When it came time to start writing songs for their third album, the members of Seattle-based punk/metal band Black Breath ran into some trouble: their own ambition and artistic restlessness.
“Anything that we were coming up with reminded us of songs that we’d already done—a three-minute song that’s fast, and maybe a slow part, and it ends how it ends,” guitarist Eric Wallace says. “None of it was really doing it for us, so I was a little discouraged. It was like, ‘Shit, do we just not know how to do this anymore?’”
Creative blocks exist, of course. But that seemed an unlikely problem for Black Breath, a relatively young band originally from Bellingham, Wash., that had released two excellent albums packed with belligerent death metal, crusty hardcore and blackened thrash since 2010. This is not a crew that would suddenly find itself bereft of interesting ideas and the means to execute them.
Bored with the thought of replicating the style and structure of its densely packed 2012 album Sentenced to Life, the members of Black Breath decided to challenge themselves by taking their typical pop-song forms and stretching them out to five, six, seven, even eight minutes long, while still retaining their punk fury.
In doing so, the band jump-started its creative process.
“Every time we’ve come up with a record, the things that we were doing were exciting to us,” Wallace says with a chuckle. “We were kind of hitting our heads against the wall, and we realized we had to do something different in order to entertain ourselves.
“At the same time, everything’s just out of reach each time we write stuff. It’s always just a little harder, a little faster, a little more difficult than we can actually do, so it’s always a little push to get better to be able to pull it off to make the record.”
For inspiration, Black Breath looked to older bands such as Demolition Hammer, Devastation and Morbid Saint, specifically albums by those bands from the late ’80s and early ’90s that featured an uncommon mix of thrash and death metal, and that “kinda flew under the radar for a lot of people,” Wallace says. Also pertinent: Metallica’s artistic leap between Kill ‘Em All and Ride The Lightning, though Wallace is careful not to compare his band to the Bay Area thrash legends.
“You can just hear a massive shift in where their brains were at,” he says. “What they thought they could pull off just changed immensely, and that’s what we wanted to try to figure out: How do we make a bigger version of ourselves?”
Mission accomplished. Black Breath’s third album Slaves Beyond Death came out in late September, and at eight songs and 50 minutes long, it’s an absolute beast. Songs like “Pleasure, Pain, Disease” and “Burning Hate” retain the band’s familiar punchy riffs and hardcore pace, while the title track plods along angrily before zooming off into a twisted thrash groove. Then there are songs like “Seed of Cain,” which spend a minute dancing around a gentle intro before Black Breath begins to rain down the riffs. Throughout, vocalist Neil McAdams has traded in his old howl for more of a scorched rasp, though his bleak lyrical outlook remains. (Besides Wallace and McAdams, bassist Elijah Nelson, drummer Jamie Byrum and guitarist Mark Palm round out Black Breath’s lineup.)
Black Breath play November 20 at Soda Bar
But it’s the album’s instrumental closer, “Chains of the Afterlife,” where the band’s new musical vision really comes into focus. At nearly eight minutes long, it’s a multi-sectioned epic for electric guitars, replete with quiet, beautiful passages nestled between skyscraping solos and thunderous riffs. It sounds nothing like the Black Breath that made Sentenced to Life.
And in a way, it’s not the same band, Wallace says.
“Even if we had tried, we couldn’t have pulled off this record five years ago,” he says. “We just couldn’t have played it. A lot of it just has to do with where we happen to be at as far as proficiency (on our instruments).”
Perhaps it’s because it’s the final song on Slaves Beyond Death, but “Chains” also seems to point to a possible future path for Black Breath. It’s too soon to know if the band will continue to explore longer, more complex songs, Wallace says, but it’s certainly a possibility.
“After we finished making this record, we didn’t really feel like we wanted to stop,” he says. “We were kind of like, ‘Ahh, this was awesome, and we learned a lot in the process, and I think we can do this better. We immediately had a bunch of ideas about what we should do next time.”
But that’s next time. Right now, Black Breath is on the road, playing the new songs live and hearing what fans have to say about them, whether they want to or not. The overwhelming reaction seems to be: It takes a little longer to get into it, but once you do, it’s well worth the effort.
“There’s more depths to it. There’s more intricacies. There’s more fuckin’ notes. I get it,” Wallace says. “It takes more attention and that’s the idea. The idea was to make a more expansive record, so we did. For the people that that’s not their thing, it’s not their thing. And that’s fine, too.””