When DevilDriver burst onto the scene almost a decade ago, alongside Lamb Of God and Hatebreed, they provided the perfect soundtrack for the young metal fan who, typically, hated the universe (or at least school).
But DevilDriver had something unique which distinguished them from their growling, blastbeat-junkie peers. They played unashamedly red-blooded, brutal American metal, but the musicianship in this band was extraordinary. The first assault was ‘Driving Down the Darkness’, a hook-ridden anthem that stuck in your head for weeks and their signature sound was simultaneously heavy and melodic, groovy and abrasive.
This ‘groovy’ characteristic is a key concern on their new album, Winter Kills. The two opening tracks are mid paced numbers which emphasise this feature, at the expense of the group’s typical high-octane, moshpit-inducing velocity. This is almost certainly in response to their last record, Beast which, whilst a solid offering, was mostly an exercise in straight up, hard n’ fast speed metal, devoid of the aforementioned hooks so crucial to the DevilDriver sound. Unfortunately this time it feels like they’ve gone too far the other way, with these first songs feeling like a contrived, methodical apology for Beast, the band’s typical pace and melodic leads noticeably absent.
By the time ‘The Appetite’ comes around, however, the group have regained their stride. This could well be the definitive DevilDriver track. It’s an absolute anthem, a breakneck exercise in violent melody. ‘Haunting Refrain’ also offers an excellent example of this, exhibiting the band’s best songwriting and a euphoric lead reminiscent of Testament’s Alex Skolnick in his prime.
These melodic overtones may irk some fans, however. They are strikingly reminiscent of the band’s 2007 opus Pray For Villains, an anomaly in the DevilDriver canon due to its emphasis on these textures at the expense of the signature ‘groove’ and its being written by bassist John Miller, who left last year. By their own admission Pray For Villains was a departure from the established DevilDriver sound, and consequently alienated many long term supporters. The resurrection of this album’s tone here is therefore curious, and serves as an ominous reminder of Miller’s influence as a songwriter.
Winter Kills is definitely one of the best metal records to land this year and exhibits some of DevilDriver’s best songs, which are destined to become highlights of their unmissable live shows. However, the misjudged opening tracks and the echoes of their less favoured previous work shows a band continuing to develop their sound, but ultimately stumbling due to the absence of a pivotal member.