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The Story of Exhausted Prayer

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I was first exposed to Los Angeles’ Exhausted Prayer in the spring of 2015, when I saw them support Cormorant at the Blacklight District bar in Long Beach CA. I’ve been impressed and surprised by plenty of sets in my time as a music fan; it’s far more rare to stand slack-jawed for 30 minutes, awestruck at a band’s sheer virtuosity and the mind-boggling depth and complexity of their songs. Exhausted Prayer brought together Gregorian chants, char-grilled hellstorm riffs, growls of all pitches and even …And Justice for All-style thrashing in a way that not only made sense, but compelled me to perform a spastic and embarrassing combination of headbanging, air-drumming and air-guitaring. Worth it.

The biggest surprise came when I got home and hopped online however; this band had been around for nearly 20 years and their members have served time in Dreaming Dead, Murder Construct and Terrorizer, bands that I’d already long admired. How had I lived in Los Angeles for four years without hearing a peep about Exhausted Prayer?

It seems obvious in retrospect. The band remains minimally documented; press and interviews are nearly impossible to find. Exhausted Prayer’s sound — a technical, world/jazz-influenced and downright blistering take on blackened death metal — had little competition in Southern California in their early days. This was a band that was ahead of their time, played in a scene that was still in its infancy and they remained mostly independent as a result. It’s a setup that can sentence a band to obscurity, especially in a time before heavy metal webzines and blogs became such a ubiquitous part of metal culture.

“I feel like we never really big scene dudes,” drummer Mike Caffell says. “We’d like to play shows and play with other bands, but we were always concerned about making our own music rather than being part of a scene. It’s become different over the years, going to local shows, seeing local bands and even bigger shows are a part of my life now. But back in the day, we weren’t big into the scene. We were almost outsiders in a way, you know?”

Exhausted Prayer in 1998: (L-R) Mike Caffell, BJ Russum, Swansong, Heist
Exhausted Prayer in 1998: (L-R) Mike Caffell, BJ Russum, Swansong, Heist

The odd kids out at an all-male Jesuit high school, Caffell, guitarist Swansong and former bassist BJ Russum were outsiders even before playing music together. It’s a feeling that’s stuck with Exhausted Prayer since 1996, when the band formed in a high school English class. “When we all first met, we all knew we weren’t followers of Christ. We didn’t like going to church, we didn’t like the pop punk and ska that was popular at the time. We kind of knew that we were the outcast kids in the school, so may as well hang out,” Swansong says.

Whether it was due to the anti-religious sentiment that Swansong, Russum and Caffell took with them or a natural inclination toward extreme metal, the band became one of America’s earliest acts to demonstrate an influence from European black metal. Where their contemporaries Weakling and Demoncy utilized the sound to render hellish soundscapes, Exhausted Prayer tried another tack; they incorporated black metal’s sheer relentlessness into short tracks laden with buzzed tremolo riffing, shrieked vocals from Swansong and second guitarist Heist and Caffell’s guttural grizzly roars. Their unique sound—a blackened, jazz-laden, death metal gumbo—made for a band nearly without peer. Absu from Texas had taken a similar approach but their over-the-top attack—both lyrically and musically speaking—stood in stark contrast against Exhausted Prayer’s more urban, everyday aesthetic.

“Noctuary were the closest thing to peers that we had,” Swansong notes. “Another band [was] Ludicra. Early on, we were blown away to hear another band going in the same direction that we were: atmospheric, extreme, technical at times but still having this late ‘90s, almost grunge aspect.” The two made for opposite sides of a California black metal coin in the early 2000s; where Ludicra went for a rawer, punk-influenced attack, Exhausted Prayer delved into more progressive and technical territory. If the two were sister bands, Exhausted Prayer was the sibling who went to college, majored in astrophysics and blasted Once Upon the Cross in her dorm room. “Our first ever LA show was with Exhausted Prayer,” former Ludicra vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman remembers. “There was an instant camaraderie and connection with them. Seeing them when they tour, so many years later, it’s still a genuine connection, friendship and respect. Love them, and their resilience and talent is rare these days where most of the truly good bands end prematurely.”

Their debut Involutional Melancholia—recorded the summer after the members graduated high school—is an abrasive, bonesaw-deadly expression of Exhausted Prayer’s youthful fury, an album that offers few breaks from Euro-death riffs and Caffell’s hyperspeed skank beats. The follow-up releases, the EP What Completely is Not and the full-length Looks Down in the Gathering Shadow were quantum leaps forward. The latter record in particular displayed the band’s expanded musical palette. It’s an album stuffed with treasures. A cocky jazz intro opens “Now Grief” before Caffell’s snare denotes the blast-off. Swansong douses the bridge in “Logic of Death” with sitar while the rest of the band builds a mountainous groove behind him; he and Heist rain torrents of lightning riffs intertwined with weaving arpeggios all throughout Looks Down in the Gathering Shadow.

“I wasn’t a great drummer. I had a lot of energy and my timing was okay,” Caffell says of his frantic early work. “But I look back to Looks Down in the Gathering Shadow and especially What Completely Is Not and that shit is blazing dude.” Swansong adds, “By the time Looks Down in the Gathering Shadow came around, [Caffell] had perfected his blasts and had better stamina. He’s a guitarist originally, so when we would write the songs—he wrote several of the songs on that album—he already had in mind what the drum parts would be and how they would accentuate mood and the phrasing of the guitars. I think that’s a big part of our sound too, that our drummer is also a guitarist and writes music. He doesn’t just add on another layer, but intertwines the rhythm and the melody on the drums.”

The engineering, artwork and promotion of their records were consistently taken care of in-house. “It wasn’t like we were turning down a record deal to be DIY, if someone offered a deal we would have been like, ‘Hell yeah,’” Caffell explains. “We never really catered to trends, and it shows in our music. That being the most important thing, we were willing to foot the bill and keep it DIY. It was always kind of fun too. It’s like when we were kids getting started, I’d go to Kinko’s and get copies made for the cover of a tape I made, make inverted crosses in Microsoft Paint, making tapes to pass out to people in high school, drawing band logos… It’s a continuation of that aspect that we like, being in control of everything.”

Exhausted Prayer’s independence continued through the release of The Worst of All Possible Worlds, which was painstakingly recorded, mixed and mastered by Swansong over three years. The album marked the debut of current bassist Richard Vulich and was yet another giant step for the band.

Formal education helped the band gain a firmer grasp on jazz, and allowed them to more accurately incorporate those influences into their tunes. “Mike went to LA Music Academy for drums and Heist went to Musicians’ Institute for guitar. When they started going to school, they had to transcribe a lot of older jazz standards and they got exposed to that stuff,” Swansong explains. “We were able to relate to the more subtle colors and textures of jazz composition and incorporate that into our songwriting. We already had that feel, but we didn’t know how to put our finger on it.” He adds, “Mike was kind of falling into more of a style where he’d make things more solid and approachable and make the message of the song stand out, whereas me and Heist just wanted to be extreme. That took some time to resolve and even now, we’re just starting to see eye-to-eye on that sort of thing.”

That tension in the band was a large part of what made The Worst of All Possible Worlds such a wild and colorful record. The four personalities in Exhausted Prayer are forever locked in battle: Swansong’s penchant for sweeping, atmospheric arrangements fights against Caffell and Vulich’s riff-oriented approaches, while Heist continually grounds the band with his blast-first, noodle-later deathgrind instincts.

The combustion from that chemistry was never more apparent than on this record: Heist and Swansong’s dueling guitar solos lead “Silenced” to its end, while the mach-ten thrasher “Can I Ask a Question” zips and whips by in the blink of an eye. “I Long for the Peace of a Cemetery” is an aural maze; it’s easy to get taken aback when its soaring intro is thrown out the door for a bug-eyed Phrygian assault. The new direction pushed their next release and most recent full-length Ruined into more streamlined and compact territory. The vast expanse of The Worst of All Possible Worlds was traded for a dry and desolate setting, where Afro-Cuban beats and stop/start rhythms give the title track and “Not Competent” an ever-tighter pulse.

On January 13th, Exhausted Prayer will release a split LP with Portland, OR’s Burials. The material is both a logical progression from Ruined and reminiscent of their early work. With one track written by each member of the band, the split is a handy representation of the many facets of Exhausted Prayer’s sound. The music is more condensed than ever before, but the four tracks are among their fastest and most aggressive. “We wrote these songs and recorded them in record time for Exhausted Prayer,” Caffell elaborates. “Basically, we recorded these songs nine months after Ruined came out. The guys from Burials wanted this theme of landscapes. Swansong’s landscape for “Infinite Shadow” is like a moonscape, Richard’s is a sewer—that was kind of a joke that we consider it a landscape—Heist is a forest or a garden and mine is like a field, returning home to find fallow fields.”

You can stream “A Grim Homecoming or Mocked by Fallow Fields” below. One-two stabs punctuate the song, where Heist and Swansong’s shrieks tag-team against Caffell’s throaty grunts as Exhausted Prayer storms through the spunkiest track of their career. Every listen conjures images of the band decimating a stage: Swansong’s eyes glazed over as he bellows his chants, Richard Vulich endlessly stomping his left foot, Heist’s long dreads flying about and Mike Caffell’s machine-gun hand firing rounds at his poor snare drum. “A Grim Homecoming or Mocked by Fallow Fields” is the latest realization of the sound that Exhausted Prayer claimed 20 years ago.

Under most circumstances, Exhausted Prayer wouldn’t exist today. Why would anyone’s very first rock band make it past their parents’ garage after all? “I guess we just liked getting to play together, we knew that we were playing music that most people hadn’t heard, and we knew that there was something special there,” Swansong answers. “We always had the hope that we’d get on a label, but we just kept powering through. We’d get good feedback from people, things like ‘Wow, I hear stuff in your music that I don’t hear in other bands, there’s this deeper layer of emotion, it takes you on a journey’—all these kinds of things—so we knew it was worth playing. People were genuinely touched, and that motivated us since there was absolutely no money to speak of at shows.”

The metal world is finally starting to catch up to Exhausted Prayer. When touring bands of any sound roll through Southern California, they always make for an easy, crowd-pleasing addition to the bill. Heist and Swansong now lend their talents to Dreaming Dead and Cetacean respectively, while Caffell has performed in front of thousands as the drummer for LA’s incarnation of Terrorizer. Exhausted Prayer are no longer the outcasts of their world, but veterans with an intimidating legacy of brain-melting tunes and sense-shredding sets. “I think the outsider thing wasn’t going to last, we’ve been at it for so long and have played with so many people and so many bands over the years that we became insiders,” Caffell jokes. “Even though we were active and writing music and playing shows, it took us a little while to find people that we wanted to enjoy the experience with for the rest of our lives. It took us a minute, but now we’re there.”

Exhausted Prayer in 2016: (L-R) Swansong, Mike Caffell, Richard Vulich, Heist
Exhausted Prayer in 2016: (L-R) Swansong, Mike Caffell, Richard Vulich, Heist

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