The Wretched; The Ruinous

Certain things will always bring me back to my adolescence, like every time I see a 90s Dodge Caravan (my first car), eating a chicken cutlet wedge (that was just a thing where I grew up, I dunno), seeing someone wear a studded belt, or gods help me, if I ever have a chance to play Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, NFL Blitz or Goldeneye (I will be gone for HOURS. Do not come looking for me). But one thing, perhaps more than anything else in the world, won’t just bring me back to my teenage years, but actually have me BELIEVE that I am 16 years old all over again:

The sound of an Unearth breakdown.

I mean look, if you’re gonna think breakdowns, you can’t do much better than Unearth, right? Sure, these days there’s no shortage of bands hammering away with breakdowns packing the kind of planet-shattering efficiency that would make Dark Vader’s… uh… helmet, rock hard. There’s even bands that are pretty much just an endless, unrelenting string of breakdowns.

But in the giant spectrum that has become the world of Metalcore, Unearth were and always shall be the original breakdown kings. Killswitch has their hooks, Darkest Hour their riffs and builds, August Burns Red their maddening consistency, but Unearth was basically put on this earth for breakdowns – plain and simple. Their cache of At The Gates-inspired riffs and some In Flames-worshipping melodies? Great stuff, wouldn’t change them for the world. But is that why you ever pressed play on a new Unearth record? You and I both know the answer is “no.” So lets not kid ourselves and get to the friggin’ point: Does the self-appointed “Metalcore GOAT” still deliver the goods?

Well, right off the bat, Unearth lets the world know that time and age have done nothing to calm the oncoming storm (heh heh). Nor, for that matter, has the loss of guitarist and founding member Ken Susi, whose parting with the band, while seeming amicable enough, apparently was the result of “differences of opinion” (I certainly couldn’t speculate what that actually means, though I can’t help but find it… interesting, that he left to join a band with as much controversy surrounding them as As I Lay Dying, especially in the wake of pretty much everyone deciding they no longer wanted to work with the guy convicted of trying to assassinate his wife. I dunno, make of it what you will).

The opening title track, “The Wretched; The Ruinous” explodes out the gate with a pair of gunshot snare hits that suggest perhaps the band is still leaning on the more hardcore-forward, somewhat return-to-roots sound that marked their last album, Extinctions(s) – and those thoughts aren’t necessarily unfounded, as TW;TR certainly packs a lot of that Metallic Hardcore punch throughout its duration, but in this case, it’s just the cannon blast necessary to wring in the whole breadth of Unearth‘s repertoire: First a fury of ground-and-pound riffs and machine gun drumming that mark the awesome return of The Oncoming Storm and III: In the Eyes of Fire drummer Mike Justian (also of The Red Chord, Trap Them and Madball fame), then the high-flying Melodeath melodies that have marked so many of Unearth‘s pre-choruses and hooks throughout the years.

Frankly, I wasn’t too worried about that element going missing, as I always kind of assumed that was more Buz McGrath at work than Susi, but then the moment we were all waiting for enters the fray: Everything pauses, the drums build up, and BANG – right on schedule comes the savage, spin-kick-begging, make-no-mistake-it’s-Unearth breakdown. It doesn’t re-write the book, I wouldn’t even go so far as to say it’s an especially noteworthy breakdown in Unearth‘s collection of absolute barn burners, but it sounds exactly as its supposed to, and that’s just fine. McGrath even tosses in a sweet little solo on the track for good measure, an element that has never been as consistent a part of the band’s formula as his playing I felt always deserved. What I did NOT see coming was the monstrous end of the track, where the band busts out another sort-of breakdown, but one that’s backed by some super-infectious gang vocals taken straight out of the Wizard of Oz castle guards/Metallica “Frayed Ends of Sanity” playbook (“Oh wee oh….”). It’s a swaggering, epic conclusion and sounds like nothing I’ve heard the band utilize before, suggesting maybe McGrath feels a little freer to let loose on this record.

There are certainly other examples that seem to back this theory – like at the beginning of “Mother Betrayal,” where the band breaks out some echoing, monastic chanting over an epic build that feels more like something Dimmu Borgir might produce than Unearth, and it’s a super epic way to introduce another banger of a breakdown that kicks the song officially into gear. The song even goes on to feature some almost-blackend riffing, and some more high-registered screaming than we’re really used to from Trevor Phipps, who sounds great, and even a bit rejuvenated after his performance on Extinction(s) which, while not bad by any stretch, at times felt a bit strained. In the vain of providing some different elements, “Dawn of the Militant” is pretty much a straight-up Crossover Thrash effort that comes in guns blazing, whips up a furious circle pit, and gets out again just as quickly (granted, it does end on an absolute bruiser of a breakdown, in appropriate Unearth fashion).

Then there’s “Broken Arrow,” which gets even more simplistic in its approach, opting to start with a pummeling Hardcore beatdown, before breaking into an chorus that owes itself as much to Corrosion of Conformity or Kyuss as it does anyone else. It’s a fun quick-hitter that catches you a bit off guard and helps TW;TR become one of Unearth‘s more varied and ambitious records.

Ah, but those of you simply here for the Unearth you’ve come to love and need in your life will find more than enough to satisfy, as well. “Cremation of the Living” is as as classic Unearth as you could imagine, featuring both some of the more blasting, technical wizardry of Watchers of the Rule, and the catchy Melodeath sensibilities of The Oncoming Storm,  and again puts Buz McGrath at the forefront with another excellent solo that has Unearth sounding more and more metal as hell by the minute.

“Eradicator” serves as the album’s first real bruiser, sounding like it could even be a holdover from Extinction(s) and giving even some of those old school The Stings of Conscience vibes that would make any long time fan giddy with excitement. And then there’s the pièce de résistance, “Invictus,” which starts with that unmistakably Unearth busy, tapping guitar work over a much heavier backbone, and goes on to cover nearly every era of the band’s illustrious career, including a pair of what I’d vote as the band’s biggest, baddest breakdowns on the record. They even break out that one super-melodic offering in “Into the Abyss” they’ve always been good for a-la “Zombie Autopilot” or “So It Goes” that prove the band always had a foot firmly planted in the early In Flames/At the Gates-obsessed days of American Metalcore. Again, it’s an album that really is all things for all Unearth fans.

I will say, The Wretched; The Ruinous doesn’t necessarily have the immediate impact that Extinction(s)’ more in-your-face, stripped-back delivery had, or the more technically-wowing Watchers of the Rule that I’d still probably rank as the band’s highest point, but make no mistake, this is a really good Unearth  record that, over time, I suspect has a chance to grow on me even more. Without question, it’s an album that has expanded Unearth‘s sound more than any previous album ever has, and while some of the newer elements may take a little more time to fully settle in, I very much appreciate that the band, and Buz McGrath in particular, took the opportunity to take a couple chances and do something a bit new, even while still delivering the core elements we wanted all along.

This could well be the start of a whole new era for a band that really doesn’t have anything to prove after 25 years, and that in and of itself is pretty dang neat. Another stellar offering from one of Metalcore’s finest.

[Visit the band's website]
Written by Steve K
May 16th, 2023


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