Defining success in the metalcore scene usually boils down to pointing at Pennsylvania five-piece August Burns Red and saying "that". Two decades in the trade have garnered plenty of positive response to their unique style – not to mention two GRAMMY nods for their troubles – all while their trademark tweaking of dials and knobs of the big metalcore machine kept things fresh in a genre-adjacent sort of way. When you get ten albums deep, however, where does continuously skirting the formula in the same ways run the risk of becoming its own muddied method?
To its credit, Death Below is never a one-trick pony. For any measure of balled fist fury and darker atmosphere there are equal parts quiet and contemplative, tricks and flicks bolstered by a keen sense of technical wizardry to bring it all together. Opener "The Premonition" and eight-minute post-rock odyssey "The Cleansing" weave in and out of one another in a state of natural flow made all the more impressive by their binary elements – otherworldly lightness, ferocious blast beats and intricately tricky rhythms swirl on a stage where no-one feels like the odd one out.
From there, the dance continues, and the lead continues to switch from the crushingly heavy to the thoughtful at a moment's notice. "Backfire" is an electric chair of a track, a vicious series of jolts and screams that somehow sneaks a few harmonies in toward the end, while the thick bass and prog-laced strings that introduce "Fools Gold In A Bear Trap" are pounded out of sight in a wave of blast beat borne carnage. Even pushing an hour long, this is an album meant for a single session to get the most out of how everything interlocks and elevates its opposites; connector tracks like the instrumental "Sevink" scribble a big bold underline to that point.
While the broader variedness minute to minute is par of the course for August Burns Red, part of that being so prominent does raise some alarm around the "self-fulfilling formula" idea mentioned before. A chunk of that familiarity is skewed by a slew of guest appearances from metalcore's brightest; the layered vocals on "Ancestry" provided by Killswitch Engage's Jesse Leach are certainly a treat, but album closer "Reckoning" is in a category all its own. Spencer Robinson rips this track a new one, the Underoath frontman turning the all are welcome bookend that started in "The Cleansing" into an exercise in savagery whenever he pops up. It's certainly well timed, pushing that needle further away from any sort of same-again feeling right at the death to leave a lasting impression of the variety on offer rather than any worry that things may have gone stale.
Despite not taking many steps out of the band's own carefully crafted comfort zone, Death Below is a tree-trunk solid addition to the August Burns Red back catalog that is razor sharp even in its dabblings. While it pushes hard at a darker, more aggressive style of play on top of the usual playful and experimental sections, Death Below never loses the sense of passion that August Burns Red bring to the table that makes this more than just another metalcore day at the beach – and also more than just another August Burns Red album. Here's to another twenty years, on this evidence.