This is not your father's heavy metal band. Whitechapel has always been labeled as a deathcore band, but there's more to it than that. They stem from a short-lived but extremely popular splinter of heavy metal that recalls the kind of brassy, grinding sound that dominated the years immediately following the change of millennium. This splinter gave rise to a burst of musicians such as The Red Chord, Nile and Converge, but then sank back into the background. Nevertheless, that niche has always had a home in the underground, and Whitechapel leaves no ambiguity as to their residence in that world.
A band with an established pattern or career that releases a self-titled album in the middle of their run often means one of two things: they are either re-inventing themselves in a new style, or much to the contrary, returning to their roots. The latter seems to be the case with Whitechapel's new effort, which sounds an awful lot like a circular trip back to basics for the Tennessee sextet. If one needs further evidence of this harkening back to earlier days, you need not look farther than the album cover, which places the Tennessee state flag inside the band's signature logo. The end result is a strong, wordless proclamation that what the album contains "is who we are." This begs the natural question, "what's in the album? What are they?"
I hope this doesn't sound like an insult, but Whitechapel's new album sounds like a garage band with a larger recording budget. That may turn off a large segment of the population, but given the album's title and cover, it fits the album's perceived purpose. The intense, teeth-grinding noisiness of the tracks speaks to the raw nature of Whitechapel's roots, and presents the sound without embellishment as it messily colors outside the lines. This is a thick, dense, difficult to digest package that doesn't really care whether you like it or not.
Part of what makes old new again for the band is that they wrote each track as a band, rather than one member penning pieces for everyone else. The result can be mixed: the album is brash and big and bold, but with six players writing as a team effort, it seems at moments too crowded; "(Cult)uralist" is a loud song that's a solid, iron curtain of sound, but it comes across as though each member wrote and played on top of each other, trying to cram the most music into the smallest space.
There are moments here that work pretty well, like the slow, angry burn of "Dead Silence," one of the few cuts that sees the band temper their ferocity. This song and others on the album like it are perfectly portioned and spaced for the fans in the cheap seats that came for the music but stay for the mosh pit. When the band gets on the same page they can do some impressive things. The soloing and guitar work, particularly in "Section 8" or the pumped-up "Hate Creation," stand out from the din of tempestuous noise.
The curious twist of Whitechapel's eponymous effort is that they can sound simultaneously slow and fast, which sounds like an untenable conundrum. Yet, the band manages to balance these efforts, crafting slow riffs and downbeat-centric cadences over the top of high-speed blast beats. It's a rare quality in this genre, and one that is not lost as you traverse the album from end to end.
The cost of this attitude is that these songs are not possessed of any special groove or memorable moments. There are no cuts that you'll find yourself humming, and no infectious melodies that'll dig in your ear and stay there for days. "I, Dementia," or "Devoid" or "Faces" aren't especially versatile or memorable songs, and for those not paying attention, this album can wash on by without seams. Following logically, Whitechapel also falls victim to the same exact pitfall that cost this genre its fame after only a short spell on the throne: it's difficult for music of this nature - that screams in the face of listeners - to truly connect with a wide audience. The defenders of this particular musical faith will assuredly stand up for it, and that's fine, but this is the undeniable truth of Whitechapel and their songs.
What the band does here is worthwhile, but there's more room for improvement. If Whitechapel really wants to transcend, they should continue writing as a team, but appoint a point guard who can organize the offense and inject some efficiency into the process. Nonetheless, the dogged fans of this genre will find kernels of truth on this album, and there is talent to be had. While it doesn't appeal to a mass audience, or even a plurality of the ever-fractured metal audience, "Whitechapel" does have its place as a back-to-basics work, and it does belong.