It was less than a year ago that Six Feet Under revealed a revamped lineup to the world, unleashing “Undead” onto a death metal world that wasn't expecting Chris Barnes to make relevant music ever again. The band had been through some stagnant years, and the “Graveyard Classics” series of cover albums had destroyed much of their credibility with serious listeners, so the fact that “Undead” was able to resurrect the band's image was an act still a few steps short of a miracle. Not wasting any time, Six Feet Under is back less than a year later with the companion piece to that album, this time titled “Unborn”. Another different lineup pounds out the songs this time, and the writing gets spread around to a few new places, which differentiates the two albums as much as is possible for what is essentially the same band.
Before listening to the album, I was worried about what I was about to encounter, because I cannot think of a set of companion albums that have ever stood apart as complete works on their own. The very knowledge that they were composed and constructed together always makes me wonder if they would have been better off lopped in half, sewed together Frankenstein-style as a true monster of an album.
What both “Undead” and “Unborn” have going for them is a sense of focus. They are both lean, hungry albums that don't bog themselves down with diversions. Opener “Neuro Osmosis” strays a bit from the blueprint with a bit of acoustic guitar leading into the main track, but it's the classic stage-setting that has a charm all it's own. When the track changes course near the end, the riffs introduced are unlike anything Six Feet Under has ever been known for, which is exactly what the band needed. It's as good as opening as can be expected.
“Prophecy” goes back to the band's roots, churning out groove riffs that are as catchy as anything death metal usually has to offer. Barnes' delivery through the verses is odd, to say the least, but when the chorus hits, it hits hard. It's exactly the kind of melodic approach death metal has all but lost since Barnes and Cannibal Corpse wrote the rulebook. “Prophecy” is as good a bare-bones death metal song as you're going to hear.
Torture Killer's Jari Laine contributes to the album, reviving a musical relationship that stretches back to the well received “Swarm!”. His tracks give the album a different feel, a lighter touch from the usual sledgehammer riffing that defines the band's sound. It helps to break up the flow, but the best tracks on the album are the ones that lock in a groove. It's in those pockets that Barnes finds his best vocal patterns. His growl can sometimes wander aimlessly when the song makes no demands of him.
The best aspect of “Unborn” is the variety that's a natural result of the spread out writing process. Instead of pounding out eleven tracks that fit the same mold, coming from the same pen, there's just enough difference in the approaches taken by all the writers to give the album character, and give Barnes room for a few different vocal approaches. The limited sonic palate of death metal is too often destructive to the end product, but this doesn't happen with “Unborn”. The album strays just far enough from center to avoid stasis, and with it, boredom.
“Unborn” may not be an instant classic, but it's a more than solid traditional death metal album. Veteran bands are always in danger of falling into mediocrity, but Six Feet Under is still making some of the better old-school death metal in the scene. Younger bands aren't doing much better.