Album Review: Dr. Acula - "Nation"
This is not what I expected. Dr. Acula traditionally has presented listeners with wildly variable, scatter-brained music, embracing frayed edges and the pure nonsense that deathcore makes possible. I expected more of the same from "Nation," and was instead presented with a relatively cohesive, all-systems-go, straight ahead moshfest that not only sounds marginally out of character for the band, but is a solid improvement.
"Nation" finds Dr. Acula in the exact same space that Unearth occupied as recently as 2008. That is, a band who is beginning to put the pieces together and can do some impressive things without truly realizing it, or being able to capitalize on it. In previous efforts, Dr. Acula's best moments seemed like happy accidents; rare splashes that managed to put the ball in play, but were totally unconnected to one another. With "Nation," we see a band who is taking the next step in their progression, learning not just how to play music, but how to create music.
Dr. Acula seems to have taken lessons from some European death acts, as well as American sludge bands, in how to make breakdowns and make them effective. “Keep on Running in Place” is a sturdy, solidly built powerhouse of a song that takes cues from bands like White Zombie and Arch Enemy, balancing the intentionally muddy pitch imperfection with a headbanger’s dream cadence. The song is a crushing, punishing six minute deathride that stays nasty without losing focus.
Listening to the title track or songs like “Thinner,” it’s also clear that the band has developed a knack for layering. It’s not profound or new, but being able to lace some flighty guitar over the dirge of pounding and smashing makes for better depth and a more dynamic experience.
While the band has made several musical progressions and tightened their effort, they haven’t totally lost their sense of humor. You can’t write a song and call it “Robot People From Hell” with any seriousness, but even that cut isn’t a throw away. It features a spooky, hollow that weaves into a denser middle and makes for a nice low-impact transition.
The vocal performance, it needs to be said, isn't special. The guttural scream of hard- and deathcore may fit an idiom, but it also has been the soft place to fall for piles of bands (some of them very good,) who just haven't found the time or desire to locate or train a true singer. "Nation" is no different, and the constant oral abrasiveness, noticeable in songs like “The Party is Over,” is acceptable for the genre, but will need to be addressed if the band wants to be a dynamic force going forward.
As a product of Dr. Acula refining their songwriting, many of the wilder elements from their previous albums are scrapped. There's no hip-hop to be seen, not nearly as much movie sampling, and the band had no desire to replace their departed keyboardist, Joey Simpson. While the absence of those influences makes for more consistent songwriting, the band stayed stuck to one path for this record. There's little variety, and the album is probably one or two cuts too long. That's a forgivable error though, in the face of the step forward that this represents for the band.
“Nation” caps off the effort with the curious cover art, a depiction of a sort of urbanized/Ghost Rider-ish Trooper Eddie, and whether or not that’s meant as a statement, rallying cry or homage, the recognizable visual cue shows that Dr. Acula is rallying the troops (or “Nation,” as it were.) The end result is comfortably mosh-y (which sounds like an oxymoron,) and surprisingly rhythmic for deathcore.
Dr. Acula has long identified themselves as a sort of “party metal,” and I’m not sure that’s true. At the very least, for all the metal I enjoy, I’m not sure I would want to be at a party where this was on (the girl to guy ratio would probably be pretty dude-heavy.) Nevertheless, what Dr. Acula can say now is that they are an up and coming potential powerhouse who knows how to throw down and keep within their talents. That’s a huge leap from where they were, and while there’s room to improve, good for them for taking the first giant steps.