It already sucks that West Virginia prog-thrash wizards BYZANTINE had to break up, but to do it just as their new album, "Oblivion Beckons", was being released? I mean, that's taking your album title to literal extremes, for one thing. For another, so much for the CD release party — or much chance of selling those freshly-printed CDs on tour, or getting the band much press for their farewell effort. Someone's pissed about something — even the smallest bands can usually be persuaded to suck it up and ride out the album's lifespan, kinda the heavy metal equivalent of sticking together for the kids' sake.
What makes it a damn shame, and not just an everyday bummer, is that "Oblivion Beckons" is a fucking brilliant album. These guys are channeling the spirits of a bunch of overlooked progressive 1990s thrash/death bands (many of them, quizzically, from Canada) into a more modern sound, without losing the oddball time signatures or musicality. Think OBLIVEON, MARTYR, even GORGUTS, but then add a liberal dose of accessible metalcore to keep things palatable and make the tech-y parts more appealing to more people. It's a great mixture, really, catchy one minute and head-scratching, air-guitar-inspiring shreddy the next. The band's sound is just appealing, never too candy-coated and slick, but never overtly proggy to the point of making the listener's eyes glaze over.
Highlights are all over the place — enjoy the VOIVOD guitar homage in "The Gift of Discernment", the stuttering main riff of the title track which gives way to an awesome harmonic chorus, the multiple vocal attacks of "Catalyst", the churning dread and insistent picking of "All Hail the End Times", or the slight Burton C. Bell influence in the chorus of "Centurion". You can't really turn around without hitting a great moment on this record, be it a compelling riff, a simple yet moving rhythm track, a catchy vocal, or a dazzling solo with a clever shifting tempo in the rhythm beneath it. This is some well-thought-out music made with obvious heart and care, which makes the band's demise that much more frustrating.
This is one of those records that's the total package, a fierce and propulsive piece of modern metal that grabs on from the first minute and doesn't let up. Slot them next to MESHUGGAH, TESTAMENT's last record, STRAPPING YOUNG LAD's less manic, more midtempo moments, GOD FORBID circa "Determination", and about three miles above most of their so-called contemporaries on the American metal scene today. Or, hell, just scratch all that, and write 'em off as one more coulda-been contender that, in a just world, would be selling out theaters and convering little kids on MySpace by the tens of thousands. I guess if you're gonna go out, you couldn't deliver a much more ass-kicking farewell address than "Oblivion Beckons", so we at least have them to thank for that.
Oblivion 1, The Metal World, 0. Best of luck, guys.