I’ve always been a fan of death metal. A short time before I was introduced to rap or punk or hardcore, there was death metal? How did I get there? Honestly, it was a Christian band called Mortification. That was my gateway to all things heavy. To this day Mortification’s early work (1991-1994) is still some of my favorite death metal/whatever type of weird metal they were doing. After that I went into basically every other genre of heavy, underground or alternative music. I’ve been in love with music for almost 20 years now. My love of music has outlasted everything else I’ve done. And it really started with death metal.
I’ve only seen Xibalba once. I forget even when, though I’d have to guess it was sometime during 2012. I remember being excited to see them because they were quite good at playing a particularly heavy brand of hardcore that had some really aggressive riffs and standard breakdowns. Lyrically, they always seemed to be going for the raw life vibe, really hitting on more negative tones. Because of their tempo, riffs, negative or darker lyrical perspective and a willingness to drop in some standard breakdowns a lot of comparisons to other metalcore predecessors were getting thrown around. The one I heard the most frequently was Disembodied, but people almost seemed to be saying it as if it were a negative thing. I never disagreed with the Disembodied vibe, but I thought it was one of the things about them that I most enjoyed – a throwback to the bands that ushered me into my lifelong enjoyment of hardcore music.
Hardcore bands can be a real wildcard. Some of them start out strong and then fade away. Others put out a really weak demo, blow up some east coast hardcore festival and turn into the next big thing. Others just repeat the same exact songs, xNickelbackx if you would, for a decade or more. And each band is unique in makeup and philosophy of where they should be going with their sound. I believe it was an article from HM issue #86, Nov/Dec 2000, in which J Sims wrote about Anguish Unsaid. They had put out an album that was ridiculously popular for a west coast Christian hardcore band. It was put out on a label that never really had much traction in the hardcore scene, Christian or otherwise. I remember that Anguish Unsaid believed that their second album was going to be better than their first release because they had thrown every riff they had into that first album but had taken much more time and care to write the second album. I don’t have numbers to support my take, but it was a pretty lousy second album and the band faded away pretty quickly after that.
Xibalba was formed in 2007 and released their first album, Madre Mia Gracias Por Los Dias, in 2010, getting a re-release via A389 in 2011. The album really hails to that Disembodied vibe that people were typecasting the band into. The A389 version also featured a song, “Cold,” that was not on the previous version of the release – real standout track with an accompanying music video that gave you a glimpse of the life of Xibalba. While the song may have already been recorded at a prior time, the first time I heard it was in the A389 release. It showed some progression. More metal, less hardcore. And a lot of the moments that were in one genre were fairly well separated from the others. It’s as if there was a psychological split in the songwriting of the band, writing great music that fit into two distinct genres but keeping them together in a way that seemed natural.
Xibalba did what most bands do after releasing an album that takes off – they toured. After getting out on the road for a while, they wrote their follow up album, Hasta La Muerte. The album was released in 2012 via Southern Lord. Everything on this release was more metal than what had come before, while being grounded enough their foundation to not really change much of what they were. There was still plenty of hardcore sound to it if you wanted to look for it. But, you did have to look for it.
I think that a lot of people who associate with hardcore do it for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons, there are factors such as being seen as radical, hip and cool. In hardcore, it is okay to like Morbid Angel and Obituary, but you also need to stick to certain things that are seeing as more cool than being a metalhead who wears combats, drives a forklift and has a GED. Stereotypes! Anyway, we could go deep into decrying the death of true spirit or whatever, but we won’t. We are here to celebrate Xibalba.
At some point, if it looks like metal, sounds like metal, and the lyrics read like metal… It’s metal. In this case it is death metal. It’s important to understand that times change in subcultures and their associated genres of music. If I run into someone that I know who is a bit younger or plays guitar, I tend to hear a lot from them about bands like Fleshgod Apocalypse, Behemoth or Hour of Penance. Guess what? I like at least one of those bands, think the music videos for another are hilarious and fun, and then there is Fleshgod Apocalypse who I don’t need to hear anymore, thank you. And I’m not here to be a genre snob; I’m not saying that these bands are not true, real, good, comprised of humans, etc. I am more saying that if you put two radical dudes next to each other 20 years apart in age, you’d probably get a very different list of bands that they loved or thought were great death metal bands. You might hear the older guy saying something about bands like Cryptopsy, Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Entombed or Mortification. It could happen.
So, when I say that Xibalba is becoming more of a death metal band, I mean to say that I hear their work and think of the older bands - bands more varied in tempo, more raw in production, imagery and attitude.
Xibalba released a split EP with Suburban Scum in 2014 via Closed Casket Activities. This only serves to make things more confusing. It’s as if Xibalba has found a very real and legitimate home in hardcore while becoming more of a death metal band, spinning further out from the typical metalcore sound, with each release. The songs are longer and, to me, feel heavier and more metal than ever before.
It was announced in late 2014 that Xibalba would be releasing their third full-length, Tierra Y Libertad, via Southern Lord in January 2015. To accompany that, a few tracks were dropped. The first song that slipped out which I heard was “Invierno,” uploaded to Soundcloud and published via Noisey (Vice).
Xibalba indeed continues down their dark path to the world of death metal. And while the music, imagery and lyrics may have always pointed in the opposite direction, this is a cause for joy and celebration. Many hardcore bands have tried their hand at incorporating truly good metal ever since the genres first collided decades earlier, but few bands have ever done it right with such a strong and genuine sound. Xibalba is the new face of old school death metal and they couldn’t have done this at a better time.