The term “underrated” can end up being thrown around quite a lot, especially in music. But sometimes, it really is the only appropriate word to describe a band. West Virginian progressive groove thrashers Byzantine have nearly always been a prime example of such. Forming in 2000 by vocalist/guitarist Chris “OJ” Ojeda, it wasn’t long before the four-piece caught the attention of drummer Chris Adler of then-rising star band Lamb Of God. This boost would lead to a signing with Prosthetic Records, which would release their first three albums beginning with 2004’s The Fundamental Component. One year later, Byzantine released their acclaimed sophomore effort …And They Shall Take Up Serpents. The band would continue to grow, develop, and expand their skills, technique, and style leading up to 2008’s Oblivion Beckons, only to officially announce their already-planned breakup within days of that album’s release.
Although they experienced respectable success for a relatively newer band at that time, the pressures and requirements of the metal industry, combined with the pressures and requirements of the real world, ultimately led to a rather untimely hiatus. However, any band with enough support rarely ever goes away for good. Thanks to popular demand in their home market, Byzantine would reunite for select shows starting in 2010. Not long after that, the group announced in 2012 that they would be officially reuniting to write and record a new album. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign through Kickstarter, Byzantine released their fourth, self-titled album in February 2013. Met with much praise, the album continued their impressive and captivating progression, and found itself on multiple year end “best of” listings among a slew of other highly regarded releases.
But once again, Byzantine would hit another roadblock amidst the success following their reunion. Not long after their self-titled album’s release date, both lead guitarist Tony Rohrbough and bassist Michael “Skip” Cromer left the band. This time though, OJ and drummer Matt Wolfe persevered, recruiting guitarist Brian Henderson (who had filled in for Rohrbough in the past) and bassist Sean Sydnor. The addition of this new blood would only further fuel the reignited fire within Byzantine, and during the summer of 2014, they announced another crowdfunding campaign (this time, through PledgeMusic) to record their fifth album, to be entitled To Release Is To Resolve – so named for the band’s resolution regarding its members and continuing on stronger than ever.
Byzantine has always known how to open an album, and To Release Is To Resolve is no different. “Scold’s Bridle” immediately hits you, knocks you back in your seat, and does not let up. Even when you think the song is over and is fading out, it only psyches you out and kicks right back in again with OJ’s formidable growl. The song’s driving, crunchy groove flows effortlessly into a thick solo from Brian Henderson, then into tastefully melodic, catchy vocals. The end of the song stutters into what is the band’s longest song to date, “Justinian Code,” clocking in at just over eight minutes. Byzantine uses this lengthy song time well to arrange and compose an almost narrative epic, with musical segments ranging from the aggressively ferocious to the euphorically soothing complete with jazz techniques, all perfectly accompanied by fitting vocals.
The next two songs are the two tracks that were released as singles, and are easily some of the strongest metal singles I’ve heard in years (eat your heart out, Avenged Sevenfold). “A Curious Lot” balances non-stop thrash with accessibly melodic instrumentation, and “The Agonies” would easily make any skeptic bang their head until their neck breaks, if not start a mosh until there’s no one else left standing… or the song ends, whichever comes first. But what might easily be the best song on To Release Is To Resolve is “God Forsaken,” which has its own roller coaster composition (as well as another great fake-out toward the end of the track), but it’s all built out of a melancholy, blues-influenced southern rock inspiration.
“You Sleep, We Wake” is easily the heaviest song on the album, and not just for all of the well-supported harsh, raspy screams and growls which somehow build until the very end. The rhythms and syncopation of the guitars are derivative of experimental, technical death metal. The final two songs on the album are “To Release” and “To Resolve,” and yes, they do also flow right into one another. “To Release” is somehow able to cram all of the styles, influences, and extremes across the spectrum that give Byzantine their identity into one six and a half-minute long track, acting almost like an overture to the album as a whole, maybe even Byzantine’s entire career to date. This gives the impression that the album is about to end, only to give you one more “gotcha!” moment when “To Resolve” continues the tone, slowly but steadily pulls back the aggression, only to rebuild up into a an exciting and uplifting collection of riffs and a crescendo of crashing drums and soaring, layered vocals in less than four minutes.
Byzantine have only gotten better with every release, so To Release Is To Resolve being a success should really come to no surprise. That being said, it’s hard to say if this latest effort is actually their best work yet, simply because their last, self-titled album was also insanely good. Neither is better or worse than the other, they just have their own unique result due to the way each was approached. There’s absolutely nothing at all wrong with To Release Is To Resolve, maybe just one or two things to nitpick about. It’s not often that you hear groove metal this clean, which can actually lead to some distracting aspects, such as the clean vocals of the refrain in “A Curious Lot.” To Release Is To Resolve also includes the least amount of songs than any Byzantine album; only eight. This actually makes the nearly forty-five minute long record feel much shorter than it really is, leaving the listener wanting more, maybe even giving it another immediate listen. These fewer tracks work in Byzantine’s favor, as they added more and more songs with each release of their first three albums, leading to some substantial filler. So, with so many positive aspects about them and their music, it certainly seems like a crime that Byzantine continues to remain in their underground status.
Many might say that groove metal has become stale since bands like Sepultura and Pantera first revolutionized its success. And given that one of the biggest bands in the past few years with that groove metal sound is Five Finger Death Punch, they may have a point. The style often finds a fan demographic not outwardly known for the forward-thinking concepts of technicality or progression that can often appear so overwhelming that they can become uninteresting to that audience. But a band like Byzantine proves that it is possible to pull off a collaboration of the best of both the worlds of the blue collar working man and the white collar thinking man into something that is both interesting and fun. They fully captured that on their 2013 self-titled comeback album, and they’ve made the next logical evolutionary musical step with To Release Is To Resolve. The fact that any band can create something where just about anyone from any background or walk of life can find something to enjoy and get out of it seems to encompass the textbook romance (a cliché trope it may be to some) of the important power of art and expression when approached with enough balance and passion. So, it seems that it really is true what is said about this band: Nobody – and I mean NOBODY – beats the Byz!
Rating: 4.75 out of 5 (A+)
Recommended if you like: Sylosis, Revocation, Arsis, Allegaeon, Gojira
To Release Is To Resolve will be available for purchase on April 7 by Byzantine themselves, through Snakepit (CEN/RED Distribution). Until then, you can listen to the album for yourself through this stream. If you like what you hear, why wait? Pre-order the album here, and share this link to help the band play this year’s Rock on the Range in Columbus, OH at Mapfre Stadium (formerly Crew Stadium) May 15, 16, and 17 featuring Slipknot, Judas Priest, Anthrax, In Flames, Hatebreed, and many more. Be sure to check out our recent interview with Byzantine, as well as our photo gallery from their performance at Fubar in St. Louis, MO.