Wow finally a metal record with more than ten tracks that clocks in just under sixty minutes. I had been getting somewhat disenfranchised with the typical metal formula of ten songs and average lengths of forty-five minutes. It kept leaving me wanting more from bands. DevilDriver’s newest album, Winter Kills, has thirteen total songs. This earned points for me right away. Of course the last two are bonus tracks on the extended edition, but most places you look this is a more readily available version than the regular eleven song album anyway. On top of this positive aspect, we get a very solid metal record from start to finish. Now, this is certainly not an album that’s going to be on many Best of 2013 lists as there isn’t anything that stands out as largely different or more amazing that their previous albums. However, what we get is an extremely listenable album with catchy riffs and songs that pull you in right away and keep your attention throughout.
There are definitely some noticeable musical positives on Winter Kills. First of all the drumming from John Boecklin is close to perfect throughout the entire record. His ability to match fast and slow paces perfectly and his very well played double bass pedal raises the quality of every song. Dez Fafara’s harsh vocals are well done as usual and he has thankfully not yet fallen into the trap of adding clean vocals giving the songs an extra heir of heaviness. Finally, on their third release, The Last Kind Words, the band added some melodic death metal elements which mixed some really well done guitar harmonization with their catchy groove riffs. On each subsequent album, these aspects were ramped up and Jeff Kendrick and Mike Spreitzer continued to grow as guitarists. On the newest album the melodic death metal elements mesh almost impeccably and the harmonized bridges and solos are played so well that they sound almost NWOBHM-esque. However, less of this sound appears at the beginning of the album.
The album begins with the groove metal tracks “Oath of the Abyss” and “Ruthless” Both tracks have slight industrial elements to them in lieu of melodic death metal. “Oath of the Abyss” has a more atmospheric industrial opening and closing that fit surprisingly well with the heavy track. There are also some industrial sounds in the backing of the guitar riff and solid drumming making for a catchy first track that draws you right in. “Ruthless” has a straight industrial onset that almost sounds like galloping hooves. It once again fits strangely well with the track’s fast riffs and drumming which then flow into slow breakdowns and and then back again.
The album moves away from industrial elements and only returns back to them one more time. “Desperate Times” has a fast riff, a catchy groove arrangement, excellent double bass drumming and a slight use of melodic guitar. Although the musical structure of the song is one of the best on the album, the lyrics are cliched and end up taking away from the song slightly. With a chorus like “Desperate times call for desperate measures”, need I say more?
From here, we really start to get into more melodic death metal facets . The title track “Winter Kills” begins with crisp harmonized guitar but then moves into a very typical sounding groove riff. It is certainly a very listenable track, but nothing that truly stands out.
Finally, everything comes together on the “The Appetite”. There is a reason that it was the first single released from the album. It has all the aspects that make DevilDriver great put together seamlessly. The track begins with subdued guitar picking that suddenly jumps into screamed vocals. The heavy groove riff is overlaid with a great high pitched guitar sound and we get our first lengthy and perfectly played harmonized guitar solo. This is easily the best and most complete song on Winter Kills.
“The Appetite” is an almost impossible song to beat so why not follow up with “Gutted”. This song has promise with heavy guitar blasts, but then it slides into a common groove riff and drumming. The song borders on being boring and the lyrics are unfortunately weak. Thankfully, the weak tracks end here.
With a slight industrial outset, “Curses and Epitaphs” kicks off the second half of the album. The guitars are slightly sludgier giving the track an almost death/doom type feel that is a pleasant surprise. The tempo is kicked up slightly with a short well done solo. “Carings Overkill” follows a similar formula to “The Appetite” with a catchy beginning, shrieky guitar overlay and a harmonized bridge that leads into a skillful solo. This track also boasts the best drumming on the album.
“Haunted Refrain” is another one of the top tracks on the album. It commences with mellow tremolo picking intertwined with guitar blasts. The main riff is heavy and well written and as with many of the tracks on the latter part of the album, there is a solid harmonized guitar bridge that flows into a solo. Next comes probably the heaviest song on the album. “Tripping Over Tombstones” has excellent drums, multiple breakdowns and Dez’s best vocal performance on the record giving us a track that more closely resembles deathcore.
Remember that terrible Awolnation song that was popular on mainstream hard rock radio? How this even made it onto rock radio is beyond me when it’s not hard rock, but I digress. DevilDriver does an amazing cover of “Sail” that will make you forget about the awful original. It has slow doom pacing with piercing lead guitar that shifts ceaselessly into a faster chorus riff and you guessed it, a notable harmonized guitar bridge/solo. I immediately replayed it because I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.
The two bonus songs are amongst the heaviest on the album. “Shudder” drops the melodic death metal guitar in favor of a well done groove riff, first-rate drumming and a catchy chorus riff and vocals. “Back Down to the Grave” keeps the loudness going with a very heavy riff and drumming to start quickly moving into catchy, yet heavy guitars, exceptional harsh vocals and another harmonized bridge. These heavy tracks make no excuses and are the perfect way to close out the album.
With the exception of Boecklin’s drumming, there certainly is not much that jumps out at you as being overly incredible on Winter Kills, but it is a truly consistent and very well constructed metal album. It should give a good majority of metal fans what they want, relentlessly heavy, no frills songs with ever improving musicianship and guitar harmonies. Unfortunately, the melodic breaks are used too sparingly limiting the amount of great solos on the album. However, don’t let that deter you. Even though it is not perfect and doesn’t have a huge wow factor to make it one of the top albums of the year, the album is certainly one of the best listening experiences of 2013 so far.