You know Pabst Blue Ribbon? PBR? “America’s Best” since 1893? Beer of choice for hipsters and David Lynch? My favorite Milwaukee export was a staple in my college dorm’s fridge and still remains in my regular beer rotation at home. Granted, I’ve transitioned to higher-quality libations over the last several years, and PBR definitely isn’t my favorite beer. But even the most snobbish beer connoisseur has a go-to crispy boi to crack open when the mood arises. For me, that’s always been PBR, a beer-flavored beer that tastes as refreshing today as it did when I bought my first 30-rack.
Next door in the Great Lakes State, The Black Dahlia Murder have established themselves as a similar kind of institution. Verminous marks their ninth(!) album released across a nearly 20-year(!!) career as one of the most popular (and premier) American metal bands.
They’ve headlined Summer Slaughter (2008, 2011, 2017) in the US more than any other band, and they consistently top the bill for stacked national tours. They were excellent when I saw them play Nocturnal (2007) in full for Summer Slaughter 2017 and a career-spanning set for IndieMerch Store’s 10-Year Anniversary Tour. And while the numbers are still coming in for Verminous, every album since Miasma (2005) has charted on the U.S. Billboard 200. (Update 4/29/20: The trend continues.) Plus vocalist Trevor Strnad has become an essential curator of the latest and greatest modern metal with his column “The Obituarist.”
The band’s music also has a lot in common with PBR; both are brewed with only the finest ingredients to create a consistent, enjoyable experience every time. The band’s career was already in full swing by the time I discovered them in high school, which meant I was able to spin their first four albums constantly and enjoy each of their individual quirks.
I loved the band’s melodic metalcore roots on Unhallowed (2003), rawer melodeath beginnings on Miasma, and when both albums came together to create the triumphant Nocturnal. And to this day, I maintain that Deflorate (2009) is the most underrated album in their discography. Everyone focuses on “Black Valor” and “I Will Return,” but those tracks bookend some of the best tracks of their career. Of course, as is the case with most fans, I view Ritual (2011) as the band’s magnum opus. It features arguably their best and most varied songwriting, from the infectious hooks on “Moonlight Equilibrium” to the crushing groove on “On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood” to the scorching, deathgrind-adjacent “Den of the Picquerist.”
However, similar to my experience with PBR, my relationship with TBDM has experienced a bit of a parabola over the years. Granted, I placed Nightbringers (2017) among my favorite death metal albums of the year, describing it as a “savage installment in their discography that feels invigorated on every level.” Unfortunately, it’s a bit of an outlier of the band’s post-Ritual output. I certainly enjoyed the band’s signature brand of melodeath on Everblack (2013) and Abysmal (2015); in a vacuum, I’d probably hold them in a similarly high regard as Nightbringers. But it’s impossible to experience music devoid of context, and consequently, it was difficult to listen to either album without comparing them to the gems earlier in their career. Even Nightbringers hasn’t found its way into my regular rotation nearly as often as Ritual and Deflorate.
Which brings us to Verminous, and the end of this winding, 500+ word introduction. What’s my verdict on the ninth offering from TBDM? That nothing I just wrote matters. Well, not exactly, but allow me to explain.
As with their preceding eight albums, Verminous offers a half-hour-and-change of airtight, well-executed melodeath that pulls in subtle influences from across the broader death metal spectrum. Fans will find everything they love about TBDM: galloping drums, ripping blasts, soaring solos, crunchy-yet-melodic riffs, and of course, Strnad’s signature growl/snarl combo. If you’ve followed and enjoyed the band’s discography up to this point, I’d be genuinely surprised if you didn’t also find some level of enjoyment with Verminous.
There are specific highlights worth mentioning, as is always the case with their music. “Godlessly” is a classic, fast-paced TBDM track with an awesome midsection, complete with dazzling solos and a dueling-guitar melody that carries an almost mysterious air. Guitarists Brian Eschbach and Brandon Ellis continue to dazzle on “Removal of the Oaken Stake,” with guitar hooks that continue TBDM’s tradition of adding a darker, heavier edge to vintage melodeath riffing.
Their bandmates are also on their game throughout the album. Alan Cassidy’s drumming is excellent and varied on every track, and bassist Max Lavelle even makes his voice heard on tracks like “The leather Apron’s Scorn.” Strnad’s lyrical and vocal prowess continues to be unparalleled in death metal. Tracks like “Child of Night” feature his vivid, evil portraits, fittingly capped off by a catchy refrain of “Ea Ea” (an ancient god of mischief).
In essence, Verminous is another strong release from a band increasingly growing into their role as elder statesmen of their genre. I wasn’t old enough to appreciate death metal’s golden years in the early ’90s, but I imagine watching TBDM’s career evolve is a comparably unique experience; watching albums from a relatively young band I loved as teen become modern death metal classics.
It’s that fact that continued resurfacing as I prepared to write this review. Out of all the death metal bands I’ve listened to, and the countless more I haven’t, only a minuscule percentage have achieved the level success and maintained the quality of their songwriting like TBDM have. The vast majority of death metal bands can’t claim a single classic album to their name, and even genre greats like Deicide and Morbid Angel have some high-profile missteps in their back catalog. For TBDM to consistently produce worthwhile, quality albums after releasing four consecutive modern melodeath staples is incredible.
More importantly, there’s virtue in consistency. To bring my original metaphor full circle, I know exactly what I’m getting every time I crack open a PBR or a new TBDM album. Neither perfectly mimics the memories I have of encountering them for the first time, but I still enjoy every minute and look forward to the next one. Because if there’s one thing TBDM have always brought to death metal, it’s the importance of having fun with a genre that’s objectively a little goofy. After all, this was one of their earliest band promo photos with Metal Blade:
Longtime fans of TBDM know exactly what to expect on Verminous, which is precisely why it’s well-worth their time. While the band still haven’t revisited the pinnacle they reached on Ritual, hardly any band replicates the success of their greatest album, and fewer still have reached the highlights in TBDM’s discography. I’m thankful the band show no signs of slowing down and will continue releasing quality melodeath well into this decade and hopefully beyond. No one approaches the genre in quite the same way, and if every subsequent release is merely a refinement of their formula, then that’s fine by me.
Verminous is available now via Metal Blade Records.