Funny Name, Serious Music
Job for a Cowboy are a death metal band from Glendale, Arizona. Founded in 2003 by vocalist Jonny Davy and a number of musicians who have since left the band, Cowboy seem to have found a sweet spot for their stature – becoming popular enough to chart on the Billboard 200 and iTunes, and play big stages at festivals, but retaining enough death metal cred to make abrasive, inaccessible music in relative freedom. Fourth full-length album Sun Eater finds JFAC expertly thundering through 46 minutes of dense material that is fast, technical and crushing, but mostly notable for its pronounced quality of wistfulness, which remains essentially unbroken throughout the entire album.
Sun Eater is for the most part built around affecting, melodic riffs, chords and progressions, creating and maintaining a mood that is more elegiac than anything else. Guitarists Tony Sannicandro and Al Glassman have done a fine “job”, turning in complex performances that rarely rely on simplicity or repetition. There is some interplay to be had between Sannicandro and Glassman, but mostly the guitarists work in unison, playing twin leads that are impressive for their speed and tightness.
Acting as a potent X-factor is the warm, nimble bass of Nick Schendzielos (also of Cephalic Carnage). His 5-string Warwick basses may be fretted, but they sound extremely fretless. His viscous basslines dance around the guitar melodies, at times accenting them, and others creating engaging push-and-pull. Schendzielos’ work elevates the sound of Sun Eater somewhat beyond standard death metal and into the realm of much geeked-about progressive bands like Obscura, Intronaut, Cynic, Death and others.
Jonny Davy’s vocals manifest as a sort of throaty, impacted scream, emotionally urgent and – although unintelligible – definitely bearing pointed lyrical content (online Sun Eater lyrics were scarce around release time, but past JFAC lyrics have generally expressed staunchly progressive politics and a deep mistrust of powerful religious and political institutions – delivered with an epic narrative flair). Davy’s approach places him within the music as a sort of witness and narrator – there is little of the authoritative, brooding growling that often comes with the territory.
Perhaps lured by the promise of working with another skilled fretless-ish bassist, Danny Walker (of Intronaut) performs on Sun Eater as a session drummer. As usual, Walker’s timing is impeccable, and his drumming exudes texture and creative syncopation. Perhaps fans of Intronaut will miss Walker’s jazzy loops, but fans of Uphill Battle and Murder Construct will be delighted to hear him playing almost comically fast, incredibly accurate blastbeats and double bass runs.
Sun Eater’s greatest strength is also its only real fault: The dark, sorrowful atmosphere of the album is absorbing, but the mood is so pervasive and unabating that is tends to paint the album with an almost monochromatic brush. Sure, there are deviations – the loping, technical “The Stone Cross” cycles through so many phases of excellence in its initial two minutes that it will leave you breathless – but despite odd pinch harmonics here or there, thrashy runs, groovy stomps, soaring solos and doomy ringouts, the proceedings always come back to the baseline, precluding any deep experimentation or texture. This lack of risk hurts Sun Eater’s appeal – only those with the patience to untangle the details will be able to make strong distinctions between the songs.
Job for a Cowboy may have one of the sillier, more ill-fitting names in death metal (especially now that The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza have hung up their instruments), but Sun Eater is indicative of a band who take their craft very seriously. The album is immersive, offering a comprehensively composed, holistically crafted set of songs that describe a great and beautiful sadness. However, those very songs generally struggle to stand out as individuals. To those who can buy in to the album’s narrative sweep, there will be many happy returns, but for those seeking death metal closer to the bleeding edge, Sun Eater will pass pleasantly, but indistinctly through their listening rotation.