Seattle’s death/thrash/hardcore act Black Breath is back with full-length number two, Sentenced to Life. The band’s first album, Heavy Breathing, saw the band integrate a heavy Swedish death metal influence into the crossover/thrash sound it established on its debut EP, Razor to Oblivion. This was a questionable move given a market oversaturated with old-school Swedish death metal bands, but Black Breath’s punk attitude, keen songcraft, and enviable ability to kick all kinds of ass lifted Heavy Breathing well above the rabble. Heavy Breathing had remarkable staying power with me personally, and in retrospect, I wish I had scored it higher. Sentenced to Life features no dramatic stylistic shift like the one between Razor and Heavy Breathing, but there are, nonetheless, some subtle changes afoot. Whether these changes are for the better or for the worse is likely a matter of personal taste. In the main, however, Sentenced to Life finds Black Breath as capable as ever in the ass-kicking department.
Sentenced to Life’s first track, “Feast of the Damned”, a groovy death-metal jam, is business as usual for Black Breath, and business, in this case, is still excellent. The next two tracks, however, reveal the principal changes in store on the record. The title track and “Forced into Possession” find Black Breath stripping its sound down to the bare essentials. Though stylistically the tracks are no great diversion, there is a hardcore-like economy to them; “Sentenced to Life” is less than two-and-a-half minutes in length, and “Forced into Possession” clocks in at a lean 1:57. Black Breath’s songwriting was never bloated to begin with, so while in some cases less is more, in the case of these tracks and the others like them (roughly half the album’s songs fit this mold), less is actually just less. True, there is something to be said for the power of this straight-for-the-throat approach, but it leaves precious little room for interludes, breakdowns, solos and other nuances that help make the songs more tuneful and memorable.
Fortunately, there are some longer, more developed tracks on Sentenced to Life that feature more for the listener to sink his/her teeth into. Two notable examples are “Endless Corpse” and “The Flame”. The former broods on various permutations of a single melodic theme, which is first performed with chiming arpeggios, then distorted power chords, as single note lead line, etc. This whole exercise is not, of course, without a generous portion of buzz-saw death metal. “The Flame” is a mid-paced bruiser, with an infectious Slayer-esque melody. The track showcases some superb, if all too rare, soloing. There is a rock-ish, pentatonic feel to the solos that would normally seem out of place in the context of this type of music, but Black Breath guitarists E. Wallace’s and F. Funds’ playing is so memorable — and so musical — that it fits like a glove, context be damned.
Black Breath has talent to spare, and on at least half of Sentenced to Life, that talent shines through bright and clear. Furthermore, if this record is anything like the last, I may grow to appreciate it more in time. For the moment though, this record leaves me feeling vaguely unfulfilled, not because what is offered is bad, but because I was expecting more. Is Sentenced to Life full of glorious, neck-snapping metal? Absolutely. Is it worth your money? Again, absolutely. However, while I truly believe Black Breath has an absolute motherfucker of an album in them, Sentenced to Life is, I think, not it. The band has done well, but they can do better.