Album Review: Whitechapel - 'The Valley'

13 March 2019 | 2:32 pm | Alex Sievers
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Whitechapel's seventh album is heavy, but a different kind of heavy than their past six releases. It's like existential dread; it'll take years off your life with how emotionally claustrophobic it is. Though, don't get it twisted: Whitechapel are still death metal, still one of the tightest and most crushing metal bands around today. Anyone saying otherwise about this new record is just being a dickhead, quite frankly. Yet the key emphasis on the group's latest work is the lyricism, humanity, and personal narrative first and foremost. They've more than proved over the year that they can be heavy, now they're showing that they can be human. Everything else comes second, as 'The Valley' really is a story-driven record. Just as the album's cover states: "Based on true events".

This is a harrowing autobiography of the Whitechapel frontman’s childhood and upbringing in Hardin Valley, Tennessee. It's a deep dive into the family woes and the harsh traumas that vocalist Phil Bozeman experienced in his younger years. It’s an album written directly from the type of blackened heart that's formed when a young person suffers emotional and mental abuse at the hands of someone who was meant to protect and care for them. With everything shared being laced with honest sentiments of bitterness, isolation, guilt, regret, shame, and seething anger. Emotions that so powerfully add to the musically heavy and visceral nature of these ten new songs.

Lyrically and tonally, this is by far the most grim record in the Tennessee band's entire discography. The depressed and dire mood felt throughout is truly palpable, even gripping at times. It is there darkest release, and that's really saying something given just how grisly the lyrical content on past album's like 2009's 'A New Era Of Corruption' was. In the press release for 'The Valley', Phil openly shared the perspectives from which he was pulling these incredibly private lyrics from, writing that:

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"It's all about me as a child, and some of it is me looking back on that time from the perspective of now. Also, it's my interpretation of my mom's struggles and her different personalities. She had a journal that contained very disturbing and sometimes evil writings, and some of her quotes and a lot of that journal is in the lyrics."

Full on, to say the least! Yet you can indeed see that throughout every song that makes up the personalised landscape of 'The Valley'. For instance, the first line of second track 'Weakness Is Forgiveness' - a demonic song with a cut-throat riff that easily rivals those of 'The Darkest Day Of Man' and 'The Saw Is The Law' - literally goes: "He is finally dead, come celebrate this day/it was slow and full of the pain, good riddance". Jesus H. Christ, that line says it all.

With 'The Valley', Phil sure doesn't hold anything back about his thoughts - both as a child and now as an adult - towards his family, the hardships they endured, and the very man who inflicted these terrible wounds upon him and those who share his name. I'm sure that some dim-wits out there will probably write these individualised lyrics off as juvenile or edgy; that it's lame for the vocalist to wish such violence upon the man who hurt him and his family so. To which I'd respond with: Phil was the one lived through this shit, so only he gets to talk about it in whatever manner that he sees fit. After all,a lot of these lyrics come from what he thought and felt as a kid, so of course they'll be quite brash and brooding at times. (I've even seen this come from other media too, like Connor Welsh's review for New Transcendence, where he says Phil's lyricism needs work yet never once extrapolates on this album's lyrical content nor mentions the vocalist could supposedly do better. Weird as.)

Yet the key difference with this new record and it's lyrics is that they're all real. They are apart of the larger, deeper cathartic process at play. This is a grown man nobly sharing the darkest periods of his life with the rest of the world. Frustratingly, with some people who won't ever give it the time of the day because its not the deathcore of ten years ago. The fuckin' idiots.

While I obviously don't know every detail of his life, and while I've never spoken with Phil, I can only speculate on what may have happened in his earlier years, about what the wider snapshot that 'The Valley' is capturing here. After all, all I can do is go off what's presented to me via the music and words of this record. So, with the band's PR out here in Australia kindly passing onto me on the album's lyric sheet, and in doing a little digging myself, here goes nothing.

Phil's biological father, Michael Gary Bozeman, passed away when he was ten, as the touching 'Bring Me Home' shared just a couple years ago. Soon afterwards, his bastard of a step-father entered the picture, which is when the issues began. Apparently growing up in the basement beneath their house in a wooded Tennessee  region, his relationship with his step-father was strained. They never saw eye-to-eye, and it sounds like this step-father was not only emotionally and physically abusive, but was manipulative and toxic too. To the point where it even affected Phil's connection with his mother. In a recent interview with Impericon, the vocalist actually mentions, very briefly, that this man would lead to his mother's death in his mid-teens; either driving her to outright commit suicide or pushing her past a breaking point in some way and thus into certain vices that would later result in her death. (Something that opener 'When A Devil Defiles A Witch' touches upon the most. His mother's death is also what 'Animus' was written about too.) More recently, his POS step-father passed away, and with that cruel shadow no longer hanging over Phil, he's now ready to address everything, dragging these personal horrors out into the cleansing sunlight. A difficult yet perhaps even freeing process that's resulted in 'The Valley', my favourite Whitechapel album next to their 2010 self-titled effort and 2014's 'Our Endless War'.

To put on my psycho-analysis hat for a second, and given all of this context about his childhood, it's no wonder Phil turned to metal. It's honestly no wonder that he became a vocalist in a deathcore band. It seems like he experienced truly horrible things as a young man at a formative stage in his life that affected his view of people and the world, carving a creative outlet within him to yearn for escape. A void that Whitechapel's most likely well filled for him, allowing for him to have an expunging of these inner demons. As is the case with this tell-all new album. This would also explain why much of the band's lyrical content over the years, especially very early on, was so gruesome. He experienced awful things and losses in his own life, shifting his life outlook, and that seemed to have really bled over into the tone and themes of their music.

As selfish as it is of me as a consumer, critic, and also a lover of music to lap up this new record and enjoy it so, I really do commend Whitechapel's leading man for putting himself out there this immensely with 'The Valley'. This is an incredibly brave thing to do, and it also could not have been easy to do. When I talk about how lame modern deathcore bands are with lyrical concepts of science-fiction, aliens, and Lovecraftian horrors, it's so refreshing to have one of the biggest names in the game come out with such a deeply personal record. An album that forgoes that BS and shines an exposed light on non-fiction matters of the self and one's own history. Better yet, the actual songs more than back up the emotional and lyrical weight of 'The Valley' too!

'When A Demon Defiles A Witch', a song dedicated to Phil's mother, does a great job of inter-weaving Phil's pitched-screams with his singing and growls, as well as the band's cleaner and delicate instrumental bridges along with their levelling death metal sounds. It's the best of both worlds. We see this with how the verses contrast against the melodic choruses, and how that calm and serene guitar intro soon explodes into this demented deathcore creature. It's a song that really shows why Phil is one of the best vocalists in extreme metal right now. Because he has that killer dynamic between monstrous growls and soulful singing. Very few vocalists wish they could have that duality, that kind of control, but then again, most bands aren't Whitechapel and most metal vocalists aren't Bozeman.

Second track and easy stand-out, the barely three-minute rager of 'Weakness Is Forgiveness', is this wicked melding of deathcore Whitechapel and death metal Whitechapel. It's informed by their earlier records but also what they've been doing on their last couple of albums too. That, and the song is just fuckin' brutal; flying past in a blur of blast beats, massive grooves, and booming riffs that could crack the very earth itself. There sure as shit aren't any signs of weakness here; expect relentless violence with this confrontational cut. Elsewhere, 'Brimstone' is a hulking Goliath, bashing at you with mid-tempo metal meatiness with beastly down-tuned chugs and pounding double kicks, slamming you hard until you raise that white flag. Over said instrumentals, Phil tells us of the menace upon his family, sharing the ill-fate's that he wishes upon this person; pulling you into the deepest recesses of his mind about an intensely personal matter.

After some low bass slaps and snare rim clicks, a china cymbal count in calls for all hell to unfold as 'Black Bear' erupts with one of the deadliest grooves Whitechapel have ever concocted. When things are this good, this heavy, this bouncy, and this glorious, I don't care that it's not faster in tempo or that it maybe could've had a one or two more sections added. 'Black Bear' is evident of Whitechapel's heaviness over speed approach: sick guitar tones, massive grooves, and ensuring these songs hammer you into the goddamn dirt. After a quick dragged snare roll measure, 'We Are One' stampedes off as Whitechapel wage all out fucking war with their blistering deathcore strengths. The song's djenty riffage, rapid pace and blast beats are blood-thirsty, savaging everything in their path. It's a call of unification, not just for the band themselves, but for those who share Phil's blood; the madness of their lives and years past, and how that forms their bond. The only song that I'm not super keen on musically and song-structure-wise, the riffy 'The Other Side', is a tale of defiance. It's like a family addressing where they once were - on their knees, defeated - but then now telling their old-selves that they'll one day make it out - heads up, looking to the future. This is the vocalist patting himself on the back for surviving the shitty situations he as a teen found himself stuck within, but he's damn-well earned it, all things considered.

Seeing Phil reach into those psychotic higher screams of old, the penultimate and rhythmic 'Lovelace' is a bloody cry for help; to the father and mother that he tragically lost. Amidst tight alternate picking, and a variety of vocal onslaughts, it's an expression of numbness after going through too much, too young. The album's final song, 'Doom Woods' - a name perfectly conjuring up the feeling of one wandering through a sea of eerie Tennessee woods during an endless moonlit night - is about seeing "hell through a child's eyes". (As the front cover's eye seems to imply.) As the album's closing track, this places a full stop on the story; a plug on the deep emotions and experiences flooding forward. It's an acknowledgement of loneliness, of how true devils are actually the most evil of men, and how these experiences have shaped Phil since. It's the most fiendish, darkest and heaviest song present, and it buries these old black dogs in the cold ground for good. It's also got the most interesting guitar work of any song on 'The Valley', seeing the band make great use of layers, amp feedback, reverb, what sounds like an EBow being used, and a neat little acoustic guitar motif to wrap things up on.

[caption id="attachment_1105682" align="aligncenter" width="507"] Whitechapel, 2019. [/caption]

Sounding like the softer rock tracks you'd see from Slipknot or Stone Sour, the risky 'Hickory Creek' (named after the nearby area of Hickory Creek, TN), is the only song here that forgoes Whitechapel's death metal extremities. With the exception of 'Bring Me Home' from 2016's solid 'Mark of the Blade', there hasn't ever been this vulnerable of a song from Whitechapel. Very little screaming, zero blast beats, no breakdowns, and barely any heavier passages, it's the most delicate song Phil and co. have written, with the singer pushing into his upper register more. It's an interesting song, yet isn't a bad one either. However, I feel this song will be used as (weak) "evidence" of Whitechapel growing stale by close-minded deathcore nerds. So I'll say it louder for those in the back: 'Hickory Creek' is but one song out of ten here, and it's sound definitely doesn't define this record's nature. It also just wouldn't work as a death metal or deathcore track, but it adds a new sense of depth. Whitechapel aren't doing this to go "mainstream"; anyone saying so is only outing themselves as being an insular genre shill.

On a similar note, I'm quite sure that older fans will be no doubt be pissed that Phil isn't running a million miles a minute with fast vocal shifts in pitch and phrasing, as those early Whitechapel records saw him do. But honestly, that's a good thing. As him doing so would rob this record of it's emotional qualities; not really gelling with the intent and mood. It's also fitting that the band aren't over-saturating things with endless blast-beats, as again, that would haven't fit with this release's importance and personal weight. Because every song here is pointed; each song has it's own meaning and it's own place.

At times, Whitechapel nicely tap into this darker harmonic, Tool vibe with the cleaner guitars and singing, like on the most-excellent ‘Third Depth’. Which is a particularly stellar track that changes key, something I never thought I'd see from Whitechapel these days, and it balances out their more cautious, spacious alt-rock moments with hard-hitting metal sections very well. Songs like this and 'Doom Woods are where we really see the most variety in the guitar departments. From melodic motifs, heavier chugs, and well-done tremolo moments, it’s definitely the most engaging guitar work of recent memory from the American metallers.

Yet this is a band with not one, not two, but three guitarists. That trio of guitarists being: rhythm player Alex Wade, leads guy Ben Savage, and third man Zach Householder. Sure, there's definitely a certain weight and "heaviness" characteristic that comes from such collected efforts when stacked together, and it does work for Whitechapel's monstrous sound, admittedly. But with the sole exception of 'Doom Woods' and 'Third Depth', things could've gone further, cause one of these guys is being under-used. More intricacy perhaps could've been executed, as it's often just straight chugging and riff-focused. With the exception of certain instrumental passages and some cool harmonics thrown in, it often feels and sounds like there's just two guitarists. When in, actuality, there's three. I feel like most would agree that more layers and ideas could've been included to widen the textures and moods summoned. As there's so much potential in having three guitarists, and while the band have made better strides in that direction with this LP, it also doesn't feel as realised as it could've been. Still, that's a pretty small gripe in the face of what is an exceptional record from a band that's matured brilliantly.

Shit, did you read through all that? If so, you're a fucking champion! Yet that's the great thing about Whitechapel's latest album: there is just so much to talk about. And I feel that's something that hasn't really been true about most of their other records. While I do adore their eponymous LP and 'Our Endless War' dearly, this is a mighty contender for what is one of their best records, if not their finest one yet. Because this record is a character study, an album dissecting a parade of tragedies experienced by one of its creators, and I gotta give major props to Phil Bozeman. Simply for the frontman diving deep into the dark childhood traumas and heavy family dramas that affected his early years, moments that shaped him into who he is now; showing off the monsters in his closet for the world to see as a way to address, expunge and maybe even compartmentalise what happened to him. And I sincerely hope that some form of closure has been found for Phil with this record's creation and upcoming release. Make sure you don't sleep on what isn't just Whitechapel's most distinctive record, but also what will likely be one of the best metal albums of 2019.

  1. When A Demon Defiles A Witch
  2. Forgiveness Is Weakness
  3. Brimstone
  4. Hickory Creek
  5. Black Bear
  6. We Are One
  7. The Other Side
  8. Third Depth
  9. Lovelace
  10. Doom Woods

'The Valley' finally arrives March 29th, 2019 via Metal Blade Records.