I’ve been with Byzantine since the beginning.
That may sound like a metal snob elitist thing to say, but in this case it’s true.
I recall, in 2004, hearing the epic breakdown on “Hatfield” on the “Metal” station on those music selection stations on digital cable packages… the ones that don’t show videos, just play the songs, show the cover art, and give album/artist info. and trivia facts. I then went and sought out The Fundamental Component (finding it at only one Sam Goody in St. Louis). The rest of the album (for me) failed to impress: I found it uninteresting, even annoying at times.
But 2005 brought … And They Shall Take Up Serpents.
And that album was life changing.
The breakdowns were more sweeping and intricate.
The vocals were a vast improvement.
The lyrics and musicianship had leapt an astounding amount.
I was hooked.
And the band was scheduled to come to St. Louis (to the old Creepy Crawl, opening for Six Feet Under) when the entire tour was cancelled (so Six Feet Under could work on their boxset… insert about face here).
Oblivion Beckons arrived in 2007 and, while I did love that album, I don’t remember much from it save for the ADHD tempo of the prog-thrash masterpiece “The Gift of Discernment” (which I lament that they did not play live the one time I have seen them).
After the release of that album I remember reaching out to the band via Myspace and asking if they had ever played St. Louis (or ever would). They said that they had played the Creepy Crawl a year or two before. I was destroyed. A little over a year later it was announced (through various metal websites) that Byzantine had broken up.
Thankfully, it didn’t last (and unlike Carcass, Obituary, Body Count or Living Sacrifice, we didn’t have to wait nearly (or over) a decade for them to reunite).
Their self-titled record came out quietly in 2012 and reminded everyone who cared (meaning anyone who loved intellectual, unique, progressive and artsy thrash) why they still loved Byzantine and hadn’t forgotten about them. And while I can’t immediately recall any standout track or aspect of that album, it doesn’t diminish its importance. The fact is: we all feared Byzantine gone. The fact that they surprisingly returned (and returned strong) left every metalhead worth their (well) mettle feeling good.
2015’s To Release Is To Resolve was a masterpiece. I helped crowdfunded it through PledgeMusic (as I have the album I’m reviewing here, The Cicada Tree).
And seeing Byzantine live for the first (and only time) in 2015 was epic: an experience that I’d been waiting eleven years for.
All this is just to prove this: Byzantine is a force to be reckoned with. They are one of those metal bands (like Pissing Razors, Crisis or Boiler) that only the most open-minded, only the most artistic, only the most cultured and intellectually unhindered of metalheads listen to. Pretentious as that might sound, it’s true. Byzantine is metal only for discerning metalheads who know talented, near celestial, metal from the wildly mediocre fair we generally tend to convince ourselves is “decent” or “awesome”.
And thus we come to The Cicada Tree…
I know I’m going to regret saying this, but upon my initial listen of the album, not much stuck for me; I honestly thought this album faired more along with Oblivion Beckons (where I can only recall one significant track) and …And They Shall Take Up Serpents (which is good for an occasional listen, but if listened in too frequent a succession its lamenting, downbeat cadence can become mood-souring). But upon my second listen (in order to write this review) the album’s stronger points grew more vibrant and its flaws (what few there are) faded.
Ojeda is still perhaps the best, most abstract and unique songwriter in metal today and his riffs (on the right song) are the stuff of magic. But for some reason some Byzantine albums stay with me (their self-titled album and To Release is To Resolve) and some fall flat (Fundamental Component) and some stay with me only partially (Oblivion Beckons, …And They Shall Take Up Serpents). I’d say this album falls into the third category.
The album starts off right with the relentless thrash of “New Ways To Bear Witness”, which ends with a commendable breakdown, the kind of breakdown whose musical composition suggests both sorrow and anger, confusion and full-awareness… perhaps the thesis of Byzantine’s entire work to date. “Vile Maximum” is textbook Byzantine during the verses, but looses me during the chorus. “Map of the Creator” is, again, textbook Byzantine and feels more like the kind of lamenting tone I felt on Serpents. Heaviness doesn’t even enter the picture until the 1:58 mark. The rest of the song blisters, but for whatever reason, doesn’t hold me the way some of the other tracks do. “Dead As Autumn Leaves” is another slow starter that transitions into heaviness faster than its predecessor, but is paced so unevenly (think early, rawer Crowbar) that it couldn’t quite keep my focus. “Trapjaw” is the kind of song bands wish they had a whole album full of: a running time length breakdown that only gets more intense and technical as the song progresses. “The Subjugated” is another artistic number: vocals don’t kick in until 2:30 and the music alternates between sludgy and thrash. However, just like Byzantine’s Swedish heroes, Meshuggah, the breakdown lays waste to all, allowing the song to settle into its final bars with the same mood swing (elegiac and aggressive) it possessed in its opening. “Incremental” is another high point in the album for me. So well constructed, yet so utterly incensed it defies definition, like so much of Byzantine’s work. “The Cicada Tree” opens with, well, a sound byte of insectile chattering, after which ushers in perhaps the most thoughtful thrash on the album. “Verses of Violence”, despite its title, is perhaps one of the most sedate songs on the album, initially at least. Also, Ojeda’s voice shows its true strength on this track. However, with all its acoustic parts, the song ultimately lost me. Don’t get me wrong, I can take lulls in the aggression in my thrash, I just don’t know why Byzantine’s lows land so low for me that I can’t seem to musically digest it with everything else they’re offering. “Moving in Stereo” is a very 80’s slice of thrash that has the epic feeling of early Iron Maiden or the soulful thrash of John Bush-era Antrhax. Needless to say, this is another highlight of the album for me. “Servitude” closes the album and takes no prisoners. Oddly enough the song kind of evokes 90’s-era Tool and Perfect Circle for me. And despite my not loving either of those two mentioned bands, the song was a faultless closer to the album for me.
Sure, some Byzantine albums leave a deeper impression than others, and some (for whatever reason) depress the hell out of me. But that’s more a compliment to them than a criticism or a deterrent. See, at least Byzantine’s music makes me feel something, even if it’s something unpleasant and sometimes negative. Isn’t great art supposed to do that sometimes?
Recommendations: Meshuggah, Soilent Green, Prong, Crowbar, Carcass, Opeth, Through the Eyes of the Dead, Machine Head, Job For A Cowboy. Candiria, Skinlab
Rating: ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)