Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Living Sacrifice - Discography Review

Christian metalcore, hardcore, and metal has become quite the hotbed for new bands over the last couple of years. Right now it seems like everywhere you turn in the heavy music industry you’re confronted by Underoath, Norma Jean, or any one of the many other bands from the Solid State or Facedown rosters. The genre has, no doubt, reached critical mass and weeding out the chaff in this overcrowded arena is quite the task. However, when you find that no one remembers who xDeathstarx or Flee the Seen were, they’ll still remember one of the Christian metalcore giants—Living Sacrifice. In a little over a decade, they managed to create six amazing albums that ran the gamut of the heavy music realm, each with its own special place in the annals of Christian metal’s legacy.

Living Sacrifice

Album Information
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

For the time it was released, Living Sacrifice’s self titled debut had a hard time separating itself from their thrash peers. Sharing a lot of similarities with heavyweights of the day such as Slayer and Anthrax, it was hard to see Living Sacrifice as anything but a knock-off band who had formed up to do nothing more than play to what was popular at the time.

The musicianship of the band was great, no matter how derivative they may have seemed at the time. Songs such as “Internal Unrest” and “Walls of Separation” sported a very strong early Metallica influence, but a lot of the time when they weren’t focused on thrash grooves, they were aiming for sheer speed, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it led to a lot of songs sounding extremely similar.

What was really holding them back on this album, however, was the lackluster vocals of Darren Johnson. He simply had no diversity. Every line was delivered in the exact same manner—a strong talking voice that rarely varied in tone or speed. Had there been a little more dynamics to the vocals, this could have been a much better album than it was, which is exactly what was hoped for on their next release…


Album Information
Rating: 2 out of 5

…but unfortunately Johnson managed to make his voice even more unlistenable. From the first guttural wail of “Enthroned” it was apparent that Johnson was trying to change things up, but went in the wrong direction. Instead of his semi-spoken style, he moved over to trying out a death metal growl that, instead, sounded like the howl of a half-tongued, drunk beggar being disemboweled. With this change there was at least hope for less monotony, but again things went totally wrong and Johnson kept his new vocal approach the same on almost every track.

While Johnson progressed backwards, the rest of the band moved forward into a decidedly more death influenced thrash approach. There were rarely any speed solos or progressions seen on Nonexistent, but the thrash was still strong with these Arkansas natives, albeit with the aforementioned death influence and some occasional groove moments, such as on “…To Nothing”.

It was interesting to see the infusion of death metal with the previously thrashy core sound of the band. It led to some extremely heavy songs that, if not for the vocals, would still be classics today. One particular example, “Void Expression”, showed the band mixing death metal progressions with down-tuned grooves. Adding to this already potent mix, the band shifted gears halfway through the song to try out some double bass blasting before transitioning into a melodic, acoustic bridge leading into a very metal lead guitar solo. This song was a glimpse into the great things the band could accomplish when they were really trying.


Album Information
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Again, with a new release comes a new vocal approach for Johnson. This time he moves away from the guttural and slides back towards the talking vibe of their self titled debut, but he adds more of a yell to his repertoire this time around. What is still apparent, however, is that despite yet another vocal change, no matter how Johnson delivers his vocals they are always so unchanging throughout the course of an album that it makes a listener very easily bored.

As Johnson backtracked in his vocal progression, the rest of the band made another small step forward, this time taking the thrash style of their debut and using it simply as an accentuating piece of their death metal approach. It should be noted that the style wasn’t a true death metal style, but instead could be seen as death metal that sometimes strayed into an early metalcore stance. As an example, “Sorrow Banished” used a decidedly death metal approach for the verses, but in the chorus and bridge progressions, you can hear some oft-kilter breakdowns (minus the modern double bass blasting) that could be slipped into Botch’s playbook. “Unseen”, on the other hand, starts with strong metalcore elements and then implements death metal passages throughout the track.

Beyond the occasional guitar breakdowns, there is also some focused double bass work used to accentuate the aggression of this album. They don’t resemble the typical modern blast beats, but come off as slightly more well placed and used, especially since they’re not utilized at every single opportunity. Although, it would have been nice to hear some more spice added to some of the retread death moments. By the end of the CD, it’s easily noticeable that the same song approach might be used a few times too often. Thankfully, though, the album overall is better than the last two, showing the band making steps in the right direction.


Album Information
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

With Reborn, Living Sacrifice made a few changes. First, they moved up to Solid State Records. Second, Johnson decided to leave the band leaving guitarist Bruce Fitzhugh to take over the vocals. Finally, Chris Truby joined the band on bass. The biggest of these changes was the leaving of Johnson. With Fitzhugh taking his place the vocals no longer became a horrible distraction. Fitzhugh’s vocals were raspy, raw, and were delivered in a quasi-distorted manner. It worked quite well for the band.

Not only was the vocal approach different, but so was the music. Moving even further away from their early thrash elements, the band used many more straight up metal guitar attacks. You could also make out some very technical moments, such as the Meshuggah inspired track “Truth Solution”. The death elements were still present, but used sparingly. Most often they would come into play when there was a need to make a melodic and subdued passage to offset their heavier moments.

While taking on many metal and technical elements, Living Sacrifice explored many of the early metalcore sounds and traits, creating some thoughtful breakdowns and decidedly aggressive progressions, which sound very much akin to metalcore stalwarts Botch and Norma Jean, only with slightly less of a buzzsaw effect.

Living Sacrifice had found a sound that they were comfortable in and had created a record that was leading the metalcore charge. The new lineup supercharged the band and showed they were, quite literally, reborn with a well of newfound potential. They could only get better from here on out.

The Hammering Process

Album Information
Rating: 4 out of 5

Things didn’t quite work out as planned after Reborn. Chris and Jason Truby left the band to form Eso-Charis. After having a hard time finding members to fill in, Living Sacrifice finally entered the studio to record The Hammering Process with new additions Rocky Gray and Matt Putman. With all of the lineup changes, it was hard to believe that the band could put together such a solid follow up to what many will argue was their best album. The Hammering Process, however, came out amazingly well and established the band as a metalcore heavyweight.

Having firmly planted themselves into the metalcore realm, Living Sacrifice hit with a newfound heaviness, supplanting shredding with breakdowns and death metal vocals with a combination of yelling with some spoken word and melody. More than a couple classic songs can be found on this album, such as the crushing “Bloodwork” and the tremendous opener, “Flatline”.

There were many groundbreaking elements on this album that would be emulated by countless metalcore bands to come. The thick, meaty chorus of “Not My Own” and accompanying bridge will leave your ears bleeding. “Local Vengeance Killing” starts off with thundering drums that build up to a hammering start / stop breakdown passage that just about every heavy band has utilized at least once in their career. “Hand of the Dead”, if written today, wouldn’t sound a bit different. It was light years ahead of its time with the combination some clean vocals alongside the brutal yells and mid-tempo metalcore song structure.

The only drawback to this album comes in the form of variety, or lack thereof. A couple of tracks sound very similar and the same tempo range is used for most of the songs. Of course, metalcore has never been known for being the most variety filled genre, but considering all of the different elements Living Sacrifice had employed in the past, they could have maybe mixed it up a little, such as they did on “Burn the End” with the acoustic break in the middle. Other than that, this was a phenomenal album created by a band that had recently underwent some significant lineup changes.

Conceived in Fire

Album Information
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Two years after having put together the best album of their career, Living Sacrifice entered the studio to create what would be their final album—Conceived in Fire. Instead of expanding upon the metalcore blueprint they had established, they worked on trying to bring back more of the thrash elements they had let fall by the wayside. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but came as an interesting shift in direction.

Continuing the trend from their last album, however, was the inclusion of melodic vocals. They were still sparse, but more pronounced when used, such as at the beginning of “The Poisoning”. When not delving into melody, the vocals remained as visceral as ever, feeling at times like those of Demon Hunter at their heaviest.

The metalcore sound wasn’t completely eliminated, however, as you can still find many a breakdown on this album. They were simply not as prominent or relied upon. The focus here was on getting the metal and the thrash back into their songs. Even with the return of those elements, the guitar work wasn’t nearly as shred heavy as their early albums and wasn’t quite as heavy as on The Hammering Process. Instead they treaded the middle ground between the two. Interestingly enough, there were also some slight tribal influences that could be heard, such as on “Send Your Regrets” where the band almost feels like they’re channeling some Sepultura or Soulfly.

Beyond the album standout “Symbiotic”, there were no real exceptional tracks to be found. There were also no complete clunkers. This album instead was made up of 12 solid tracks and one phenomenal one. As a final album, Conceived in Fire wasn’t bad to go out on. It showed the band trying to touch upon all of the elements of their recording career.

What About Today?

After having created quite the Christian metal legacy, the members of Living Sacrifice didn’t give up on music. In fact, Lance Garvin, Rocky Gray, and Bruce Fitzhugh even reunited for a spell to write and record three songs for the Living Sacrifice greatest hits disc, In Memoriam, showing that there’s always a chance for this sleeping beast to reawaken at any time. For the time being, however, you can indulge in the projects that the individual members have moved on to be a part of. Rocky Gray played drums in Evanescence up until earlier this year and is currently playing guitar for Soul Embraced. Bruce Fitzhugh is now working as a producer and manager. Matthew Putman is busy with his three bands—Lovedrug, Snailhuntr, and Unwed Sailor. Jason Truby played with P.O.D. for a spell before moving in a more worship oriented direction, as he now works with Phil Keaggy and Lance Gavin. Cory Putman is currently the frontman for the Christian metalcore heavyweights Norma Jean. The other members of Living Sacrifice have moved on to other endeavors as well, which are not directly related to the music industry.

It’s amazing what a band can in a decade, and what a wonderful progression a group can make when given time to grow, mature, and flourish. It’s hard for bands to get this chance in today’s “one album and done” musical arena where labels need hits and, if you don’t have one, you have to move on. Living Sacrifice is an example of what a band can do when given the chance to create a discography instead of just a disc.

Note: This article was posted at Decoy Music here.

No comments: