Nowadays I approach a new Death Angel album with a combination of the piqued interest of the old-school fan and the steeled nerves of those accustomed to disappointment. I came to this party just before Act III—the record that remains the band’s creative pinnacle even while their debut The Ultra-Violence is easily their most feral. (“Mistress Of Pain” is still bad-ass, two-plus decades later.) But Death Angel has always suffered from a lack of focus and a subsequent inconsistency of material—the back-end of Act III sported some lesser moments, and sophomore effort Frolic In The Park was only half-solid at best. With each successive album, Death Angel has moved farther from pure fury, and since reforming in the new millennium, their work has been especially scattershot and mostly substandard.
Relentless Retribution opens with the pseudo title track, “Relentless Revolution,” a predictable but palatable barnstormer that sums up the record’s best moments with simple-but-effective riffing and a shout-along chorus. Once a junior Joey Belladonna, over the last few records, vocalist Mark Osegueda has upped the aggression factor to fit the new times, relying now mostly upon a metalcore-esque snarl about which I have mixed emotions. (On the one hand, it is undeniably angrier, more biting and vicious than his earlier cleans; on the other, it’s blatantly derivative of a dozen other growly nu-thrash bands.) Guitarist Rob Cavestany has always been the band’s not-so-secret weapon, his guitar-work the highlight of even the band’s more mediocre moments, and his contributions to Retribution are in the same vein—many otherwise uninteresting segments are spiked with bits of instrumental flair, if not with creative fire.
After the lackluster performances on The Art Of Dying and its follow-up Killing Season, Retribution has been hailed in advance as the band’s fastest, heaviest record since The Ultra-Violence. It’s always a dubious prospect when an album is trotted out beneath direct comparisons to past successes—more often than not, the stage is set for a let-down, and that’s what happens here: while Retribution may be faster and more vicious than all but the debut, Death Angel’s focus remains maddeningly disjointed. From Frolic forward, they’ve alternated between moments of head-banging greatness and head-hanging weakness. For Retribution, the first disruptive turn comes early—second track “Claws In So Deep” follows its four-minutes of semi-thrashing (and the first of several Trivium-tinted choruses) with two minutes of Rodrigo y Gabriela’s flamenco-rock acoustic guitars. Granted, the interlude is pleasant, instrumentally impressive, but appended as it is to the back of an otherwise unrelated track near the album’s opening, it serves more to send the pacing quickly askew than as any kind of grand artistic statement. If not simply just excised completely, the entire acoustic section should’ve been a separate track, preferably placed farther along in the running order. (Preferably entirely in place of the abominable “Opponents At Sides.”)
After righting itself somewhat with the driving “Truce,” Retribution maintains a solid pace for most of its middle section, which is by far the best part of the disc as it alternates between dashes of old-school thrash and more prominent doses of newer groove, all done respectably and competently and occasionally even gloriously. (“River Of Rapture” succeeds in injecting some life into the proceedings.) But then the band shakes up their formula and completely derails Retribution once more with the dreadful Cavestany-sung “Opponents,” a weak melodic rock track somewhere between Trivium and the harder edge of dreck like Seether. Cavestany’s voice is far from the culprit—in truth, he’s a more gifted singer than Osegueda, his gravelly grit akin to Zakk Wylde’s beer-soaked bluster. But there’s simply no redeeming “Opponents” and its mediocrity, a fate that sadly also befalls Cavestany’s other vocal moment, the acoustic-led “Volcanic,” which collapses beneath some seriously ridiculous lyrics and bravado.
Once the underage darlings of the burgeoning Bay Area thrash scene, post-reformation Death Angel has stripped down their sound significantly, incorporating elements of alt-rock, metalcore and groove metal into a mostly bland stew of modern metallic ho-hummity. Now following the likes of Trivium and Machine Head, Death Angel circa 2010 is a band imitating the bands that should have been imitating it. I’ve seen this record praised in other circles, and out of affection for a band whose earliest work still moves me, I’d love to think that maybe there’s something I’m missing, but I certainly don’t hear anything here that lives up to either the hype or the legacy. While Retribution does stand a step ahead of Killing Season (and well above Dying) as their best since Act III, it’s important to note that that’s a relative statement. All told, this Retribution is an improvement and yet still only partially destructive.