(DGR finally got around to writing about the second album from fellow Sacramento denizens Wastewalker.)
There is a part of me that worried for a while that I was holding Wastewalker to a much higher standard than I would have for most groups, which may be why this review took so long to hammer out.
Wastewalker are something of a local Sacramento tech-death “supergroup” as far as the term could be stretched, comprising members who have been involved in some of the more interesting projects to come out of that region in the past few years. Born from of the ashes of the “too death metal for the core kids, too core for the death metal kids” Conducting From The Grave, guitarist John Abernathy found himself accompanied by a stellar roster of musicians.
Their drummer Justin has been in a small collective of projects – the highlight of which is the angular madness that is Journal – while bassist Joel Barrera has been holding down the rhythmic fort for a handful of promising death metal groups, the most recent of which (actually written about here) is the newly launched Katholik. Vocalist Cam Rogers comes shrieking in from an impressive first volley on Alterbeast’s first album, and guitarist Nate Graham was involved in a later lineup of that same group, while also recently joining the promising The Odious Construct.
It’s such a promising lineup that you couldn’t help but be excited for them, which is why it was so frustrating that even though it found a foothold here, only half of the group’s debut album Funeral Winds seemed to stick with me. The group’s sophomore disc Lowborn, released in May after a sizeable delay, is proving to be a far different story.
Lowborn is a thematic concept album pulled from the same vein as the band’s name. The group’s name was loosely inspired by the nuclear apocalypse of the Fallout game series, which overall has provided subject matter for two albums now. Funeral Winds danced into and out of it, sometimes dwelling on personal struggles and at other times focusing more on the aspects of death, destruction, and decay. Lowborn, on the other hand, is a little more focused in that regard, telling tales of people trapped outside the escape vaults and mutating into the sort of creatures that eventually manage to invade said places.
The album also benefits from experience, because Wastewalker sound much more like a band on Lowborn. There’s still the occasional issue but it feels less like a band ramming a million ideas together and more like a group focusing on their strengths and writing to those. Thus, Lowborn sounds more tightly concise and surgically lethal, and also as flashy as one would come to expect from a band that has the crew behind it that Wastewalker does.
Lowborn clocks in at a little over thirty minutes – slightly less than Funeral Winds – and each of those thirty minutes moves immensely fast. Even though they’re similar in length, Lowborn seems to just fly by this time as it tears its way from song-to-song. With no lengthy instrumentals – just a quick closing guitar solo to send off Lowborn’s two-part ending – everything feels as if it was packed densely together. Given the implied violence of its album art and concept and the more descriptive acts happening within the songs, Lowborn shifts itself to match its subject matter, and is a little more blisteringly death metal by comparison.
Wastewalker already perform a fairly deft dance among a handful of genres and stubbornly refuse to stay firmly in one spot – flitting around as much as their song “The Moth” would suggest – but hearing them embrace a good old-fashioned chug and heavier drill just amplifies some of the disc’s more crushing moments. There are also times throughout where it feels like Wastewalker are just five or six guitar leads and thirty-seconds worth of blastbeats short of finding themselves playing in the same realm as many bands on the roster of The Artisan Era.
A fun coincidence occurs within Lowborn, as two of the highlight songs happen to be the ones with “D” titles – “Dangerously Low” and “Die Alone”. I’m often fascinated with the sort of unintentional musical arcs that present themselves when albums are sequenced out, and “Dangerously Low” is a fine example of one of those. Lowborn opens with “Vengeance Of The Lowborn”, which is Wastewalker picking up right where Funeral Winds left off, combining some of the strongest elements of that album’s title song and its cohort “Immortal, I Create”. The start/stop hammering of its opening lays the foundation for that song to quickly dodge around and pummel you exactly when it needs to. “The Moth”, which follows, does a similar dancing act but leans harder into a darker atmosphere. The two then combine into one of the album’s truly heavy crushers in “Dangerously Low”.
“Dangerously Low” takes a while to build, and when it does it stomps around like a giant. It’s a slow mover that starts to gradually speed up, but its intro does a ton of the work for it, so that when vocalist Cam starts to turn near-feral before it closes out, it feels earned. The fact that it closes with one hell of a blasting section absolutely helps increase its score.
“Die Alone” on the other hand is one of Lowborn‘s longest songs, punching in at about four minutes and fifty-eight seconds. However, the length still doesn’t betray just how much they actually pack into it. You’d expect a slower moving intro, much like “Dangerously Low” benefited from, but instead “Die Alone” wastes absolutely no time getting itself going. It’s also the song to go to if you want to hear Wastewalker rip through just about every genre-descriptor that has ever been applied to them. They sweep through melodeath, metalcore, tech-death, and a few others just to make sure the kitchen sink isn’t lonely in the pile by the time the song is done. So you get a pretty thick and crunchy opening segment that segues from a thrashier opening assault into a classic sort of melo-death two-step and from there the song just keeps rolling. It ties so many of the group’s musical influences together, and pairing it with the heavy stomp of “Sentinel” before it makes for a pretty solid run of music in the back half of Lowborn – especially as the band then segue into the ambitious two-parter of “Ignorant Bliss In The Ivory Tower”.
What is left winds up feeling like minor “quality of life” issues by comparison. Wastewalker sound so much more confident and dangerous on Lowborn, and since the band seem to have used a microscope to really zero in on what works for them, some of the cruft from Funeral Winds still hanging about seems minor by comparison. Wastewalker still have a tendency to try to jam ten pounds of shit into a five pound bag, not as much lyrically this time so there are fewer moments where it sounds like Cam is going to pass out trying to finish a sentence, but sometimes when both John and Nate are really flexing their guitar muscles, it seems like parts are stretching just a little bit to fit it all in. Not nearly as much as their debut, where things seemed to dart from part-to-part with zero regard for how a song was moving at times – and to be fair there is definitely still a bit of that present, as they remain fans of broadsiding listeners with a sudden tempo and mood change mid-song – but as the band transition out of the many pyrotechnic solos present on Lowborn into the next hammering chug, you can sense how sometimes the group have to sort of stop the train ala how a Spiderman movie would in order to keep things moving.
I wound up seeing Wastewalker three times in between Funeral Winds and Lowborn – which I know isn’t a lot because they were able to land a solid batch of dates – and each time it felt like the band got better and better. Lowborn follows the same trajectory, already starting from a fairly good position and then progressing from there. Every song is its own little story, and barring the two-parter at the end, Wastewalker write each song so that they ratchet up in heaviness until that final closing explosion. They’re still huge fans of making their music fairly angular, so some parts don’t fit quite as well as you might expect, but for the most part Lowborn flows a lot better as it moves from one heavy, crushing song to the next heavy and crushing song. Things are kept high-speed and rarely do the band take a breath save for the very end, which honestly after the thirty-plus minutes of music that they hammer out before-hand feels earned.
While the trope of the sophomore slump continues to forever haunt the music industry, Wastewalker get to enjoy the opposite effect and spend their second album honing in on exactly what works for them and focusing it into one tight and pyro-filled package.