Released: 2007, Candlelight
When Obituary, one of the true titans of late-80's / early 90's Floridian death metal, returned in 2005 with FROZEN IN TIME, I rejoiced, for the Tampa-based quintet was always my favorite death metal band and their 1990 monsterpiece CAUSE OF DEATH was my favorite death metal album. True, as it turns out, FROZEN wasn't an absolutely perfect return, but it did manage to recapture a great deal of what I liked best about the group in their early days, namely their ability to capture in their music the very essence of brutality in its purest, most simplistic, most right-brained animal-instinct-oriented form. Complex arrangements? BAH! Who needs 'em? Intellectual lyrics? For the first two albums, Obituary didn't even WRITE lyrics - death vocal god John Tardy just screamed random words, the intent being to use the vocals effectively as another percussion instrument. Atmospheric keyboard lines and subtle acoustic passages? The word "subtle" is not in the band's vocabulary. Therein lies the difference - many death bands today attack you like deranged surgeons with scalpel-sharp technicality. Obituary approaches things more like a muscle-bound lunatic with a severe case of pituitary gigantism who picks up a nine-pound sledgehammer and happily proceeds to bludgeon your skull in with it. That particular lunatic has obviously been getting in some batting practice, because while it's still not quite a match for CAUSE OF DEATH, 2007's XECUTIONER'S RETURN is the best and heaviest Obituary album of the past seventeen years.
The album title is a reference to 'Xecutioner,' the moniker the band held up from their 1985 founding up until shortly before the 1989 release of their debut album SLOWLY WE ROT, and this album is a throwback to the days of that seminal release in terms of sheer raw aggression level. Perhaps it was how Roadrunner fumbled the ball on the record deal, leading to the new deal with Candlelight. Perhaps it was the necessity of what is only the second lineup change in the band's career - as before, the member temporarily replaced is lead guitarist Allen West, this time due to West's current DUI incarceration. Whatever the inspiration, Obituary hasn't sounded this angry in a long, long time. The band explodes out of the gate with "Face Your God," stampeding along with a relatively quick-tempo headbang-inspiring riff topped off with the elder Tardy brother's familiar furious-Neanderthal howls and screams...so far so good, and then just about a minute and a half in, new member Ralph Santolla (ex-Death, ex-Deicide, ex-Iced Earth) makes his presence known with an absolutely smoking aggressive-shred guitar lead. Santolla's jaw-dropping fretboard antics are all over the album, technical yet furiously raw, making the songs stand out much like the legendary James Murphy's presence did for the cuts on CAUSE OF DEATH - though in truth Murphy's leads worked a bit better for the band's trademark relatively simplistic rhythmic assault, for sometimes Santolla's sweep-picked string assaults sound just a little too technical to fit in with the rest of the group. There are some other great speedy (for Obituary, anyway) steamrollers like "Lasting Presence" and "Seal Your Fate," but the album sounds even better when the band slows things down to midtempo for the deathgroove-driven "Evil Ways," the surprisingly catchy and vindictive "Second Chance," and the guaranteed-moshpit-generator head-bobbing riffs of "Lies." Following that line of thinking to its full extent, the album is at its best when they ratchet it down even further to a lurching crawl like on the menacing "Bloodshot," the Celtic Frost-inspired "Feel The Pain," the seven-minute doomy sludge of "Contrast The Dead," and the crushingly slow chug of "In Your Head." The word 'brutal' is often overused in writing reviews of metal bands, but there's really no better word to describe this album...XECUTIONER'S RETURN is absolutely and unequivocally BRUTAL from beginning to end. I would love to give it a perfect 5.0, but the production sounds more muddy than usual and could definitely use more sharpness, especially in the rhythm guitar and bass. Then again, maybe they were just trying to recapture the SLOWLY WE ROT vibe...
The bottom line is if you're already an Obituary fan or just a fan of midtempo ultra-heavy death metal in general, you should be salivating like Pavlov's dog reacting to an entire cathedral spire full of bells going off at once. This is Obituary at the top of their game and the best death metal album I've heard so far this year. Don't fear the XECUTIONER'S RETURN...welcome it!