Adapt, Survive: Allegaeon Founding Member Greg Burgess Talks “Apoptosis” and Band Evolution
The landscape of death metal over the past two decades has been undeniably volatile. Since the mid 2000s, its rapidly proliferating multitude of subgenres has passed through countless phases and fads, and many groups formed during this era have since descended into irrelevancy, mediocrity or disappeared entirely. One of the few bands to successfully weather these daunting waters is Colorado’s Allegaeon, whose deft mixture of varying death metal flavors has established them as an enduring force transcending the many contemporary strains of the genre.
Since their formation in 2008, Allegaeon’s material has evolved dynamically with each consecutive release, yet still gradually enough to maintain the continuity of their novel sound. From their breakout 2012 release Formshifter to their criminally underrated last album Proponent for Sentience, the group’s output has demonstrated professional performance abilities through a unique style uneasily categorized. Despite a constant slew of lineup changes and their ever-mutating sonic texture, Allegaeon have cemented themselves as an essential name in the world of modern, forward-thinking death metal.
The outfit’s latest venture into unprecedented forms comes in the guise of Apoptosis, their fifth full-length release and most ambitious endeavor to date. With little breathing room between their packed touring schedule and the recording process for their new record, the group elected to delay the release of Apoptosis by six months in order to allow ample time for promotion and personal respite, breaking the group’s immaculately punctual timetable of one studio full-length every two years.
For greater insight into the album’s conception, I spoke with Allegaeon’s sole remaining original member — guitarist Greg Burgess — about the conceptual themes, musical motifs, and songwriting techniques Allageon utilizes. Seeking to fully understand the context leading up to the release of Apoptosis, I began our discussion by inquiring about Allegaeon’s personal and collective development in the three years since the release of their previous full-length, as well as Burgess’s own perspective on the state of contemporary death metal and its effect (or lack thereof) on his own creative attitude.
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It’s been three years since Proponent for Sentience, your last full LP; what has Allegaeon been up to in that time frame? How have you evolved, both personally and collectively as an entity?
Well, actually it’s been weird. This is the first time we’ve ever had a three-year gap in our record cycle. The album was actually supposed to come out last October, but we had spent so much time on the road that there was no time to gather any of the promotional materials, and we were gonna have to go right back out and support it. After you’ve been to so many towns so many times in a year, it’s not worth it. It needs to be special when you come through someone’s town, not like, “oh there were just here last month,” so we pushed it back. We toured so much on Proponent, and got a new bass player – who’s amazing, for the record – and yeah, basically just toured our asses off.
Well that’s certainly important to do. You had mentioned that you finished recording the album last year; was it completely mixed and mastered at that time?
Yeah, it was all scheduled to come out in October, but it would have been completely rushed and it wouldn’t have done as well.
How would you say that landscape of the technical/progressive death metal scene has changed in these past three years? In your perspective, how has that influenced your musical direction and development?
I don’t know, to be honest [laughs]. I mean there are really good bands out there, but I’ve been doing Allegaeon for 12, 13 years now, so we’ve done things the way we always do things. I know there are different bands doing important things now… it seems like Archspire is doing really well, and it seems like Rivers of Nihil is doing really well, so those two bands are likely gonna be the future headliners in the scene.
Well as a tangent to that question, since you’ve been in the tech-death scene for so long, do you feel that it’s thriving right now, that there are a lot of bands releasing impressive new material, or do you feel that maybe it’s becoming a little bit stale? Having seen it develop, where do you feel it stands right now?
Like I said, that’s a subjective question, but in my perspective — since I’m not one of those guys who has his finger on the pulse of what’s happening, it’s very peripheral — from what I’ve experienced, it seems like it’s doing really well; a lot of bands that didn’t really stick have fallen to the wayside, so it’s like the bands that are really doing something special seem to be still around.
Though subtly stated, Burgess’s final comment outlining the distinction between uninspired, short-lived groups and more lasting projects rings especially true; dozens of once-acclaimed death metal bands formed between 2000 and 2010 have failed to consistently match the innovative caliber of their earlier material, with many falling quite abruptly into total obscurity. Allegaeon, however, is undoubtedly one of the most persevering entities within the latter category mentioned by Burgess, the exclusive tier of groups whose longevity can be attributed to their eccentricity and persisting originality. Though they have already established their own specific niche within death metal, the group has refused to stagnate in their success, still looking ahead to the horizons of new and unexplored territory.
A symbiosis of elements from progressive, technical, and melodic death metal, Apoptosis exemplifies the ultimate realization of the group’s ever-widening stylistic range. Musically compelling and aurally crisp, it is equal parts complex and innovative, idiosyncratic and accessible. Eschewing the symphonic programming and apocalyptic orchestral passages of Proponent for a more stripped-down, composition-based interpretation of progressive death metal, the new record represents the group at their most lithe and cutting-edge.
Defined as a programmed form of cell death in multicellular organisms as a controlled part of their growth or development, Apoptosis serves as both a continuation of the group’s scientific themes and an allegory for their ongoing legacy. Regarding the ever-increasing presence of prog elements within his music and its relationship with the outfit’s conceptual identity, I asked Burgess to explain some of the inspirations behind Allegaeon’s stylistic evolution thus far, and to describe how Apoptosis incorporates these ideas.
Allegaeon’s material has become more and more prog-influenced with the passage of time; what’s driven you to emphasize these tendencies in your music? What pushes you in this more experimental, grandiose direction?
I guess it’s just what you like. Growing up, I was a thrash kid. And then, you know, I heard Dream Theater and it was off to the races. Then you find Rush, and Yes – it kind of went backwards from there, because Dream Theater is the Rush of our generation. You go back and you find them, and start listening to King Crimson and Genesis and stuff, so the prog rock was early in our influences. But through lineup changes, other influences have disappeared and new influences have appeared. So Apoptosis is kind of a metaphor too for change, right? We’ve never had the same lineup, I’m the only original guy left, so we’re a completely different band now than we were when we started — which helps, you know? Every time we get someone new in the band, it’s an opportunity to get someone that — I mean first, they have to be a great person, we can’t deal with shitty people, especially in 2019, it’s really hard because any little misstep ends up on the front page of a webzine.
That’s certainly the climate.
So, you need someone that has a decent head on his shoulders, someone that can play, they wanna be there, their drive fuels the thing. For the new record, when we were finishing up Proponent, I was going through a divorce, I was kinda homeless, so it’s taken me about two years to really get leveled again in my personal life, so Michael [Stancel] did a huge chunk of the writing. He really took charge on this record musically — not that we didn’t split it up 50/50, as it’s always been, but I kinda feel like his songs are way stronger than mine this time around. This is his third record with us, I mean the last two have really been on my shoulders, I feel like. So he really held the flag up high; if it sounds a little different, it’s Michael’s influence shining through a little bit more.
Is the album’s name a description of its sound as well as the band’s overall identity at this point? How does it define where you are right now?
It was chosen for that very reason because it really symbolized who we are as people with the new lineup and everything like that, and how our music has progressed. When we started the band, the influences were like Nevermore, Arch Enemy, Behemoth, and my own influences were of course thrash and prog rock. Then when Ryan [Glisan] quit and we got Mike in, a lot of those influences that Ryan had fell by the wayside; we had to keep some because we wanted some continuity so we don’t take a left turn on the fans, it has to be a slow progression so people stay with us. But yeah, the influences now are a little different — some things have to die as we’re growing.
Diving deeper into the thematic content of the album, I wanted to ask about the topics touched upon within its lyrical and conceptual ideas; are they abstract and philosophical or perhaps more straightforward?
We’re a science-based band, so most of our stuff is about science. My little tribute and nod to Michael was the title of the first track “Parthenogenesis,” which is basically like immaculate conception. So we call him “band-mom” and I’m “band-dad”: I kinda felt like he carried the record, so I wrote this song and it was dedicated to Mike because he really saved everybody’s ass. Of course for “Interphase//Meiosis,” I wrote it as one track so we just chopped it up for the instrumental and the second tune. Riley [McShane] was kinda like, “That’s what you’re calling that track? Alright.” So then he wrote the second song about the biology of reproduction. “Extremophiles (A)” and “(B)” [are] just about organisms that can survive in extreme conditions.
A lot of cellular themes going on here.
Yeah, it’s very cellular.
Does that theme correspond with a more introspective concept? Does it bear any larger metaphors?
I don’t think so. Riley’s the guy to ask about that – this is the first record where I haven’t written one word.
So Riley did 100% of the lyrics for this record?
Yep, 100%. Which is great because I hate writing lyrics. But yeah, the way he explained it to me is that there’s one giant metaphor for the name of the record that is dealing with cells, but there’s also some sociological ideas – “Metaphobia,” “The Secular Age,” and the title track contain some social commentary on “don’t be a shithead,” because there seems to be a trend going on in metal where people don’t care about the people who make it, they’re just really focused on the music. It bothers us a little bit, once again it’s subjective, people are gonna do what they do, but I don’t know how you can support a shithead, I just don’t understand. Tim Lambesis, you know, and stuff like that.
Throughout its eleven tracks, Apoptosis maneuvers through tightly wound corridors of dexterous riffs, licks, and solos with aesthetics and pacing that are largely new to the group’s material. The album’s title befits its role within Allegaeon’s catalog immaculately: despite the concrescence of progressive and technical layers now thoroughly saturating their material, their sound is still rooted in the neoclassical performance style of mid-1990s Swedish melodic death metal that they established on Fragments of Form and Function nearly ten years ago. Though it is composed of almost entirely different cells, the organism that is Allegaeon has retained the same essential core of being throughout its existence. Much of the stark contrast between this record and Allegaeon’s previous material can therefore be attributed to the increased level of input from both Stancel and McShane, with Burgess taking a comparative step back from the songwriting process.
When combined with the album’s unrelenting speed and technical intricacy, this collaborative approach to songwriting results in a flurry of various ideas that are not perfectly soluble, but rather form an emulsion with different tracks highlighting different textures. “Tsunami and Submergence” is the most directly progressive of the album, with the track bearing a distinctly stoic sense of mournful grandeur and closing with one of Apoptosis’s most gorgeous and utterly cosmic solos. “Metaphobia” and “The Secular Age,” with their themes of societal angst and disillusionment, are some of the record’s most fast-paced, technical, and pissed off compositions, while both movements of “Extremophiles” display more straightforward melodic death metal stylings typical of Allegaeon’s earlier work.
Some of the record’s most integral assets are presented thematically within its first track “Parthenogenesis.” This intrepid, spiraling introduction launches Apoptosis into motion at a brisk pace; though it only serves as a two-minute lead-in to the album’s larger ideas and concepts, it immediately reveals many of the undercurrents that define the work as a whole. The first recurring theme hidden within “Parthenogenesis” is divulged in the form of the song’s final passage, a classical Spanish guitar solo performed by Burgess. This neoclassical influence shines through in much of Apoptosis’s compositional style; its eleven tracks are not merely rote demonstrations of technical ability, but also extremely well-conceived arrangements with movements that crest and develop into new iterations. Motifs are often reprised and recapitulated not only within individual tracks, but across the album. Beyond expressly classically influenced tracks such as “Colors of the Currents” (an acoustic guitar duo featuring classical guitarist Christina Sandsengen), other songs such as “Extremophiles (A)” and “(B)” feature heavily classical chord structures and modalities in their songwriting.
Regarding this shift in stylistic emphasis, I asked Greg to go into detail about how classical music came to inhabit an increased role within Apoptosis.
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Moving from the conceptual side of the album to the musical; Apoptosis features an especially wide-ranging palette of motifs and textures. What do you feel instigated the expansion of Allegaeon’s sound on this new record, and what techniques did you use to weave all these ideas together?
I kinda feel like that’s what we’ve always done, maybe we’re just getting a little better at it as we go on: practice makes perfect. If you boil us down I guess we’re a Gothenburg-type band, melodic death metal, but we’re also guys who really like to play our instruments, so we’re gonna nerd out on that. But we have to balance it out with songwriting; you can’t be crazy all the time because the song has to come first. Vocal hooks are super important, we want it to be super catchy but we also want to pat ourselves on the back and play.
Is there anything in particular you added or experimented with that hasn’t been in your sound before? Anything new that you tried?
Speaking for myself: I’m a classical guitarist, that’s kind of my background, and then I just fell in a band, know what I mean? That’s always what I wanted to do, but my background of study is classical guitar. We hit that a little bit last time with “Grey Matter,” when I really had it be a huge part of a metal song. Usually before it’s been interludes or a solo here and there, but with that one I tried to put it in as a major part, and it hit really well. Just trying to find my way — everyone’s life is a journey, so for me it’s been finding or asking myself “what’s my identity within metal?” Because we’ve been doing this so long, and whereas the band has been getting bigger, it has been a very painful struggle. I guess for me it would help my own personal, uh [laughs], to help define me, to have some sense of self, to tell myself “I want to be a classical guitar player that plays in a metal band,” that was kinda my thing.
So I wrote way more classical guitar for the record, or I did classical arrangements. And I wasn’t that successful: one of my classical guitar solos and the Bach ended up getting cut from the main part of the record. It’s on the vinyl because something with the record wasn’t clicking, and we made some edits and took those two songs out. It worked so much better that that’s what the CD ended up being. But the pressing for vinyl was so far in advance, it had already been pressed.
So the vinyl basically has a bonus track, then.
Two bonus tracks. It’s not that they’re… they were supposed to be on the record, and I’m extremely proud of both of them, but someone (I forget who it was) was like “dude, you’re not Trans-Siberian Orchestra.” So, you know, better luck next time integrating the classical.
Well a sign that you’re not dead creatively is that you tried something, it didn’t quite work, and you wanna get back in there and make it happen. So that classical element might likely be more prevalent next time.
It’s kinda weird because I have another project with Nick and Pete from Havok called the Nuclear Power Trio, and a lot of the classical elements that I wrote for Allegaeon that weren’t quite working worked their way into that project extremely well. So I almost feel I gave up too soon on their use for Allegaeon, I should have just stuck with it. Next time we’ll get it.
About your new bassist Brandon Michael; how did he contribute to the sound of the new album? What did he bring to the compositional process?
Brandon is an amazing musician, all around, he can play more than bass. The skillset that he possesses on his instrument is extraordinary, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bass player quite like him, so he has way more vocabulary on the instrument than Corey [Archuleta] did, or whathaveyou, so his contributions can’t be undersold. He had multiple versions of every song, that he had written, and he just came in with his favorite versions and would ask Dave Otero when he was tracking: “What do you think of this? I also have this thing if you don’t’ like it.” He’s amazing, flat out.
We had been friends for a long time, so he was the first guy I even contemplated when we needed a new bass player. I did some due diligence and tried out some other guys, but when it came to Brandon Michael playing with us I kinda felt like I wasted a lot of people’s time in a way, because it should have been Brandon from the get-go, I should have just pulled the trigger.
Better late than never, though.
Yeah, you try to do things responsibly even though you should just go with your gut. That’s pretty much how it’s worked in Allegaeon, I always should have just hired from my gut and not wasted time, because it’s always worked out that way. I called it the Bostaph: when Paul Bostaph joined Slayer for Divine Intervention in like 1991, they started that record with a drum solo. So I was like, “Hey BooBoo, do you wanna pull a Bostaph?” and he was like, “Bass solo? Bass solo.” So we got an AirBnB in Poland and just wrote the intro to the record. His presence is pretty undeniable when you hear Apoptosis, there’s bass all over it.
Recorded, mixed and mastered by legendary producer Dave Otero at Flatline Audio, the album’s crystal clear production serves to emphasize the unique tones created by each instrument, allowing each member’s performance ample time in the aural spotlight. McShane displays a masterful level of control over his vocal palette, with his rich, beastly death growl coming across just as viscerally as his harrowing screams thanks to their generous audibility in the mix. Several tracks on this album surprisingly incorporate clean vocals that glide melodically over the record’s softer moments, which McShane executes every bit as impeccably as he does his harsher techniques.
As a sort of re-interpretation of the ambient, atmospheric trend in modern prog and tech-death, Apoptosis creates atmosphere and lush textures not by the addition of cloudlike synthesizers and electronic programming but by simply layering complex harmonies of guitar and bass tones and enhancing them with futuristic effects and production techniques. Greg and his revolving cast of bandmates have worked with Otero since their inception, so I asked Greg to describe how the recording process for Apoptosis stacked up against their previous experiences at Flatline Audio.
Also, I wanted to know how Allegaeon’s tour cycle was shaping up. I had seen very little literature on the group’s upcoming plans; thus far, there had been no announcement of a US run in support of the record, despite its imminent release. Fortunately, Greg was able to explain the relative absence of news, and how Allegaeon intended to proceed in the months to come.
So, Dave Otero; this is your fifth time working with him?
How many records have we done? Five plus an EP? We’ve done all of them with him, all but one. Formshifter was the only one we did elsewhere.
So at this point you’ve established a really solid working relationship.
He’s basically a member of the band.
Other than having Brandon on the team, were there any major changes in the recording process this time around? Equipment, gear, instrumental setup, etc.?
Both Mike and I changed guitar companies, so I’m with Carillion out of the UK and he’s with Kiesel. There’s a few different things, for the first time I wasn’t in the studio every day for the first time, which was nice. Well I was sick, so it wasn’t that nice. We recorded the whole record with his Kiesel, and then for leads I also used my Carillion. We used a Kemper on Proponent but I know we definitely used the Kemper on the new one. First record we’ve ever done with passive pickups, which sounds really good, and it’s also the first time I’ve ever done a classical duet on a record. That was different for Dave too, two acoustic guitars playing at the same time was an interesting challenge for metal production.
What are your big upcoming plans for 2019, in terms of tours and other live appearances?
Actually, we had a problem with our agent, so we changed that up, we let him go and we got a new agent. But those problems really caused problems for the whole record cycle, you know? We have nothing booked in the US at this point. We’re going to Australia in May, and then we do a couple European festivals in June. Then I think there’s a headlining gig in… Indianapolis, I wanna say? We’re trying to get a few headlining shows booked for a little weekend warrior thing the weekend the record comes out. But we’ll see, it’s super close.
And the record release show would probably be in Denver?
We just played here, so probably not. The day before we left for Europe we played in Denver, and then last Friday we played in Greeley, which was the same night as Cannibal Corpse and Morbid Angel, so…[laughs].
Beyond this tour cycle, what are your schemes and goals looking ahead into the future?
Yeah, we wanna put out an EP next year to wrap up the Disaster Suite, which I’ve been doing since 2008. With every release we’ve ever put out, there’s been one or two songs on every record that have been part of a career-long concept story that people won’t get (they’ve been released out of order) until we play them live with the production. So, you’ll see the story play out on screens.
Kinda like a 2112 kind of thing.
Yeah, it’s a massive undertaking, so I wanna do that next year. And then we just have one more record with Metal Blade, so after that I guess we gotta figure out what we’re gonna do, if we’re still gonna do.
Last thing – anything else you’d like us to know, anything you’d like to mention about the album?
I think there’s gonna be two more songs released before the album actually comes out, and a whole bunch of webisodes so people can get an inside look at what’s going on. See, a reason to push it back so we can film that stuff!
Seems like you guys are really set. Even though you had to push it back, it only made you more prepared. Timing is really important.
And you never think about that: I remember one guy was yelling at us online like “you said it was coming out in October!” Like, wah. We did an interview, me and Riley on Summer Slaughter, where we said it would be in October. But now it’s locked in.
Every moment of Apoptosis is engaging, with a never-ending stream of meticulous solos exploding from dexterous, mathematically executed riffs sewn together seamlessly. Though most of its tracks average around the five-minute mark, their unrelenting pace gives the record an overarching sense of consistent flow throughout its 56 minutes. With their fifth record, Allegaeon have further solidified their reputation as a thoroughly revolutionary death metal band, with a sound that is thoroughly modern yet remarkably different from their contemporaries. And their compositions take their greatest inspiration directly from the bandmembers’ hearts — having persisted for over a decade, they no longer strive toward anything but the perfection and continued expansion of their own idiosyncratic interpretation of death metal.
Potent as ever, Allegaeon continues to carve out their legacy through an unadulterated sense creativity, talent, and commitment. The album’s final moments echo this; as the title track features McShane uttering a chillingly inspirational vocal refrain: “What will we become?”
Apoptosis releases April 19th via Metal Blade Records.
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