I have an admittedly-odd history with metal. Like most of us, I was introduced to the genre by someone a little older than myself when I was a wee lad in the 6th grade. Back then, most of what I listened to was a combination of what my dad likes – indie stuff like The Decemberists and Arcade Fire (which I still totally love, by the way) and classic rockers like Billy Joel – and the occasional pop-punk and ska bands, like Sum 41 and The Aquabats. You know, kid stuff. (Not saying there’s anything wrong with it, because there’s not, but you guys know what I mean.) This changed one day, though, when an eighth (or maybe ninth?) grader that was at the same summer camp as me at the time overheard me talking about how Black Sabbath was “the heaviest band ever” and, just to prove me wrong, sat me down and forced me to listen to Job For A Cowboy, Whitechapel, and Gorgoroth. An odd combination of bands, I know, but it blew my fucking mind nonetheless, and the unlikely trio became the cornerstone of my taste for quite some time to come.
Although I listened to most of what all three bands had out at the time, nothing for me even came close to Whitechapel’s 2008 classic, This Is Exile. Neither of their other two albums out at the time really clicked with me in the same way, and nothing from neither Gorgoroth nor Job For A Cowboy did either (it would be another few years before I really got into black metal and appreciated Gorgoroth in a meaningful way). I listened to This Is Exile pretty much nonstop for the next couple of years, with very little other music entering my ears at that time. It was the perfect stepping stone, really: it taught me to appreciate full albums at a time, how to develop an ear for nuance, and it was the first step to me liking a lot of the music I do today.
It’s hard to conjure up images of the first time I heard the first time I heard this record that don’t sound totally hyperbolic in nature, so I’m not gonna even try. When that dude put on the title track to introduce me to this album, I was on another planet for the 3:40 runtime of the song. It really did just totally blow me away; Whitechapel was like nothing I had ever heard up to that point, and I was instantly hooked. The crunchy, staccato rhythm guitars and tremolo leads, the machine-gun blast beats and, of course, Phil Bozeman’s insanely good vocal work all just came together to form this slurry of violence and aggression that I couldn’t shake.
The opening of “Possession” perhaps best demonstrates what I enjoyed about this album: crushing, powerful grooves that instantly slam into the listener and force you to pay attention, a vocal attack that punctuates and adds power to the rhythms instead of overriding and downplaying them, and lead melodies that complement the rest of the instruments and bring to life the grim, evil atmosphere that Bozeman’s lyrics create. Of course, I couldn’t have articulated it then; I would have just said “it’s fucking cool,” or something to that effect.
It’s been quite a while since I listened to this album (probably a year or so), so getting a chance to do so again is a treat, and I feel like, as with all great deathcore albums, familiarity lends itself extremely well to the music. Knowing where every melody switches, where the riffs change, and, of course, where the breakdowns come in makes everything just so much more fun. “Fun” really is the operative word for what I’m feeling coming back to This Is Exile, even if I don’t have quite as much unconditional love for it as I once did.
Really, though, this album is still a fucking masterpiece. Although it’s certainly front-loaded, with the two most popular Whitechapel songs being the 2nd and 3rd tracks here, the deeper middle cuts, like “Somatically Incorrect” and “To All That Are Dead,” are still great songs in their own right. The two instrumental tracks – “Death Becomes Him” and “Of Legions” – could have probably been cut for a bit of a more streamlined experience, but neither are bad enough in their own right to drag down the album, more just acting as oddly-placed stopgaps that give the mind some reprieve between assaults.
Turning a more critical ear towards one of my old favorites hasn’t really changed my opinion on This Is Exile so much as reaffirmed it: I’m now better equipped to appreciate the nuances in the songwriting, like the way tracks ebb and flow into each other, how the energy level is maintained across songs, and the masterful attention to detail the band shows in crafting the exact atmosphere they want. The combination of critical appreciation and nostalgic love I have for this album has really just increased its standing in my eyes, and helped me to remember why I love this album so much.