One of the questions that has long puzzled me as a music fan is to what degree an artist's standing as an innovator and genre-definer should be incorporated into their legacy. While being the first to travel down a certain path does necessitate a historical remembrance of that person's efforts, it doesn't mean that the work done to blaze that trail is worth remembering. Listening to discussions between metal fans, I would argue prevailing wisdom falls on the side of the artist, giving credence and respect to the godfathers of genre without asking whether or not others have come along and improved upon the formula.
No discussion of death metal can be had without including Chris Barnes, the fore-bearer of all death metal vocalists. His performances on Cannibal Corpse's early albums redefined what brutal vocals could be, lowering the raspy screams of Death into a guttural expression of what the devil's voice must sound like. Over the course of more than twenty years, Barnes has amassed a staggering number of releases with his signature croak, somewhat diluting the power of his legend. Six Feet Under has been pounding out records with regularity for so long it's easy to write them off. If you miss one record, there's soon to be another one coming down the road. Never innovators of a style, the consistency in the band's sound is also the reason they've never led the charge as death metal has grown.
“Undead” sees the first shift in Six Feet Under's sound in many a year. Rob Arnold of Chimaira joined the band for the album, bringing with him a few new guitar tricks to add into the trademark death groove the band is known for. While not following on the current trend of death metal moving in ever more technical directions, “Undead” is a more involved album on the guitar front. Arnold and mainstay Steve Swanson stretch beyond simple groove riffing on many of the album's songs, featuring chromatic tremolo riffs that bring hints of black metal influence into the equation, mixing them in with sections of pure traditional death. While more interesting for the players, and for people who enjoy breaking down the details of music, the riffs themselves seldom manage to grip the listener with a strong enough sense of groove. By making the guitar playing stronger, it may have made the songs weaker.
The songs on “Undead” offer a no-frills death metal experience. With new blood in the band, Six Feet Under seems set on proving their heft, upping the brutality quotient at the expense of what they are most known for. While the early combination of “Frozen At The Moment Of Death” and “Formaldehyde” are as aggressive as anything that band has done, they are ultimately forgettable when compared to the better material on hand. “Blood On My Hands” is the closest thing to melodic a band of this ilk can get, the chorus never relenting in it's assault, but less percussive than the usual monotone delivery. Likewise, “Reckless” and “Delayed Combustion Device” manage to lock into grooves that create unconscious headbanging. This is what the band is good at, what they made their name on, and what they don't do often enough throughout the album.
And then there is the quandary of Chris Barnes. While his place in the history of death metal cannot be questioned, his actual value to the music is not as clear. Never the best vocalist on the scene, time has not improved his delivery. His deepest growls are utterly indecipherable, rendering his lyrics futile poetry. In the moments when he lets his voice rise to a more human growl, some clarity comes through, and he manages to even put together some interesting patterns. For a legend of the scene, it's not good enough, and doesn't silence the voice in my head throughout the album asking if his status is merely the result of good timing. Either way, “Undead” is not going to settle the issue, nor is it going to spawn a wave of followers. It is what it is, a solid death metal album that's just different enough from the rest of their catalog to be interesting.