Release DetailsRELEASED ON 2/26/2013
Byzantine is undeniably a guitarist's album...a string-slinger's dream.
In the world of music, only the good die young. While bands like Six Feet Under go on year after year releasing the same mediocre album over and over, other bands disappear at the height of their talent. West Virginia groovers Byzantine were one such band, breaking up in 2008 on the release of the excellent Oblivion Beckons. Some band members had kids, and, as lead guitarist Tony Rohrbough put it, "none of this pays my rent." And so the band parted ways. After suffering a massive heart attack in 2010, however, Tony decided that he still had music left in him that he wanted to share with the world before he died. And so the band turned to the fans for the funding to go back into the studio, raising nearly $8,000 in a Kickstarter campaign in March of 2012. Being a fan of the band, I contributed.
Originally intended to be released in November of 2012, Hurricane Sandy ended up pushing back the release to 2013, which, frankly, I think is a good thing, as Byzantine would have been lost in the flury of year-end reflections. Coming out at the beginning of the year instead gives us plenty of time to appreciate the album for what it is. Featuring a roughly equal mix of At the Gates, Pantera, and Testament, the revitalized Byzantine makes a unique splash in the middle of an all-too-still pond.
Byzantine is undeniably a guitarist's album. From the 12/8 grooves of "Soul Eraser" to the thrash-laced stylings of "Forged In the Heart of a Dying Star" to the off-kilter syncopations of "Posthumous," back-from-the-dead Tony and white-bearded guitarist/vocalist Chris "OJ" Ojeda offer up a string-slinger's dream. There are a lot of guitar solos on this album. I'm not sure exactly when I got used to listening to metal albums without guitar solos, but this one takes me back to being a kid and discovering Zakk Wylde and Dimebag Darrell and those other 90s shredders. Tony's brush with death (the topic of lead single "Signal Path") seems to have given his fingers a new intensity. His soloing tone reminds me of guitarists from Steve Vai ("Signal Path") to Zakk Wylde ("Pathogen") to Larry Carlton ("Signal Path"), yet never sounds "borrowed" or derivative.
Dyamics have always featured heavily in Byzantine's sound, and this self-titled album is the most diverse yet, featuring quite of a few of what the band describe as "Huhhhhh? moments." This is not a simple, straightforward groove metal album. The aforementioned "Signal Path" features an almost jazz interlude, and many songs include acoustic guitars, reversed guitars, and filtered guitars, just to give a few examples. What I originally thought were keyboards on my first listen are actually just guitars played in interesting ways.
I don't want to give the impression that the rest of the album lacks anything from all this focus on guitars (although the focus isn't surprising when you consider that all four members of Byzantine know how to play the guitar). Bassist Skip plays a highly audible and wholly essential part in the thick tone of Byzantine, and drummer Wolfe carries the song forward with passion whether blasting, laying down a polyrythmic groove, or just playing a big rock beat. OJ's vocals have always been a stand-out element of Byzantine's sound to my ears, though, and his incredible dynamics are matched by his skills as a lyricist. With a range that can shift from Myles Kennedy-like melody ("Signal Path") to the vocal overdrive of Blitz Ellsworth ("Caldera") to a snarl and growl all his own, I think that Chris is one of metal's most underrated vocalists today.
Time will tell if this album is a one-off project or if it represents a long-term return for the members of Byzantine, or if they will once again find that their normal lives simply are incompatible with being in a heavy metal band. For all our sakes, I hope that the band is able to make it, because Byzantine isn't just a band firing on all cylinders—it's burning nitrous oxide.