Black Hearts Still Reign: 10 Years of Unearth’s ‘The Oncoming Storm’

I discovered Unearth when the song and music video for “Zombie Autopilot” appeared on a Sounds of the Underground Tour CD/DVD sampler I purchased at Hot Topic. If you remember that short-lived (though undeniably awesome) annual summer tour or ever purchased a sampler disc solely in hopes of discovering a new band, you might be old enough to relate to this article. Maybe.

My friends and I would blast these music video samplers every day after school on my parents’ basement entertainment system while shooting pool and drinking copious amounts of Pepsi. I’ve since switched to Diet Coke and moved out of my parents’ basement (thus forcing me to resort to the local pub to keep my billiards game sharp), but I still have a soft spot for early 2000s metalcore.

From The Oncoming Storm‘s opening moments, when Trevor Phipps kicks off “The Great Dividers” with an emphatic “EHHHHHHHH,” I’m taken back to a simpler time. This was a time when bands melding melodic Gothenburgian riffage with moshcore breakdowns was still somewhat innovative and exciting for headbangers and spin-kickers alike.

Although a line was eventually drawn at live shows where clashes between the opposing clans would inevitably lead to a bout of pit beef, bands like Unearth seemed to revel in such dichotomy. The band’s mostly metal aesthetic, along with the presence of more than enough thrashy, circle-pit inspiring riffs from two legitimate shredders in Buz McGrath and Ken Susi, awarded Unearth the metalheads’ seal of approval. And yet, Unearth weren’t afraid to churn out an abundance of simple, open-chugging mosh parts to work the hardcore tough guys into a frenzy. Furthermore, Susi, whose mid-song beer bongs and guitar tosses accounted for roughly 95% of the band’s stage show, wore his pants tight enough (and hair swoopy enough) to make the band accessible for scene kids as well.

Quite simply, there wasn’t a kid in high school who listened to any type of heavy music who didn’t own a copy of The Oncoming Storm.

Phipps is a rather limited vocalist, especially when compared to some of his peers in Jesse Leach, Howard Jones, and even a few vocalists who haven’t sung for Killswitch Engage over the years. But Phipps sings with conviction and authority. He also wrote the most memorable breakdown calls this pre-A Day To Remember universe had ever experienced, from “Endless FIGHT!” to “OooaaAAAHH BREAKDOWN” to the use of an additional “OHHH” when signaling the shift from a simple breakdown to an even slower, more broken down version of the same riff.

Phipps also utilized 2004’s much in vogue technique of speaking softly during a song’s quieter buildup parts (“Take over the world…”) before erupting back into full-on screaming once the intensity picks back up (see Misery Signals’ Of Malice and the Magnum Heart or The Acacia Strain’s 3750 for other prime examples of this technique). Coincidently (or maybe not so much), these three albums were all released within a month and a half of one another.

I saw Unearth three times between 2005 and 2006. Unofficially announcing (or perhaps conceding to?) the arrival of the metalcore movement, Slipknot tapped Unearth (along with As I Lay Dying) to open the entire second leg of The Subliminal Verses Tour (Shadows Fall and Lamb of God opened the first leg, which I also attended). My second Unearth live encounter came on the second stage of Ozzfest 2006, and I can still taste the gravel from the massive dust storm incited by the uproarious opening breakdown of “This Lying World.”

No band was better suited for the 30-minute festival/opening set than Unearth. They were allowed to get in, play The Oncoming Storm‘s five biggest bangers (and maybe another song or two), and get the hell out — gaining thousands of new fans along the way.

The Oncoming Storm‘s follow-up, III: In The Eyes of Fire arrived in 2006 and failed to live up to its predecessor (though that two-step part in “Giles” is still an all-timer for me). Still, those Ozzfest and Slipknot tours, along with the success of The Oncoming Storm, afforded Unearth enough momentum to embark on their own massive headline tour shortly after the release of III. They brought along Bleeding Through, Terror, Through the Eyes of the Dead and Animosity (again pitting metalheads against hardcore kids) and booked venues with capacities approaching 4,000.

It seemed ambitious at the time, but people actually showed up — if you had to pinpoint a time when metalcore reached its apex, this just might be it.

Unearth has released a total of three full-lengths since The Oncoming Storm. Yet, even as their waning popularity has relegated them to opening for lesser bands like Emmure and Whitechapel in recent years, the five biggest tracks from The Oncoming Storm still remain staples in Unearth’s setlist.

Am I saying The Oncoming Storm is this generation’s Number of the Beast or Master of Puppets? Hell no. It’s probably closer to Out of the Cellar or L.D. 50: a good album, but completely indicative of its time and place. Even just 10 years later, The Oncoming Storm feels incredibly dated. But you know what? We might as well have thrown that disc in every 2004 time capsule because it provides the most accurate snapshot of what heavy music sounded like during that point in time.

Some of Unearth’s peers may have done early 2000s metalcore more transcendently, timelessly, artfully, loudly — or hell, just plain better. But damnit, no one did “early 2000s metalcore” in a more “early 2000s metalcore” way than Unearth.

It’s hard to say how much longer Unearth will be around, as it’s clear their moment of metalcore supremacy has long since passed. But The Oncoming Storm is an album you’ll never be able to take away from them. And ten years later, I still haven’t been able to take it away from the very selective rotation of albums filling the CD wallet in my car either. “Endless” indeed.

Written by Kevin Blumeyer (follow him on Twitter)

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2 Responses to “Black Hearts Still Reign: 10 Years of Unearth’s ‘The Oncoming Storm’”

  1. Derek - UTG Review says:

    I can’t believe @brianlion:disqus didn’t write this piece. I’m shocked. I first heard Unearth from a “Sounds Of The Underground” compilation…maybe in 2005?

  2. Brian Lion says:

    Why’s that? lol. I’ve never really been a fan honestly. They’re pretty decent live but they never did much for me elsewhere.