No one could ever accuse Chris Barnes of veering off on some freakish tangent, but when Six Feet Under released Undead last year it caused more than a few death metal diehards to scratch their heads in confusion. In the past, the former Cannibal Corpse frontman’s remarkably successful crew were always praised – and, indeed, criticised – for the sluggish and sloppy nature of their lumbering riffs. It was their USP and while it undoubtedly led to albums that were effectively interchangeable, it also marked the band out as something distinctive and very much in keeping with their leader’s reputation for viewing death metal through weed-ravaged eyeballs.
In contrast, Undead was sharp, precise and focused: the sound of a new lineup reinventing the SFU blueprint and dragging it screaming and blood-spattered into the modern age of extremity. Against the odds, perhaps, the change worked and suited Chris’s vision well. Despite yet more lineup shuffling, Unborn represents the consolidation of that stylistic leap and is a straightforward companion piece to its predecessor in both approach and atmosphere.
Opening track Neuro Osmosis boots open the abattoir doors in suitably grim fashion, its doomy tempos and grinding gait still driven forward by that newly souped-up internal engine, with drummer Kevin Talley marshalling his bandmates with pinpoint potency. Prophecy is more typical of Unborn’s gruesome contents; a mid-paced rager that finds Chris Barnes in flat-out harbinger of death mode, it centres around the force and fury of the chug and the unstoppable momentum it commands. On the similarly motoring Zombie Blood Curse, Six Feet Under venture into thrash territory, with serrated-edge riffs that echo the vicious insistence of Kreator and a smattering of ominous pauses that deftly heighten the overall sense of mortal unease.
Six Feet Under are still horror nerds, of course, but now that they have embraced a new level of rhythmic exactitude, Chris’s swivel-eyed gargling seems somehow more threatening and less dependent on shlock tactics. Thus, the slamming grooves of Decapitate and the hellish Slayer-isms of Incision summon mental images of real life devastation and violence, rather than anything more comic book.
In fact, while abandoning their trademark insouciance, Six Feet Under have also sharpened up their songwriting chops considerably. There is arguably more diversity here than on any previous album and every song boasts at least one lethal hook to drive Chris’s prurient points home. Whether it’s the numerous dynamic twists and spiralling lead breaks in Fragment, the attacking Alive To Kill You or the lurching syncopation of Psychosis, Unborn dazzles in three vivid dimensions, as opposed to the one-track rumble that once served Six Feet Under so well.
This is an irresistible exercise in no-nonsense heavy metal, designed to incite wild moshpits and wilder headbanging. There are more technically ingenious and cerebral death metal bands out there, but few can deliver quite so many bloody money shots.