Jordan Campbell’s take:
Decrepit Birth is a band of surprises. After a four-year period of dormancy following the release of their debut, …And Time Begins, they unleashed Diminishing Between Worlds, an album that defied all expecations. In those interceding years, the formerly ultra-brutal (and, arguably, ultra-boring) outfit presumably sold their souls, and mainman Matt Sotelo became a lead guitar god seemingly overnight. Diminishing Between Worlds was a complete shock to the system–so much so that the Metal Review staff almost unwittingly crowned it our 2008 Album of the Year, as it covertly claimed more spots on individual best-of lists than any other album.
So, after this barrage of shock and awe, it’s odd that Polarity succeeds–resoundingly–because of its decidedly unsurprising nature. Essentially, Polarity is the sequel to Diminishing that every Decrepit Birth fan on the planet craved. But this is no mere rehash, people. Decrepit Birth has fine-tuned and optimized every aspect of their sound, amplifiying their attack ever-so-slightly all the way across the board. The result is the most dynamic, insipring, and devastating death metal album of the year.
For the album’s first half, the band continues the formula established on Diminishing: A wickedly progressive and hyper-melodic barrage of brutality. Amidst the space-age chaos however, the band never loses sight of their status as a fucking death metal band. Often, they come off like an onyx-carved, evil-twin to Cynic…wielding a warhammer in one hand and a bonesaw in the other. Lesser bands–such as the frilly n’ fluffy Obscura and the sporadically amazing Augury–can get lost in similarly proggy embellishments, lessening their overall impact. Decrepit Birth never falls prey to excess, never losing their edge, largely excelling due to their cast-from-concrete rhythms. KC Howard’s drumming is absolutely fuckin’ nuclear, lending ridiculous heft to the potent riffing on display.
As bitchin’ as the first four tracks are, it’s only at Polarity‘s midway point that Decrepit Birth reveal themselves as the elite force to be reckoned with. Few–okay, zero–brutally techincal death metal bands have the chops to craft an album that actually gets better as it goes on. But the blissfully upbeat “Solar Impulse” commences an ultra-scenic, hyperspeed journey to Polarity‘s completion. Sotelo is unafraid to peel layers back from his guitar work to create maximum dynamic effect, and his subtle restraint does wonders for Polarity‘s vitality. The fluid breathablilty of “Solar Impulse” and the lockstep crunch of “The Quickening of Time” are perfectly-placed nuggets of headbanging bliss. The latter track is especially crushing, with vocalist Bill Robinson–formerly somewhat of a liability–giving this song (amongst others) a crucial tie to the old school. He kills with power on “A Brief Odyssey in Time,” an unconventionally heavy, one-minute blaster that’s one of the coolest things 2010 has wreaked thus far. This shitgrinning radness is only matched by the instrumental geek-gasm “Sea of Memories,” a spine-tingling guitar workout that triggers a wistful bemusement that has become all too rare amongst the jaded.
Not since A Celebration of Guilt has a death metal album triggered such unfettered glee; for all of its crippling acrobatics and density, Polarity is unbridled fun. And it’s far from a superficial joyride; Decrepit Birth have again proved that they’re one of few soulful purveyors in a subgenre brim-full of vapid aestheticists. Tech death is at a crossroads, and Decrepit Birth is the burning star in the center of the intersection. Simultaneously, this soon-to-be-classic album could be technical death metal’s blueprint, pinnacle, and swansong.
We now live in the post-Polarity era. Adjust accordingly.
Doug Moore’s take:
You know that band that you should like? The one that your friends won’t shut up about, and whose on-paper ingredients should make them a personal favorite? The one who, no matter how hard you try to force appreciation on yourself, don’t really do anything for you? At the moment, that band is Decrepit Birth.
Whenever this happens, I do my best to discern exactly why the band in question isn’t giving me goosebumps like they should. In Decrepit Birth‘s case, the problem has nothing to do with the basic ingredients of their sound. They play precise modern death metal with a melodic, progressive slant, generating incessant Death comparison and garnering buttloads of critical acclaim. Their sophomore release, Diminishing Between Worlds, was Metal Review‘s staff pick of the year back in 2008.
But on Polarity, as on its well-received predecessor, nothing seems to be at stake. Decrepit Birth is death metal through a microscope: precise and often fantastical to observe, but distant, clinical, and emotionally unsatisfying.
Like later Death, Decrepit Birth employ tons of abstract-sounding melodies that rarely stray from straightforward, diatonic scales. But unlike Death (or other tech-death luminaries like Arsis, Gorod, and Anata), Decrepit Birth tend to write linear (read: riff salad) songs. Their tunes compile long strings of cramped tech runs and spacey melodies that never reach a climax or denouement; they have no structural or emotional centers.
This songwriting strategy isn’t a problem in and of itself. It just means that the band needs to rely on something other than structure for a sense of emotional tension. The like-minded Mithras, for example, alternate between genital-crushing heaviness and psychedelic freakouts in an attempt to lend their ponderous compositions some fire. But Decrepit Birth don’t practice this sort of contract-and-expand dynamic either. For all of DB‘s rhythmic density, the band’s chunkier moments don’t hit very hard, and their echoing leads fail to clear the wall of finger-exercise riffs and reach a new plane.
An intense, humanizing vocal presence might help thaw the ice that entombs Polarity. Frankly, vocalist Bill Robinson is not adequately gifted to fill this role. His bear-man looks have always been more interesting than his haggard growl, and nothing has changed for him on Polarity. If Decrepit Birth want to be a first-tier band, they need a first-tier vocalist, and this guy just can’t hack it.
So we are left with a collection of instrumental performances. And what performances they are. No doubt about it, these players rip–the drums churn, the bass roars, the rhythm guitars shred, and the solos doubleplusshred, all without playing a wrong note or missing a ghost stroke. But for what? This is supposed to be death metal, and if it isn’t quite supposed to be ‘scary,’ it should at least feel risky. Decrepit Birth, for all their gifts, feel about as risky as a steel roller coaster. There’s no thrill when you know they won’t go off the rails.
Chris McDonald’s take:
It’s hard to deny that Diminishing Between Worlds breathed new life into Decrepit Birth as a band (and, to a certain extent, technical death metal as a whole), but that album’s utter refusal to let some of its most enjoyable riffs sink in before launching into something new was a crucial flaw that held the band’s work back from its true potential. As much as people like to talk about Decrepit Birth bucking the “showmanship over songwriting” trend in tech death, Diminishing was aversely affected by exactly that; there were innumerable times when the band shifted away from a potentially jaw-dropping riff or melodic hook almost immediately after it dropped, seemingly just to prove they could.
Fortunately, Polarity capitalizes on all the strengths of Diminishing Between Worlds while also bolstering up the compositions past what that album was willing to. In many ways Polarity is a direct continuation of Diminishing; light speed prog-metal melodies and solos supported by brief dips into brutal death riffing and a merciless bedlam of frantic double kicks and blastbeats. But this time Decrepit Birth is willing to let the songs breath abit and allow their true songwriting abilities to shine beyond their admittedly obscene instrumental abilities. The delivery is still markedly busier than most death metal, but now the individual riffs are given a bit more time in the spotlight and the payoff is noticeable. You can actually trace a fairly consistent rhythmic structure through most of the tracks, and the more frantic noodly parts feel less stagnant thanks to their greater musical context. There are some actual bonafide hooks this time around (the Death-inspired breakdown in the title track, the soaring melodic solo in “Sea of Memories”), and the songs simply flow better without as much reliance on quick stop-starts and odd time signatures.
Decrepit Birth has also expanded the proggier aspects of its sound somewhat; nothing major, but little touches like the electronic currents pulsating through short breather track “A Brief Odyssey In Time” or the isolated dueling melodies that introduce epic opener “A Departure of the Sun (Ignite The Tesla Coil”) are good accompaniments to the majority of the album’s relentless tech pacing (not to mention the beautiful little excursion into jazzy fusion in the opening of “Solar Impulse”). But despite a number of marked improvements in songwriting and general cohesion, Decrepit Birth still runs into some of the problems that plagued them on their previous albums. Bill Robinson’s hoarse bark is woefully out of place in these songs, and his lack of range, power, and general vocal presence in the band’s music lends it a slightly awkward, strained air made even more noticeable by the rest of the outfit’s effortless instrumental chops. And while the jumps between individual riffs aren’t as random or jarring as on Diminishing Between Worlds, the band continues to occasionally struggle with tying their various parts together in a way that serves the song as a whole (they could take a few pages out of Psycroptic’s book in this regard). This album still basically feels like one long song broken up into pieces, and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, it makes establishing any kind of connection with the individual tracks a difficult task.
Polarity is certainly an entertaining, and occasionally stunning, display of hypermelodic technical death metal, and in many ways it’s a definite step up from Diminishing Between Worlds. But I still can’t help but feel that Decrepit Birth’s true potential has yet to be realized. If they can find a way to channel their creativity and instrumental prowess into truly cohesive songs and add a little more heaviness and general wallop to their sound (namely in the vocals and production), it’s quite reasonable to assume they could deliver a genre-defying masterpiece. Polarity isn’t that, but it’s a step in the right direction.