Listening back to Whitechapel’s much-maligned 2016 record, Mark of the Blade, I’m finding it difficult to discern exactly what I’m meant to dislike about it. Am I meant to resent it for being a watered-down continuation of the groove-heavy sound the band had developed over their past two albums? Or should I be outraged that they dared to experiment with the pattern by adding new elements such as clean-singing into the mix? If anything, the album’s major weakness would seem to be its indecisiveness. The band appeared to have one foot stuck firmly in their comfort zone, while the toes of the other dabbled around outside of it. The Valley will likely prove another divisive entry in Whitechapel’s discography. However, this time around, they certainly can’t be faulted for not committing to a definitive direction.
Following Mark of the Blade, Whitechapel were faced with two obvious possibilities: either they could revert back to their established format and give the world another This is Exile (2008) or Our Endless War (2014), or they could double-down on the new elements they’d introduced to their sound. With the The Valley, the Tennesseans opt for the latter – delivering an album marks a distinct departure from their traditional template, for better or worse. Opener “When a Demon Defiles a Witch” wastes no time establishing the album’s new direction. The track is a five-minute semi-epic built around moody riffs and, yep, more clean singing. Maybe it’s just the more interesting musical backdrop, but Phil Bozeman’s clean vocals appear have come a long way in the short time since they first showed up on “Bring Me Home”. The track’s overall cleanliness is balanced out by the death metal barrage it launches upfront, and the harsher harmonies Bozeman fits in here and there. At times the song sounds like a duet between Cattle Decapitation’s Travis Ryan and Five Finger Death Punch frontman Ivan Moody, which – if that’s all coming from Bozemen – is truly impressive and an interesting mix at the very least.
Bozeman’s clean vocals are less effective elsewhere, however. While “Bring Me Home” was a one-and-done situation on Mark of the Blade, The Valley contains two other primarily clean offerings – neither of which are as dynamic nor effective as its opener. What’s so remarkable about “When a Demon Defiles a Witch” is the way it integrates the softer elements into its otherwise extreme setting. “Hickory Creek” and “Third Depth” are more traditional, ballad-style offerings, which only go to show that Bozeman’s clean vocals aren’t strong enough to carry songs all on their own. Stone Sour is always the go-to comparison whenever a metal band tries their hand at this sort of thing these days, but Bozeman’s vocals more readily evoke the post-grunge posturing of Staind’s Aaron Lewis and Seether’s Shaun Morgan that they do the power of Corey Taylor. Moreover, the fact that the clean tracks are distributed fairly evenly throughout the track-list means that they regularly disrupt the momentum built up by the album’s more aggressive offerings.
While their willingness to experiment with their sound is admirable, Whitechapel continue to be at their best when they go their hardest. “Forgiveness is Weakness” is one of the heaviest songs the band have produced in recent memory. It’s also one of their best and sees the band effortlessly displaying the mastery they hold over their craft, which propelled them to the top of the deathcore ranks in the first place. “Brimstone” is the kind of downbeat number the otfit have made their trademark of late – following in the vein of “The Mark of the Blade” and “The Saw is the Law” and leaning far more toward the former in terms of quality. Its meat-headed refrain of “kill, torture, terrorise” is exactly the kind of thing Whitechapel have shown time and time again that they excel at. “We Are One” is essentially a deathcore cover of Meshuggah’s “The Hurt That Finds You First”, until it trades in its rabid, early pace for a final, colossal beatdown reminiscent of The Acacia Strain’s “Tactical Nuke” and just as gloriously obnoxious. The album’s final two tracks see some of the textures showcased on “When a Demon Defiled A Witch” finally creeping back into its sound. “Lovelace” is a fast-paced, heavy-hitter, which sees Bozeman’s Ryan-style rasp return to the fold, while six-minute closer “Doom Woods” creates a sullen, moody atmosphere while also maintaining the heaviness the whole way through. When listened to in isolation, The Valley’s heavier songs recall the phenomenal songwriting and deceptive variation displayed on Whitechapel’s 2012 self-titled record. However, mixed in with more overt and less-successful departures, the tracks also often struggle to find purchase.
The Valley is an album packed with outstanding moments and bold decisions. The performances are all equally impressive across the board, with the band really pushing themselves, in terms of both variety and execution. It’s safe to say that this is, by far, the most musically accomplished of all Whitechapel’s records to date. However, it’s also probably their most uneven effort. Although it only contains two real pitfalls – in the form of “Hickory Creek” and “Third Depth” – these tracks are placed in such a manner, and are so at odds with the band’s otherwise high-energy approach, that they can’t help but disrupt their more coherent and successful surrounds. Bozeman’s clean singing is much more developed here than on Mark of the Blade, but – if The Valley proves anything – it’s that it should be used sparingly, to accentuate proceedings, rather than to carry them entirely.
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The Valley is out 29 March, through Metal Blade Records.