ALBUM REVIEW: Till the Dirt – Outside the Spiral

In 1991 Alice in Chains landed themselves a place on the Clash of the Titans tour, opening for Anthrax, Megadeth, and Slayer. Unsurprisingly, a band now synonymous with Grunge wasn’t fully embraced by the largely Thrash-devoted audiences. The irony of time is not just that Alice in Chains went on to commercially outshine the other bands that shared the stage with them on that tour, the years have seen their tentacles creep their way into many a metal band and sub-genre.


And yes, Florida’s Till the Dirt have certainly been touched in spirit by Seattle’s finest.

Fronted by Kelly Shaefer (formerly of progressive, genre-defying extreme metal act Atheist), the first associations of Outside the Spiral (Nuclear Blast Records) are more leather and studs than flannel shirts, with opening track ‘Starring Role’ bursting out of the gates like Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller’ infected with rabies and fuelled with rage and across the album’s eleven tracks there’s no shortage of pummeling drums, ripping guitar solos, shrieking vocals, all with the technical finesse to yank the music in different directions at will.


But the spirit of grunge and alternative Metal looms large with Till the Dirt also displaying a strong and constant urge to work in a lot of more melodic passages, and when they do, the nineties Seattle vibes play a strong part.


This is on show from the album’s first chorus, where the first strains of Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots can be heard (drummer Dylan Marks’ continued extreme rhythms notwithstanding) before the band leap back into the track’s opening aggressive musical theme.


Given Shaefer’s pedigree, it should be no surprise to find Till the Dirt thumbing their noses at genre restrictions, but while envelope-pushing is admirable, the music of Outside the Spiral isn’t so much music of wild innovation as it is a technically impressive distillation of alternative and extreme Metal elements of yesteryears.


At its best (like the genuinely menacing ‘Invitation’) the band deploys their not-inconsiderable musical talents to fuse catchy rhythms, dark atmosphere, and impressive technicality into a cohesive whole. There are also plenty of stand-out passages to highlight (like the undeniably catchy chorus of ‘As it Seems’, the bleak moodiness of ‘Insist and Demand’ or the lead-guitar wizardry of ‘Forest of Because’).


At no point does the album miss the mark, but whether it quite manages to hit a bullseye is up for debate. In this, the band’s technical prowess and propensity for fusing musical styles may be their partial undoing, or at least what keeps the album from achieving the heights it might otherwise have been able to attain.


Rock (and especially metal) music often involves a hearty dose of theatricality and some suspension of disbelief. Not everyone can take King Diamond seriously and the same is true for Cannibal Corpse, but while most listeners won’t believe King Diamond is actually sacrificing children under a full moon, or that Corpsegrinder is a murderous rampager, they don’t really need to. When the style remains consistent, you can more easily go along with the theatre of it all.


Till the Dirt (and Shaefer with his vocal leaps between death metal growls, black metal screams, Mike Patton-isms and Layne Staley refrains) make it harder to buy into the theatre, because they can’t seem to settle on what the performance is. Alternative metal gloom and extreme metal ferocity are hard to convincingly fuse together, and the music of Outside the Spiral suggests they can manage both quite convincingly when they pick one or the other, but they haven’t totally mastered creating something cohesive when they jump back and forth between the two in one track.


I passed a record store in Berlin the other day that had a sign in the window that read: keep industrial music out of harsh noise. Maybe another imperative should be: keep Alice in Chains out of Extreme Metal. Then again, maybe this is entirely the wrong conclusion. Maybe Till the Dirt has the right idea.


Extreme Metal has always evolved. They may not have perfected their sound, but there are enough highs on Outside the Spiral to make the album an altogether enjoyable listen and suggest that the band may go on to hone their sound to be more than the sum of its parts.


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7 / 10