Kelly Shaefer is an innovator who helped to invent technical death metal as the guitarist and vocalist in Atheist. Others might identify him as one of the self-indulgent virtuosos that dragged the genre away from its gory roots. It depends which side of the fence you’re on. Now, he has a new project with two members of Atheist, and it’s the first full-length album since the latter’s 2010 Jupiter LP. Nuclear Blast had no reservations about signing Till the Dirt, perhaps in the hope they can put their name to the next Atheist record (if it ever arrives). If hard-rocking death metal titillates you, then read on. Outside the Spiral is a strange record with inexplicable charms.
You might think you’ve tuned in to The Sound of Perseverance, Pt. II by Death on the evidence of opener, ‘Starring Role’. Shaefer’s goblin growls lead the charge of skank beats and fast guitar rhythms, like it’s a Judas Priest interpretation of the classic Florida sound, until he changes register for the chorus. How he alternates from the whelp of a cat in a mangler to a brooding baritone grunge singer is worth a second listen on its own. The tresillo drum patterns in the title-track do the same thing, this time taking the agitated metal guitars of the early 1990s and cutting and pasting a Layne Staley chorus from the debut Alice in Chains record into the structure. You might think this is formulaic, but that would be an insult to this album. Nothing is as it seems here.
Like Sean Killian from Vio-lence, Shaefer’s vocals are an acquired taste. His screeching fry screams might make some people think twice about this record. Dare we say it, but ‘Privilege’ could even pass for a Slipknot song with its exhaled voice effects and catchy vocal lines fed through an absurd blender of aggression. You half-expect Gibby Haynes to pop up on ‘As It Seems’ as if this is ‘Jesus Built My Hotrod’ by Ministry all over again. Here, an AC/DC intro gives way to a death metal storm, only to pull back from the carnage with a tremendous baritone chorus. Listen to the way the band follow this with blast beats and then settle on a brutal down-picking riff to navigate back to the verse. It’s no exaggeration to say that the chorus could grace any of the Alice in Chains classics.
It’s a pleasure to identify the disparate influences working their way into the songs. ‘Invitation’ is like Skinny Puppy under the hammer of vintage Machine Head. ‘Watch You Grow Old’ uses headbanging pentatonic riffs and Pantera drum grooves and feels like a hard rock anthem from Kill Devil Hill. Shaefer hisses and curses in his Kind Diamond voice during the heavier moments, but the guitars never feel diluted in the mix, nor do they lack shape or substance. ‘Forest of Because’ and ‘Who Awaits’ rock with menace (and pizzazz). Indeed, the latter is the closest thing we come to a perfect symmetry of death metal and grunge. Only the tracks that try to re-capture the psychopathic rage of Ministry’s 1992 golden era leave you scratching your skull. There’s a song somewhere in the mix for ‘The God, the Bad, the Other’, but you’ll need to be patient. No such problem exists on ‘Insist and Demand’, which takes great pride in its gruesome intro and single-note doom riffs. Somehow, it sounds chaotic despite subsisting on simple rhythmic formations.
Death metal puritans will be thrilled to learn that Scott Burns produced this LP. That’s right – the most famous and influential death metal producer of all time is back. Why he chose this record to inch his way back into a music industry that underpaid him in the 1990s is a mystery, but it’s good to have him return. Till the Dirt might be a new project that depends on the whims of its famous creator, but Outside the Spiral shows that there’s plenty of mileage in the fusion of death metal and grunge. It’ll be interesting to hear what happens on album number two with or without Scott Burns onboard.
Release Date: 25/08/2023
Record Label: Nuclear Blast
Standout tracks: Starring Role, As It Seems, Forest of Because
Suggested Further Listening: Ministry – Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs (1992), Kill Devil Hill – Revolution Rise (2013), Overtoun – This Darkness Feels Alive (2021)