Ah, the eternal frustration of being a Beartooth fan, where a stellar debut album and live presence are left to bear the brunt of everything that’s followed not really being up to par. For the record, Disgusting still holds up today as an example of unfiltered, bleeding-edge emotion fed through a volatile metalcore lens, but the niggling thought that it might just be because it was their first example of it hasn’t really gone away. The way in which both Aggressive and Disease effectively tried to recreate the same experience beat for beat was ultimately their downfall, but really that of Beartooth’s sound as a whole. The slogan-driven, staccato metalcore style felt worn out on those last two albums outside of a lot of the singles, and it painted Beartooth in the light of a one-trick pony that, in reality, they’re far more than. They’re one of the magnetic live acts in heavy music of the past decade or so, and the fact that their singles will generally hold up, even on weaker albums, feels like enough evidence for their first effort not being just a fluke. Even so, what started out as fever pitch hype has gradually dwindled with each release, a phenomenon which indicates that, in a rare move from a listening public that can frequently be less discerning, the lack of innovation in Beartooth’s approach might be getting noticed. It’s reason enough why the run-up to Below has seemed comparatively sporadic, especially compared to how mile-a-minute their earlier campaigns felt. And for a band like Beartooth, the worst thing that can happen to them is they become boring.
Fortunately Below has seemingly cut that mindset off before it’s become an issue, through no other method than another helping of doubling down on Beartooth’s best elements. That might sound counterintuitive, especially when that was the exact issue that stifled so much of both Aggressive and Disease, but with Below, the mood is a lot different. It’s a closer return to how natural the bloodletting of Disgusting was, something that felt distinctly absent from the two following albums, and where Beartooth’s fatigue can ultimately be zeroed in on. That’s not to say it was phoned-in previously, but on Below, the whole package is a muscular and visceral experience at every level, and that’s a lot easier to deliver effectively from the band’s point of view. Couple that with the usual variety of hooks and a knack for metalcore anthemia that they’ve been incredibly consistent at striking upon with diluting their intensity, and Below is unquestionably Beartooth’s strongest effort since their debut.
Of course, condensing that vibe into that analysis is a lot easier than isolating the exact role it plays, or what changes are made as a result. It’s not too far removed from what Beartooth have previously established for themselves, especially in Caleb Shomo’s writing centred on his own routine immolations and purges that still have huge spectre of realism behind them. He’s always been great at avoiding an overly stylised style in his performance, where his screams will break out naturally as opposed to fitting the regimented metalcore rubric, all while having the frays and tears that place it in a more hardcore-adjacent lane. As for the content itself, the segmented chants and mantras that’ll buffer a song like Fed Up haven’t gone away, but they aren’t what entire songs are built around this time, which is the sort of progression that’s overdue but good to have here. With choruses like those on The Past Is Dead and Skin, Beartooth’s overtly melodic quota is already rock-solid, and streamlining the process is only a good thing for songs that hit a lot harder on average. What’s more, there’s still blistering intensity in spades; Beartooth arguably have the most seamless balance of vitriol and anthemia of any modern metalcore band, and there’s rarely an occasion where any transition between verses and hooks will jerk or clunk. As far as the overall writing style, the semantics haven’t really changed (the opening title track is a fairly strong indicator of what to expect), though the lack of anything tired or forced is extremely helpful to have. It’s quintessentially Beartooth in its approach without drowning in that fact like what came before, which makes the whole package feel a bit more adrenalised and to-the-point.
Well, that’s not an exclusive factor, given that Beartooth at their best have had some of the most concentrated and fat-free execution of any metalcore out there. The sonic parallels mightn’t be obvious on the surface, but Below feels a lot more representative of Shomo’s love of AC/DC and Motörhead, in heavy music that’s direct and unindulgent almost to a fault, and where the rockstar attitude is present in its rawness and loudness. There are definitely moments where that heft will ease back to let a chorus pop like on Skin, but most of the time, Below keeps its carnivorous, rampant persuasion right at the front. The guitars mightn’t be as sharp as they once were but there’s still a gristle to them on the likes of The Past Is Dead, where the similarly formidable bass rumble and battering percussion are so far removed from slick, sanitised metalcore pablum. On the whole, Below is the first time since Disgusting that Beartooth have lived up to their original selling point, where the punk and hardcore elements are just as important as the metalcore ones, and where the scrappy, venting nature of the original one-man project is brought back into play. Obviously it sounds a lot bigger with moments of opulence that wouldn’t have necessarily been there first time round, but with the exception of The Last Riff which follows in the footsteps of King Of Anything in the ranks of unfortunately middling closers, this is probably the most suitable direct follow-up to that debut’s ethos that Beartooth have produced.
But on the other hand, it’s also indicative of the lack of progression that Beartooth have undergone, where even after a decline and re-rise into quality, their throughline is hardly difficult to trace. Though, to criticise Beartooth for not overflowing with ideas and highfalutin ambitions would be to drastically miss the point, of music designed to be raw and rough and punchy to cut through the chaff. Sure, it’d be nice to see where Beartooth could go and where the potential to expand would take them, but right now, it’s good that they’ve found their footing again after a shaky couple of previous cycles. Below is as close to standard as it comes, but it’s a lot higher within that than expected, and a return to a variation of the sound that brings back its impassioned white heat is always going to be preferable than a functional but half-hearted recreation. Maybe the window is shut for Beartooth to truly roar back on top again, but making a decent amount of noise elsewhere and succeeding in doing so is still a good alternative to have.
For fans of: Of Mice & Men, Blood Youth, While She Sleeps
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Below’ by Beartooth is released on 25th June on Red Bull Records.