After listening to the Butcher Babies and attending their shows for many years, I was surprised by how excellent their last album is. I expected another strong release with similar sounds to what their previous two albums and EPs had built, but they have accomplished a major advance. Lilith has managed to pull off a stylistic shift that is certainly in harmony with the previous releases but also manages to break a great deal of new ground for the band. Their music is often good at presenting a mixture of aggression and insanity as the two female singers play off against each other with whirling aggression, and it’s a very different approach to a female fronted band. The songs on their debut album, Goliath, built a picture of a dark urban landscape similar to a horror movie, and it is an underrated example of urban depiction, because the songs offered a compelling description of Los Angeles as a decaying urban horror.
They borrow from a lot of classic 80’s metal while picking and choosing new sounds from some of the best subgenre metal bands such as Meshuggah, with clear threads of death metal and gothic industrial sounds. It shapes together into a mixture of fairly deep social depictions at the same time as being a fun party band for anyone seeing them live. Heidi and Carla are both serious fans of industrial music and go to underground industrial shows together, and Henry’s guitar sounds are influenced by melodic death metal with odd threads of psychedelia. That’s a great mixture that highlights some of the most interesting underground sounds around, and they should be seen as a band that offers a strong bridge between heavy metal and gothic styles.
Part of the attraction to their music is that they can say so much without taking themselves too seriously, even though a lot of the music is very serious. Anthemic old style metal has its influence, but it translates into fun segments of Butcher Babies songs while a much richer cacophony and set of ideas unfolds alongside the choruses. The most singable parts are often disrupted with the dual vocalists playing off each other and the strong bass and drums grinding along. There are clear influences from industrial and noise sounds built into that, and in keeping with Carla Harvey being a mortician, and Heidi Shepherd just an unusual and smart person who is able to look from a somewhat different perspective than average, the songs often depict decay alongside hope. They are fundamentally decent people with songs hoping for something positive but portraying disappointment at the way the world works, sometimes with songs that could be referencing a horror movie but are actually about American urban life with its too frequent despair and degradation.
Henry Flury is an unusually sensitive guitarist with fairly deep emotion coming through in his playing alongside nicely sliding melodies that go from carefully paced to psychedelic in ways that can seem a bit surprising. His guitar is an excellent counter to the harsh aggressive vocals of Heidi and Carla, but it can also switch into melodic playing that complements Heidi’s cleaner vocals very nicely. The guitar from Henry develops more melodies than seem apparent from the aggressive sounds of the singers and driving rhythms of the band. The drums blast away with Jason Klein’s grinding bass, but they have a consistency that is hypnotic as much as aggressive. There is often a nice contrast between the insanity of the two singers and the smoothness of the rhythm section.
The new drummer, Chase Brickenden, has brought a great deal more consistency to the Butcher Babies. They had a fine drummer before with Chris Warner, but he tended to vary his tempo during shows. Chase is incredibly consistent, and it seems to create a great deal more confidence for the rest of the band. Heidi seemed more focused on stage especially, with less time looking at other band members to make adjustments during live sets. The old era of the band was great fun with shows that seemed to evolve somewhat throughout the night as Chris made adjustments on the drums, while the new version of the band seems like one focused attacking performance. I like both versions, but I feel like Chase is providing excellent confidence and support to everyone.
On Lilith, their sound expands in very interesting directions. The album includes rhythm changes and tempo adjustments and more styles of singing than either Goliath or Take It Like a Man, and it works very well against the songs that are still aggressive in their traditional way. Those aggressive songs sound more polished and thought through on this album. My favorite track is Korova, a song about revolution, freedom, and tragedy. The songs from their releases are often more meaningful than is suggested by rock articles focusing so heavily on the female singers, with themes of oppression getting nice development from their vocals while Henry’s guitar seems to echo their complaints. Korova particularly highlights this well. The song describes the Russian revolution with its hope of liberation only leading to tragedy as people who fought for freedom become enslaved by the people who were supposed to free them. The wonderful ironic line, “Now liberate me,” could be a line within anthemic 80s rock, but it is transposed into a far more complex song while, “We can live forever, but if we die, we die together. Run with me,” becomes a very moving refrain. The transitions between fast and slow sections of the song and harsh and clean vocals is simply beautiful and inspiring, and it captures the fire and desire of revolution as well as its obstacles enormously well. It is truly an accomplished song and my personal favorite from the album.
Headspin also is a standout song, and it has the same cowriter as Korova. It uses cleaner vocals with stronger harmonies and changes in tempo, and it adds great emotion to the song. It’s about a relationship and captures the whirling intensity of a powerful encounter. The lyrics also capture some of the best attributes of the band, with nice emphasis on screams, insanity, and loss of bodily control. I like that both of these songs are clearly aimed towards some of the best talents of the Butcher Babies, and it would seem that the writer they worked with really studied their capabilities and helped them craft something towards those strengths.
Heidi has a deceptive voice and is not an average singer. She sings in a metal scream very often but is frequently conveying insanity when doing that, as is especially apparent on their earlier cover of They’re Coming to Take Me Away. It’s a song that fits them very well as a cover, because it focuses on a quality that they love to emphasize on so many of their own songs. With Carla singing with her, their voices sound like an aggressive whirlwind coming from all sides, and the calmer rhythm section gives depth to their aggression. Heidi is able to sing very beautifully on the clearer vocal sections of their songs but has used that sparingly for most of the band’s recordings. She goes in that direction much more on Lilith and has calmer parts with deeper melodies that propel the songs.
The album really brings out something that has always been in Butcher Babies shows and is usually never commented on. Henry Flury’s guitar sections go from aggressive death metal style blasting to more melodic and psychedelic sounds sometimes, and it can make the band especially transporting after becoming delirious from the aggressive parts. Butcher Babies shows are like a friendly attack with a decent amount of moshing for the audience size, but there is a calmer and more melodic side to the band happening at the same time. This happens alongside of an obvious friendliness. It is great to hear the Lilith album develop those impulses more, because they were more apparent in live shows and less so in recordings until this album. It really shows what the band is capable of and where it is going and captures a lot of what I thought was different about their live shows versus their recordings.
The band has some of the nicest people I have met in music, and Heidi is a standout personality with deep intelligence and charming kindness. Her ideas seem to come from another place at times, though she is very grounded as an aggressive front person for a band. The love of metal comes out as a very strong projection with her. Lilith is their definitive album and will be hard to top, but with a third album it is now very fun to listen to all of their work with a clear progression and point of destination in mind.
The first album stands out as decayed and ferocious, a portrait of messed up urban life in Los Angeles that is witnessed well by newer metal bands with the types of things they have to deal with there. The second album is more mature but mostly has similarly styled songs with some surprising new directions on individual songs like the beautiful Thrown Away, which got a very powerful acoustic performance at the Moxi Theater in Greeley back in August. Very focused and clear ideas also come together on songs like Dead Man Walking. Now with the third album this all starts to look like an art gallery of urban graffiti with segues to a classy jazz club where surprising sounds are being thrown into a more carefully thought out composition. To me, this marks the Butcher Babies going from a fun and good new band to an established and important voice in heavy metal. They’re still a midsize band and not a huge one, but this is in many ways the best creative place to be. They can do what they want and have room to develop.