Title: The Cicada Tree
Genre: Progressive Metal/Groove Metal/Thrash Metal
Release Date: July 28, 2017
Length: 1 hr. 1 min.
Label: Metal Blade
Producer: Jay Hannon
Personnel: Chris Ojeda (Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar), Brian Henderson (Lead Guitar, Backing Vocals), Matt Bowles (Drums), and Sean Sydnor (Bass Guitar, Acoustic Guitar)
Byzantine entered the metal scene in 2000, around the same time as many other heavy metal bands in what some now call the “new wave of American heavy metal.” Byzantine never achieved the success and popularity of some of their peers, like Avenged Sevenfold and Lamb of God, but that was mostly due to band drama and promotion problems, not artistry or vision. Artistically, Byzantine has been and remains experimental and unhindered, unique and forward thinking, not bound to doing the expected thing in any subgenre
If you are unfamiliar with Byzantine, you can think of them like this (and all the things I’m going to mention are found on this album):
Take the groove metal of Sepultura and Machine Head; the thrash metal of Testament and Metallica; the prog metal of Dream Theater and Opeth; the technical and melodic death metal of Death and Carcass; the stoner and sludge of High on Fire and Mastodon; the grunge and alternative metal touches of Alice in Chains and Tool; and the metalcore of Lamb of God and early Avenged Sevenfold; and there you have it, the eclectic influences and similarities of West Virginia metalheads, Byzantine. You might also hear some Gojira, Megadeth, Pantera, Meshuggah, and Periphery. Maybe that’s overkill on the comparisons, but it should give you a good idea of Byzantine’s sound. They are well-versed and well-rounded.
Being from West Virginia and still residing there, the band isn’t part of any particular metal movement, isolated from all major movement epicenters, and this also contributes to a better-rounded sound for Byzantine, reminding me of the original way in which Mastodon took sludge, stoner, alt, and prog and mixed those together to create their own weighty brew. Rhythmic, melodic, progressive, heavy, aggressive, and complex but accessible metal is Byzantine’s game, and they play it well. They also explore a lot of musical territory with their varying song structures.
Guitars – electric and acoustic, distorted and clean – prominently feature in intros, solos, and the background and foreground of every song. The guitar work is excellent, too, influenced by traditional heavy metal, technical thrash metal, progressive rock, classical, and jazz. Ojeda supplies strong riffs, and Henderson brings in harmonies and screaming solos. Bowles’s drums are partially influenced by tribal beats, like Sepultura’s, and his drumming has variety, at times brutal and fast, at other times groovy. Sydnor’s bass is solid, adding gravitas and depth. And Ojeda’s lead vocals are an impressive, though imperfect, mix of clean singing and growls. The band achieves a good, reasonable balance between chaos and discipline, looseness and tightness, and feeling and technicality. They implement proggy, shifting time signatures; thrashy, weighty breakdowns; scrupulously placed offbeats; and infectious grooves. The songwriting has a wide-ranging breadth, and the lyrics often concern themselves with the the ills of society.
“New Ways to Bear Witness” does a fine job introducing us to Byzantine’s combination of technical skill and musical knowledge. It also contains some unforgiving thrash. “Vile Maxim” has good verses but a chorus that sort of loses its way. Never fear, though, for track three, “Map of the Creator,” comes along and knocks your socks off, building to a blistering finish. “Dead as Autumn Leaves” is a moody turn, and it takes Byzantine’s heaviness and combines it with an unusual amount of harmony and vocal skill. The track builds and bursts like “Map,” except with a more sprawling structure. “Trapjaw” has grinding riffs and speedy instrumentation, and it’s one of the best tracks, a groovy, thrashy breakdown of a tune that progressively becomes more technical.
“The Subjugated” is another favorite of mine, with some sludge mixed in, very artistic too, bringing Baroness to mind. We don’t get any vocals from this one until two-and-one-half minutes in, and the track is book-ended by aggression. The title track begins as if it might be the most proggy track, with insects chirping in the background along with an ambient sense, before turning into an awesome thrash number, thoughtful and considerate as well. “Verses of Violence” has grungy elements and Pearl Jam style clean verses mixed with growled sections. It’s another sprawler, too; acoustic guitars contribute lingering notes, and Ojeda’s voice is at its best.
Oddly enough, the two closing tracks – “Moving in Stereo” and “Servitude” – are both covers. “Moving in Stereo” is a cool Cars cover that injects a bit of Maiden and a bit of Anthrax into this originally new wave/power pop number from the late ’70s. “Servitude” is a more obscure, Fishbone cover, closing us out with a ’90s alt-prog feel. It’s relevant, too. Just as Fishbone was at one time a showcase of wide range in heavy, aggressive music, so are Byzantine, and they do the song justice.
The more I played The Cicada Tree, the more I liked it. The production from Hannon is pretty dang good, which is something with which a lot of metal albums I’ve liked lately have had problems. It’s clear and well-defined, hitting us hard in the hard-hitting moments and smoothing things out in the smoother ones.
I do think the album should have been about fifteen or twenty minutes shorter. Not that any of the tracks are particularly weak, it’s just that it’s about twenty minutes too long for me and the aim I think the album has. The first two songs are the weakest, though not bad, and the last two covers, though pretty great, honestly could have been dropped completely. As for other complaints, some transitions between Ojeda’s clean and gruff singing are a little rough, but it’s still impressive that he does both. Finally, the album did take several listens before it began sticking with me. I think that’s due to the wide range of sounds contained in The Cicada Tree.
I’m going to give Byzantine’s The Cicada Tree an 83%.