Music review

Great Southern Trendkillers – Pillbuster Brings The Steady Stream of Groove Metal

From Raleigh, North Carolina, Pillbuster make no hesitation in getting their sound out in the open. There’s no question that this is a heavy, dirty band that clearly has reverence for filthy Southern metal like Pantera and Corrosion of Conformity. The trappings are there and some of the songs are written with incredible gravity and stomp, but this steadiness is what ultimately makes the band’s debut less about virtuosity and more about consistency. Very few surprises come to life on Pillbuster’s debut, and while there is a solid amount to love here, the missed opportunities stick out like sore, mud-doused, callus-covered thumbs.

The band prides themselves on groovy licks right out of Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power and heavy tempos in Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. Pillbuster vocalist Brett Lloyd grabs the dirty scream-croon of Pantera and Down’s Phil Anselmo without any restraint and in songs like the fantastic “Rhythm of Decline”, it can be pretty difficult distinguishing between the two singers. Few bands have truly captured that growling tone, but Pillbuster do a solid job in throwing the southern metal scene some respect. But the Pantera guitars are noticeably toned down from Pillbuster’s arsenal of metal machinery. Instead of those masterfully intricate Dimebag Darrell solos, Pillbuster’s Joe Festa lets the rhythmic grinds of bands like Deftones pave the way for the band’s sound (“Beast” echoes Deftones’ “Bloody Cape” shockingly well). You do on occasion hear traces of thrash throughout, such as on “Push” and the rockin’ anthem “Resolve”, but Pillbuster are more about the lurching stomp than the nimble dash.

Like any great groove metal band, the pounding rhythm section is key, and bassist Chris Kernstock and drummer Douglas Stanek deliver in spades. Traces of 1991-era Rage Against the Machine pepper the band’s rhythm section, while Lloyd’s guttural call strikes a mean right hook to the face. The pace is so steady and sludgy, however, that Festa’s guitar work still sounds under-implemented. As he shows in songs like “Dying Next to You,” Festa is a virtuoso player who takes many cues from both Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi for heavy pacing and Pantera’s Darrell Abbott for that smooth groovy roughness. That mix is a fantastic shine for a fresh new guitarist, but the songs don’t offer much room for Festa to really step up and show off his clearly intense skills of the shred.

But even though the quaking march has force, it becomes apparent that Pillbuster have a niche that they want to fill and that they refuse to depart from. The song list is only ten tracks long, but very few of the songs stand out. “Sinkhole” is one of the best, with a sound so down-tuned and weighted that even Dirt-era Alice in Chains would step back in respect. But the pacing is done so hard and so much that the album doesn’t have much topography; it’s very one-line and straightforward. Though the band cites a healthy variety of genres as influence, aside from southern metal and hard rock, you don’t see much else. The very small bits of “5th Helena Drive” show this briefly, but there just aren’t many traces of punk or hardcore, mostly because the tempos are so lurching. The speed is sacrificed, which is a shame, because it could’ve also shown off the band’s versatile musicianship. Also, while Lloyd is a fine southern metal belt-out singer, his voice isn’t varied either, making the songs feel even more stirred and unfocused. There are some amazing songs on Pillbuster’s debut, but the hooks aren’t apparent. The lack of variety is what makes Pillbuster’s debut confusing. For a band so rich with influence and reverence for said influences, they don’t make too big a case that they really do want to mix those genres together into something captivating and exciting across all ten tracks.

Pillbuster’s debut will make friends with the southern headbangers who are out for a grunty, grinding good time in the pit, but where Pantera and Clutch struck gold with shockingly intricate compositions for their genres mixed with heavy tones, Pillbuster sound like they’re running in place and holding themselves back. A lack of ambitious experimentation sours what could’ve been one of the finest in its class. Still, for what they do, Pillbuster nail it. Their debut is still a mighty and heavy album, one that takes the best pieces from their metal and hard rock influences and make something worth headbanging to. If you’re still bitter about the lack of a Pantera reunion, listening to Pillbuster is sure to soften that blow, while also opening listeners’ ears to a rising band with potential to rock your local metal festivals. Will they be the next Great Southern Trendkillers? It’s hard to tell now, but if you can ignore the overly straight-ahead approach to metal, Pillbuster still have the chops to melt your face right off.