Byzantine have crafted an album of pure metal genius easily putting their fifth studio album, To Release Is To Resolve, up as a contender for underground metal album of the year.
Coming to us from the backwoods of West Virginia, Byzantine was created in 2000 from the ashes of two fallen bands, New Family and Temper. The band consists of frontman and co-founder Chris â€œOJâ€ Ojeda (vocals and rhythm guitar), Matt Wolfe (drums), Brian Henderson (lead guitar) and Sean Sydnor (bass guitar).
They recorded and self-released their first demo in 2001, quickly becoming a prominent addition to the burgeoning West Virginia heavy metal scene. In 2002, Byzantine headed into Broadmoor Studios to work on their second demo. Released in 2003, The Broadmoor Demo aroused the interest of Lamb of Godâ€™s drummer, Chris Adler, subsequently landing the band an opening slot on Lamb of Godâ€™s East Coast tour.
Shortly after, the band inked a deal with Prosthetic Records to release their debut album The Fundamental Component in 2004. Being compared to a hybrid of Meshuggah, Pantera, and Testament with a touch of southern groove, Prosthetic Records said their debut album combined angular guitar riffing and unconventional tempos with roaring thrash rhythms and bellowing vocals. This quickly became the bandâ€™s trademark sound. They landed high-profile tours with Lamb of God and Shadows Fall, as well as main stage slots at the New England Hardcore and Metal Festival in both 2004 and later in 2006.
Byzantine released their sophomore effort, â€¦And They Shall Take Up Serpents, in 2005. Having achieved a perfect balance of melody and chaos, the album delivered, as Prosthetic Records mentioned, a gloriously metallic racket with boot-to-the-groin guitar driven metal. Prosthetic Records further stated, â€œJuxtaposing serene soundscapes with hellacious walls of noise, Byzantine deliver sledgehammer rhythms and tandem leads that helped pin back some ears and made the musical world of the metal underground take notice.â€
Continuing to push the technical boundaries of modern metal, Byzantine released their third effort, Oblivion Beckons, in 2008. The band broke up one day after the release. Byzantine had been, as Prosthetic Records said, bidding to resuscitate the forward-thinking thrash metal scene while showcasing their musical prowess alongside catchy melodies, technical proficiency and unrelenting aggression. With Byzantine broken up, a hole was left in the underground metal scene with no one to fill the void.
In 2010, the West Virginia metal scene rejoiced when Byzantine reunited and played local shows around their native state. After a five-year recording hiatus, they returned as an independent artist in 2013 with the release of their fourth album, Byzantine.
Self-released and financed through a successful Kickstarter campaign, their self-titled album was released to rave reviews, garnering multiple album of the year awards and solidifying the band with an underground cult status. According to CMJ, the album debuted as the #1 most added Metal Album in College Rock Radio and stayed in the top ten for seven straight weeks. The album also debuted at #5 on iTunes Top Albums the week it was released, beating out new releases by Five Finger Death Punch, Killswitch Engage, and Newsted.
After a successful crowdfunding campaign for their last release, the band decided to make another go at it to record To Release Is To Resolve. This time they used PledgeMusic and it was another success. The band raised 121% of their intended goal.
This modern technical metal band, with a flare of retro-minded Bay Area thrash, pushed the boundaries of their unique musical style even further. Continuing to explore different musical territories and song structures, Decibel Magazine described their style as progressive thrash similar to that of Testament and Megadeth mixed with the power groove moves of Meshuggah or Lamb of God. Their music is very aggressive and melodic simultaneously with the occasional clean vocals or spoken word added in.
Vocalist, Chris â€œOJâ€ Ojeda, says â€œWe are quite alienated from any big scene; therefore, we tend to think for ourselves a lot more when writing material. I think we have a knack for achieving a good balance of chaos and melody.â€
A true highlight of To Release Is To Resolve is OJâ€™s ever-changing multifaceted vocal range. He goes from a powerful singing voice similar to that of Myles Kennedy to aggressive singing to Demonic era Chuck Billy singing to a blood-curdling screech that rivals the likes of Dani Filth. Also impressive is the exquisite complex guitar compositions played by Brian Henderson. With his wide range of guitar playing, his sound is similar to that of Kerry King at one point then reminiscent later on of Joe Satriani.
From the moment the opening track starts, Byzantine is kicking the listener in the teeth with acoustically perfect rage!
On â€œScoldâ€™s Bride,â€ OJâ€™s lead track is larynx shredding, yet wonderfully articulate. Every word comes through with a clarity rarely heard from death metal scream/growl vocalists. OJâ€™s voice shreds overtopÂ of thick, purely musical as well as dark guitars. Sean Sydnorâ€™s bass guitar is weirdly reminiscent of Faith No More in tone, but as far as the songwriting, itâ€™s unadulterated death all the way. This is neither a band for the faint of heart or the fragile of ear. This song moves like prog metal, cascading from one musical movement to another. There is also some harder double-kick metal with weirdly and eerily musical hard rock. Then from out of nowhere, OJ comes back in but this time heâ€™s singing and his voice is angelic as Myles Kennedy. OJ hits every note with pitch-perfect accuracy. His voice doesnâ€™t come off thin or reedy, like many other death metal vocalists who also try to sing; in fact itâ€™s a delight to hear. Through it all, Matt Wolfeâ€™s robotically precise drumming lays down just the right amount of double-bass and technically proficient fills and backbeats. This is one of the best opening tracks on any metal record as it is auditory perfection.
â€œJustinian Codeâ€ is a fantastic follow up to the intro track. It kicks right in with a thrumming double kick gallop, broken by little musical repeats of the intro chord progression. OJ goes for a higher pitch without sacrificing the thicknessÂ and gives the occasional scream thatâ€™s just amazing. Suddenly, after the second verse, thereâ€™s a brief and creepy-awesome guitar solo, followed by a vocal bridge that has OJ occasionally hitting some fantastic minor chords along with a second amazing guitar solo. This solo is reminiscent to Iron Maiden in its harmonization of the two leads, and they weave around each other in perfect synchronicity with the drummer. The song dissolves into an achingly sad guitar melody while OJ treats the listener again to his hauntingly full singing voice, broken by some more crying solos. The ending of the track, the outro of the bridge, brings back some thick chugging on the guitars before melting beautifully back into the verse melody, with yet another amazing solo. Though the solos are many, and some last longer than expected, it never comes off as too much.
â€œA Curious Lotâ€ has the most galloping locomotion during the intro and segues into a killer groove that hops like a party. The drummer punctuates the loping stride with the occasional off-beat kick drum accent that reminds you youâ€™re not listening to just any amateur banger. This song shows undeniable movementÂ and again hints at the barest shadow of prog influence with the various shifts of tone and tempo. This song is delightfully fun to listen to and one can picture it as the one that gets the house moving.
â€œThe Agoniesâ€ has another quick-tempo intro that sort of dissolves into something a bit more concrete, if unique, in time signature. The chorus of this song is one of the first times on the album that OJ really goes for musical pitch with his growling, and as soon as the first instrumental bridge kicks in with its half-tempo drum beat, the listener falls in love all over again. As the bridge moves into the solo and the drummer falls back onto a four-point beat, one might find them carried away utterly, sorely missing the riff when the chorus comes back in. Not disappointed for long, however, because just as the song comes to an end, that same riff explodes back onto the scene and brings the song to a beautiful close.
â€œGod Forsakenâ€ starts out with a Joe Satriani sounding guitar intro. One might think itâ€™s time for the required obligatory ballad which tends to pop up in the middle of most metal bandâ€™s albums, but this is not the case. As the song did itâ€™s prog-shifting from one movement to another, the listener becomes entranced with its moreso than any other â€˜typical mid-record ballad,â€™ because the power comes back in just as in the other tracks thus far, which keeps the song interesting to any diehard power lover. Right around the five-minute mark, Byzantine treats your ears to some amazing multilevel guitar harmonies that have a ghostly otherworldliness which is sure to put a smile on your face.
â€œYou Sleep, We Wakeâ€ captures every inch of the oft-displayed talent for shifting tempos and prog-movements, but it doesnâ€™t capture oneâ€™s interest as much as the other tracks on the record. Yes, itâ€™s powerful, yes, it has some musical interludes with its own share of solos, but it just doesnâ€™t carry one away as the other tracks do. The songwriting feels somehow different on this track than on the others. It seems as if it is missing the now-expected musicality, and too often fell back on speed metal breaks in an attempt to impress with tempo alone.
â€œTo Releaseâ€ has one of the best riffs in the record, which is right when the ghostly Middle Eastern sounding sitar intro cuts out and a Kerry King sounding distorted guitar blast kicks in. The rhythms chug and cruise down the fretboard, accompanied by a killer hanging snare that fit perfectly. Then, in comes the second rhythm guitar for some harmonies, before downshifting into a relentless doublekick run behind the verses. Even more impressive sounding is how the repeat of the intro guitars (the distorted ones, not the sitar) comes back in at the end of the verse, complete with that hanging snare again. This gives the song such undeniable lift at those points. And, just as suddenly as the guitars came in, they disappear, to be replaced with a clean-channel finger picking bridge. The hard rhythms return, and this time they play an infectious soaring riff that chugs a few times at the end of each measure, which just takes the song to a whole new level. If this wasnâ€™t enough, a solo melody soars in above it all, taking the song off in a new direction before doubling back to the melody and chugging in a different key this time. And then, they do it all over again but this time the fallback melody is different, reminding the listener once again of the songwriting prowess that this band has. The song finally comes to an end, segueing perfectly into the final track.
On â€œTo Resolve,â€ the intro is pure Ocean sludge, with super-slow tempo, super-dirty vocals and a super-simple power four-point beat which makes the listener nod in rhythm with the track. Then, onto a quick higher-note pre-chorus and OJâ€™s voice soars once again. The song then dissolves into the single greatest moment on the entire album: a little plucking guitar melody that kicks into a nice funky drum rhythm, accompanied by that perfect bass guitar tone. This song gets so musical here that itâ€™s easy for one to completely forget that they are listening to any sort of metal while losing themselves in the magic of it all. Very few metal bands can capture this kind of emotion in their music without coming off as phony or forced sounding and very few can be taken seriously when they get hard again afterwards. But, Byzantine know their instruments. Theyâ€™ve mastered both the rough and the silky and they are absolute professional geniuses at songwriting. As evil sounding as this record might be, it is absolute, undeniable heaven!
Special thanks to Jason Tucker for his musical expertise and input on this review.