Album Debut: Wrought Iron – Rejoice and Transcend
Pittsburgh's Wrought Iron juggle genres like a lot of bands. On Rejoice and Transcend, their newest album out via Grimoire Records on June 24 (preorder), they transition from black metal, to death metal, to grind, to core forays easily and often. Singer Kenny rages with great range, employing a versatile rasp and a death grunt. Guitarist Nick L. strings together all manner of metal riffs from across the map, reproducing whole label catalogs within the span of songs. Bassist Brooks C., also of Circle of Dead Children, multitasks by shading the fringes and strengthening the attack. Drummer Nick T. is the timekeeping thread holding everything together. Again, like a lot of bands, Wrought Iron exhibit a mastery over many trades, perhaps the product of an internet age that has demystified sound by making all sounds instantly available.
Where Wrought Iron are atypical is the delivery. The quartet doesn't fuse styles to demonstrate their cleverness. Rejoice and Transcend isn't calibrated for YouTube clicks, nor is it structured like a guess-the-source quiz. It's a document of the sounds swirling around the players, influenced by the normalization of a shuffled playlist. We've come to accept every band is a hybrid of sorts. The good ones don't draw attention to that fact, working to evoke honest emotions instead of trying to manipulate them through wiz-bang bullshit. Wrought Iron is a good one.
They're a good interview, too. Brooks and Kenny provided the opportunity for me to pick their brains.
Walk us through your rig set-up. How did you achieve such a nasty tone? Is there any studio magic at play or this all straight to tape, no B.S.?
Brooks: Unless Noel did something crazy we're unaware of, but we know he didn't, we recorded just straight to tape, as you put it. Nick (Tupi) uses a pretty radical piccolo snare that cuts through everything, other Nick (Lucci) uses a Peavy VTM 120 as his main amp while recording and for live performances. On this particular recording he also used a modded Marshall JCM 800 for a rhythm guitar track. For the bass, I play an Ibanez ATK through a Boss OD3 Bass Overdrive pedal into an Ampeg SVT-3 amp. Pretty straight forward stuff. No ten foot pedal chains or processors, just tube distortion and growly low end.
Kenny, how long did it take you to develop your approach? Any specific practice rituals you go through? Do you reflect on a particular image when singing to get in the right frame of mind?
Kenny: I've been doing vocals for a little over ten years now and Wrought Iron is the third band I've been with. In that time, a combination of inspiration and practice brought me to where I'm at today. I try to take the best elements from from a wide range of vocal stylings and put them together in my own way. A huge part of developing vocals is physical. There are things that I can do now that I couldn't come close to doing as a teenager. So it's part development and part punishment of my vocal chords.
In terms of rituals, I wish I could say pre-show days start with bathing in goat's blood, burning sage, and prayers to the pagan gods, but it's mainly just taking it easy. I like listening to music, drinking, and just keeping things light. We all don't take ourselves too seriously so pre-show is spent one upping each other with vulgar jokes and wasting time so we are late for load in at the venues we play.
As far as my mindset, the times where I'm performing and I'm really in the zone are when I'm reflecting on the meanings and emotions of the songs. All of the songs that I write are about terrible things that I've experienced and are heavily abstracted. So when I dwell on those things and feel those moments when I perform it brings out the best of me vocally and the worst of me emotionally.
What was the composition process like? How long did it take you to work these songs into shape?
Brooks: We have a pretty democratic writing process and we all bring something to the table. Nick is really good at writing riffs on the spot. He can bang out a song in a night at practice just by chaining together some noodling. I usually bring stuff to practice that I worked on at home. Sometimes each of us has a whole song put together, sometimes just a few riffs, but we're good at piecing them together as a whole band. I'd say we write riffs about 50/50. Tupi will sometimes hum a tune, or come up with a cool drum beat that we'll work from. Kenny has been playing guitar for a while now and he's been contributing some new ideas, too. We all throw in our ideas, though. We keep what we like, we don't force what doesn't work, and we all work pretty well together.
Kenny: I write a majority of the lyrics and Nick writes a few here and there. The songs I write are all based on my life in some form and are typically stories that I reshape and put into a metal context. By that I mean taking an event in my life and exaggerating and manipulating it to an extreme point where the personal nature of the story is almost impossible to recognize. For example, the song "Dawn of the Swamp" was about a time that my friend picked up a baby bird and accidentally dropped it to the ground. It was completely injured from the fall and I squashed it beneath my boot to put it out of its misery. The lyrics to the song are about a soldier stumbling across a baby in the battlefield. Nick's lyrics are less personal and typically based on historical events. I really enjoy what he comes up with and the songs where I'm singing his lyrics are some of my favorites that we perform.
Brooks: It took us about a year to put these songs together. We released our EP at the end of last winter and we started working on songs for this shortly after. We wrote the majority of it before the year's end, but we finished the last one or two songs during the beginning of this year. Sometimes it takes a few weeks to piece together a song, sometimes just a practice or two. We rehearsed a lot for this session with Noel, and we're really psyched with how it turned out and how great its been to work with all those jags at Grimoire.
Grimoire Records are up-and-coming players that have already accumulated a diverse roster of underground gems. In addition to talking with Wrought Iron, I wanted to get to know Noel Mueller, Grimoire's co-operator and producer. We chatted about recording Wrought Iron and his DIY approach to creating and maintaining a label.
Can you take us through recording Wrought Iron?
These guys know what they’re going for and keep it simple, and as a musician myself, I envy that. Their guitar sound could be summed up as low string tension, an active EMG bridge pickup, no effects pedals, into a cranked Peavey VTM 120. That amp is my all time favorite cheap, loud tube amp and was used extensively by Baroness in their heavier days. Mic placement does have an effect on guitar tone, but I would hesitate to attribute Lucci’s tone to studio magic of any kind beyond double tracking, which is practically mandatory in metal.
Speaking of studio magic, I recorded Wrought Iron the same way I approach every heavy band. I try and accentuate the chemistry that they already have in a live situation, and incorporate some standard studio techniques like overdubbing to take it to the next level and make it sound like a record. What that means in practical terms is, I showed up at their practice space in Pittsburgh, set up my array of microphones in as non-invasive a way as possible, and we cranked through their set list with the vocalist sitting out. Once we got a few solid takes of each song, we overdubbed an extra guitar track and moved onto the vocals. We also partied throughout. Wrought Iron are some fun dudes, but I always try to have fun and keep it casual when recording. Aside from some mixing and mastering techniques that I’ll spare you, this record sounds so good because this band knows what they want to sound like.
Where the heck do you find these bands? Do you hunt these bands down or do you have a line forming outside the Blood Basement?
I did hunt down Wrought Iron, but I’m having to do less of that these days. I’ve been in obscure heavy-ish bands in the Baltimore area for the last decade (Isthmus, Questioner), so most of these bands pop up in circles that I’m already part of, or at least plugged into. Usually I’ll discover a new band that I really love and think would be a good fit, and they’re understandably cautious for a few months. . .until they see us record a band aesthetically similar to them. They usually jump on board after that.
How's the label been going so far? When I talk to label heads, they always mention it's a labor of love, first and foremost. So what made you decide on getting a label/studio going?
This is going to sound ridiculous, but the pieces fell into place organically. I’ve been in, and been passionate about weird, heavy, not-financially-viable bands for a long time. I do have a job that pays the bills, so its similar to when I was playing this kind of music and barely breaking even, but having a ton of fun and feeling proud of what I was doing. I definitely do this because its my favorite thing to do.
My dad is a veteran audio engineer, so my recording philosophy was formed by attempts to record my band with him back in the day. I still use some techniques I learned from him, but I’ve changed the process in other ways to fit this kind of music. Despite it being my dad’s career, I never thought I would be recording bands professionally. I wasn’t even interested in the science behind it until I needed to record my own band. In 2011, I had an amazing opportunity to go back to school for audio engineering, and that sealed the deal. Before that, I got my BA in graphic design from UMBC in 2004, so I had been designing album artwork and flyers for bands like this for some time.
By the way, “Blood Basement” is what Dweller in the Valley call their practice space, and we recorded them there. For Wrought Iron, we drove up to Pittsburgh and recorded them in their practice space. The first Grimoire band, Cavern, was recorded in their garage in western MD. A huge part of my recording philosophy comes from watching bands crank out AMAZING performances in the comfort of their practice space, but fall apart when you move them to the studio. So, I always prefer to record bands in their natural habitat, and my rig is geared for portability. It also allows me to not charge exorbitant recording fees, because I don’t have a studio to pay rent on. You can’t expect bands like these to afford a $2,000 studio session, so a lot of this comes from necessity. Setting up and breaking down an entire studio’s worth of gear every time I record a band is the real labor of love.
After recording Cavern in February of 2013, this evolved into a record label pretty quickly. After mixing and mastering the album, they asked me to also design their CD artwork, and help with getting CDs made. I did all that and realized I had a finished product in my hands, barcode and all. So, I called up my fellow metal head Phil, and had ‘the conversation.’ Phil had always wanted to start a label himself, but didn’t have much of a reason to go through with it. He had the name in mind for a while (Grimoire), a passion for this kind of music, and the drive to make it work. I got bit by the recording bug, and was really excited to start a unique kind of record label. . .one that actually records bands, and only releases that material. We decided to split the cost of Cavern’s pressing, and the label was effectively in operation. A year and 16 bands later, he handles a lot of the business side of the label, funds CD and cassette releases, as well as fulfilling orders and going to WAY more shows than I do these days.
What are your plans for the future?
Recording more bands. I’m totally addicted to recording these diamonds in the rough and putting them on a level playing field with major acts. It's such a rush every time we produce a world-class sounding record in a band’s practice space. I feel like I’m sticking it to the man and really shaking things up.
This fall we’ll be working with some amazing regional black metal bands, namely Dendritic Arbor from Pittsburgh and Thrain from DC. New recordings from Myopic and Torrid Husk are already in the works, and they continue to blow my socks off.