By Bob Nalbandian

The Art of Balance
Century Media
3.5 EYES

What to do when your scrappy, low-buck debut has been praised to the rafters, but is rapidly being eclipsed by ever-hungrier mavens both in and out of Gothenburg? If you're Shadows Fall, you up the ante with way better production and tighter playing, but score one for the home team by spiking the punch with a most decidedly American 80's metal slant - and no, I don't mean they sound like Lizzy Borden now! But there are moments on The Art of Balance where the ghosts of old Testament, Anthrax and Metallica riffs and solos emerge from the Gothen-murk, rooting their forward-thinking thrash with a classic foundation that'll broaden their appeal beyond the cellar-dwelling zine-heads of this country's extreme underground. Though melody abounds on The Art of Balance, Shadows Fall is still heavy as all hell, and vocalist Brian Fair has outdone himself and then some, maintaining a hearty "clean" voice while making his death metal bellow much more authoritative. The band have managed to insinuate hooks and sing-along choruses into what are still quite crushing tunes, with the occasional instrumental interlude ("Casting Shade," "Prelude To Disaster") to add atmosphere to the proceedings. The best trick Shadows Fall have is when they slip tons of their bastardized Gothenburg-style dual-guitar runs into what would otherwise be a deceptively simple (we're talking Practice What You Preach-era Testament simple) riff rockers. Plenty of room for Fair's impassioned choruses and his death bellow, a catchy groove, and even the occasional breakdown to recall the band's hardcore roots. "Thoughts Without Words" is a gem of an example of this, with "A Fire Burns In Babylon" (complete with Skolnick-ian solos at the beginning) weighing in on the side of the more melodic, and "Stepping Outside the Circle" leaning toward the thrashy end of things. The album closes with a pretty neat, although a bit note-perfect, cover of Floyd's "Welcome To the Machine," not 100% necessary ("A Fire Burns In Babylon" is excellent as a "big finish" closer) but certainly not shabby at all. The Art of Balance finds Shadows Fall mucking about with the European metal of the modern day, backed by the spirit of the American metal that provided the original inspiration for the whole ball of wax. Somewhere, the 1988 incarnations of Forbidden, Metallica, and Testament are giving Shadows Fall a big horns-up for bringing the crown back home. Should be the record that makes this band f**king huge, and rightly so. Keith Bergman