If there’s one word you’d probably never use to describe modern heavy metal, it would be “subtle.” Yet, the more I’ve listened to In Monochrome over the last few weeks, the more its aura of subtlety and tastefulness has struck me. This isn’t to say that it’s not aggressive or “metal” enough—though, in fairness, such criticism wouldn’t be wholly illegitimate—but rather to highlight the fact that it’s not unreasonable to expect a bit more intricacy and passion from the modern metal scene. In Monochrome is by no means a perfect album, but its understated vibe places it at great contrast with the brick-against-skull mentality of the majority of Black Sites’ contemporaries.
Though it’s likely detrimental to the conversation and brings little of value to the table, the comparison between Black Sites and frontman/guitarist Mark Sugar’s previous band, Trials, is impossible to avoid. Trials, in short, were the best thing to happen to modern thrash metal since Vektor and could make a compelling case as one of the 21st century’s most criminally underrated metal bands. And, while Black Sites rarely match their groove-thrash precursor in either aggression or quality, the superb guitar work that defined Trials’ sound makes a welcome return and sets In Monochrome apart from its competition, even in its least successful moments. The title track, for example, cycles through two full verse-chorus repetitions before really getting started, but the stellar guitar work that rewards the listener’s patience saves it from the dregs of mediocrity. Hell, “Watching You Fall,” an album highlight, is carried almost fully by its Sugar’s guitar badassery.
Black Sites’ sound is firmly rooted in dark traditional heavy metal, though there’s not one specific band that they are clearly trying to emulate. A less depressing, less power metal-influenced Evergrey is the best comparison I can think of, though some of the riffing clearly takes inspiration from doom metal acts like Khemmis. This decidedly calmer direction provides Sugar with a very different setting with which to work, but he sticks the landing with grace, showcasing some of his best melodic guitar work to date. The album as a whole is quite versatile, too, with its 10 tracks varying significantly in both tempo and length. The frantic, indescribably catchy “Burning Away the Day” immediately distinguishes itself as In Monochrome’s finest moment, combining its only true knock-out chorus with consistently excellent riffing and an extra dash of aggression.
There are occasions when Sugar returns to the harsh vocals of his work with Trials, though these moments are few and far between. “Locked Out – Shut Down” is the only track that relies heavily on this vocal style, leading it to feel criminally underused. The subtlety that pervades much of the record is admirable, but not worth sacrificing one of Black Sites’ most compelling and enjoyable elements. Mark Sugar has some damn fine pipes, and though he has little trouble carrying the album with his clean vocals, less successful tracks like “In the Woods” would likely have gained a much-needed spark from the inclusion of his trademark snarl.
I like this record, and I like it a lot. Sure, there are a few moments that don’t quite hit the mark, but the guitar work alone earns it a pass in my eyes. And, on tracks where the instrumentation and songwriting both connect, Black Sites show that they’re capable of recording some outstanding heavy metal. In Monochrome is not going to be the most “face-melting” record you hear this year, but it’s clearly not trying to be. If nothing else, it’s proof that Mark Sugar has the chops to succeed at any project he chooses to pursue—and as far as I’m concerned, he’s more than earned the right to do whatever he pleases. We’ll thank him later.