REVIEW: The Acacia Strain – Step into the Light/Failure Will Follow [2023]

Artist: The Acacia Strain
Album: Step into the Light/Failure Will Follow

There isn’t a band out there doing what The Acacia Strain are doing, nor is there a band out there doing it how The Acacia Strain are doing it. Blurring the conventional genre lines, redefining what one would traditionally consider to be “heavy” and provoking thought, emotion and action all at the same time is…well, a daunting task, and would probably be impossible for most other bands—but not them. A far cry from (but somehow strongly reminiscent of) their modest southwestern Massachusetts beginnings, the band delivers not one but two entire full length records to the listener’s doorstep in the forms of the noisy, violent and aggressive Step into the Light and its somber, smothering and crushing counterpart Failure Will Follow. Complementing each other in the way that plagues of frogs and mice complement plagues of locusts and hail, the two records are a dialectic journey through a great variety of things—the Human effect on earth, cycles of aggression and depression, but most relevantly, The Acacia Strain’s sprawling variety of influences throughout the heavy music ecosystem. In a time where it’s increasingly hard to be surprised by anything, this crushing quintet manage to keep the listener on their toes; in fact, the only thing that isn’t surprising is how incredible both of these releases manage to be.

Step into the Light

Step into the Light manages to simultaneously be everything one might expect from The Acacia Strain while incorporating many things you might have thought you’d never hear. Take lead single “Fresh Bones,” for example: a song that combines monstrous, looming guitars that chug their way straight through the listener’s temporal bone and blistering blast beats—a little bit of the old mixed with a little something new. It should come as no surprise that Kevin Boutot, the band’s percussionist for close to twenty years now, absolutely shines throughout Step into the Light, bringing speed and intensity by the boatload in “Chain” and “Fresh Bones” and monstrous, steamrolling drum patterns in “None of Us Asked to be Here.” His versatility borders on unhinged, but in the best way imaginable, as it gives credence to guitarists Devin Shidaker and Mike Mulholland to do whatever they please—which most of the time is flattening the listener beneath riffs of objectively mammoth proportions. “Sinkhole” deserves special acknowledgement here especially, as it spans everything from tom-heavy percussion a la heavy hardcore, sandwiched by doom-tinted slabs of oppressive aggression where colossal riffs and spine-shrinking breakdowns steal the show. “Sinkhole,” alongside the closing trio of tracks also see Griffin Landa’s bass take on a more prominent role, amplifying the more sprawling, dismal elements while adding heft and punch to the band’s moments of outright brutality. Step into the Light is a monster not only because it manages to pack all the punch one could expect or want from The Acacia Strain, but because over a relatively brief runtime it manages to be a stunningly diverse experience without sacrificing any of the band’s core elements or trademark attitude.

I think this is…what, at least the sixth review I’ve written for a The Acacia Strain record, if not the seventh or eighth. I don’t know what to say about frontman and founding member Vincent Bennett that hasn’t already been said (by myself or by people more informed and eloquent than myself), but it always bears repeating; Bennett is the band’s constant—their anchor—and even throughout the decades of their growth, refinement and diversification, the second you hear his voice, you know exactly who you’re listening to and what’s coming at you. Bennett’s roars on Step into the Light are no different—as his sturdy, ferocious mid-range shout drives the album onwards like an engine running on malice and bitterness. “Chain” sees him at potentially his most outright aggressive since the Coma Witch days, where “Is this Really Happening?” And “None of Us Asked to be Here” build on his work in Slow Decay. Where he truly shines on Step into the Light, however, is not new ranges or screams, but his growth as a lyricist. As strong as his work on Slow Decay was, lyrically the record left some room for growth, as several of the songs weren’t quite as impactful as they perhaps could have been. That isn’t the case on Step into the Light; every song has lyrics that stick in the listener’s brain and resonate deeply, whether its with their own life experiences or the state of the world around them. Once more, attention is drawn to “Chain,” a song where misanthropy reigns supreme, and “Sinkhole” which seems almost a spiritual successor to “Solace and Serenity,” with the line die slow burned into the listener’s psyche.
As Step into the Light fades, the listener is left bewildered. A pickaxe imbued with a toxin that corrodes the mind is inches deep in their head, through their eardrum, dividing the gyri of the brain with the precision of a surgeon but the malice of a psychopath. The first phase of The Acacia Strain’s dual-wielded assault—an attack three years in the making—has concluded.

Failure Will Follow

If Step into the Light is akin to being hurled headlong into a woodchipper manned by Hell’s most loyal servants, Failure Will Follow is the slow burn and resounding crunch that comes when a steamroller flattens your scattered remains into firmament. Building on the aspects of The Acacia Strain’s penchant for doom, grind and blackened metal that dominated on “The Observer” (circa Coma Witch) and It Comes in Waves, Failure Will Follow takes the blistering speed and immolating fervor of Step into the Light and hits the breaks, amping up an overtone of doom and suffocating dread. Here, Boutot’s percussion is plodding and deep, with each kick drum thud feeling like a sledgehammer hitting raw meat. “Pillar of Salt” and “Basin of Vows” both see several looming, apocalyptic sequences of Goliath riff devolving into primal, incensing breakdown where Boutot’s drumming beats with a steady, cantankerous candor—leading the listless, sprawling fretwork and atmosphere by Shidaker and Mulholland as it goes. Then, there’s the record’s longest number, “Bog Walker,” clocking in at just over seventeen minutes. “Bog Walker” sees the band start off with a catchy, anthemic riff that guides the listener through a wormhole—albeit a grimy, gritty one. While the journey is welcome, the track does seem to drag at some points, and overall lacks the same lasting, thought provoking post-ictus that the other two cuts from the album possess in spades. Failure Will Follow’s murky musicianship shines on its own merit—but in the context of The Acacia Strain’s discography and its partner record, it takes on an even brighter gleam. With portions (especially of “Basin of Vows”) that feel like a sequel (or a throwback) from Step into the Light or Slow Decay and parts that explore all new territory as the band continues to explore more metallic subgenres and styles.
An interesting element of Failure Will Follow is the band’s vocal element—where Bennett’s voice and range on Step into the Light was somewhat standard for The Acacia Strain, his voice on its counterpart is much more adventurous and sees him exploring ranges and styles that were only previously heard on It Comes in Waves. Bennett sounds gargantuan, with echoing roars dripping with despair that span every inch of The Acacia Strain’s sprawling, dismal soundscape. “Pillar of Salt” is especially poignant in this regard, with the haunting, hymnal chant of Failure Will Follow guiding the listener into “Bog Walker,” searing it into their eardrums. Similarly, “Basin of Vows” sees Bennett’s voice hit some gnarly, burly low bellows—a departure from his practically iconic mid range howl, and a welcome addition and complement to the LP’s gritty, grimier approach to heaviness.

Together, Step into the Light and Failure Will Follow are a dissonant, fearsome yin and yang. With one blasting and chugging the listener into flesh mulch and the other immolating the remains into putrid ash, The Acacia Strain handily demonstrate their mastery over all things heavy across a comprehensive hour-long arrangement of pure sonic misanthropy. At this point, it seems that there is very little The Acacia Strain can’t do—and can’t do exceptionally well, at that. Step into the Light—and to a slightly lesser degree Failure Will Follow—feel as though they are the culmination of the band’s 22 years writing, creating and mastering heavy music…and who can even guess what they’ll think up next?

Step into the Light:
For Fans Of: Chamber, Vatican, Bury Your Dead, Pains

Failure Will Follow:
For Fans Of: Chained to the Bottom of the Ocean, Black Tongue, Primitive Man

Composite Score: 19/20.

By: Connor Welsh