The Horrendous Future Of Death Metal Has Arrived
The restless spirit of Chuck Schuldiner resides in Horrendous. The pioneering guitarist helped invent modern death metal that influenced the band’s 2012 debut The Chills, but the attraction of being the heaviest band in the room gave way to being the headiest. The same impulses that led Death to create progressive death metal on The Sound of Perseverance is what drove Horrendous on Anareta.
The album was hailed as one of the best metal releases of 2015 -- Decibel Magazine tagged it as the #1 record of the year and it wasn’t just civic pride for the Philly group that propelled the praise. It was technical but not tech death; it was melodic but not melodeath; despite all of this it still proffered more than enough headbanging heft.
The acclaim has brought about a lot of change in the Horrendous camp. Season of Mist Records won a small bidding war and signed them away from Dark Descent. And this Friday the band released Idol which sees the band merging searing virtuosity with subversive melodies seamlessly.
Alex Kulick joined the band as their first “real” bass player and his input is all over the disc from the first moments of “...Prescience,” essentially a moody bass solo that kicks off the album. Damian Herring and Matt Knox both trade off eclectic, electric leads – the best on a Horrendous album to date – while Jamie Knox adds jazzy flourishes to punishing time changes. Chuck would have been proud.
The entire band – literally all four of them – jumped on a conference call to discuss how they came up with one of the best death metal albums of the year. Again.
2015’s Anareta really put Horrendous on the map. When you were getting the album together did you have any inking that it would be such a success?
Matt: I'd say no, not at all, because I feel like any time we're making a new record, we know that we're typically taking a step outside of where we were before. I think Anareta was the same in that sense -- it was a fairly step in my opinion. I don't think we ever really have any expectations, [it’s] more like -- this what we want to do in the moment and hopefully people like it, we'll see.
In the case of Anareta, there was a really wild response! I don't think any of us really expected that. So I think we're always proud of what we've done at the end of the day and we think it's amazing. But we know that people aren't always going to make the same way we do.
Was there any kind of an epiphany during the cycle of that record where you guys looked at each other and realized that something special was happening?
Jamie: It's hard to remember specifics. When we got the Decibel Album of the Year that was the moment. Even if we saw a bunch of positive feedback before that, that's when we're like, oh wow, this is more than just a couple of blogs that like our album. This might be a bigger deal!
Then we were starting to get tour offers and things like that that we did not have before.
Matt: You never really expect anything to blow up, but I would say that after each album, we've all been really proud of what we achieved and we felt like we have something that was really cool. But yeah, I would agree with Jamie that the turning point for Anareta was probably Album of the Year from Decibel.
Did you think you made the album of the year?
Matt: I don't know if I would ever think that of something we made. I think it's hard to distance yourself from what you've done and in comparing yourself to [other bands] is always a strange thing. Like Carcass for example, they’re this this amazing, huge band. They’re legends. I think measuring yourself when for a long time you're just playing in basements and making music together with friends. I think it’s hard to bridge the gap of those two worlds and that kind of prevents us from thinking in those terms. But I don't know, maybe one day we'll have the audacity to think that! But I think we’re just really happy with what he's done.
I remember this one moment after everything was done for the record we were sitting in Damian’s basement. We had just finished all the mixing and we just listened through the album and we're kind of just looking at each other like, this is something really great. We were laughing about it, like I can't believe he did it so that.
The success caused you to get the attention of bigger labels. You were happy on Dark Descent and also had other labels other than Season of Mist come courting.
Damian: Like you said, we were never unhappy with Dark Descent. He [Matt Calvert] has been a huge supporter of ours honestly since the demo days. Since the beginning we've always been a little bit leery of bigger labels. You know, everybody hears the horror stories about how you end up owing them like thousands of dollars after the record is out.
I think it was after The Chills came out, we actually got contacted by Century Media. They gave us an offer and we talked with them -- I guess you could call it a negotiation, but not really because we were sort of dubious at the whole thing. There were ongoing discussions about whether we were going to do a record with them or sign a deal with them, but ultimately we decided it just wasn't worth it and we wanted to stick it out with Dark Descent.
Matt: For the Century [Media] thing, from what I recall, there was like a seven-album option deal or something.
Damian: It wasn’t a great deal.
Matt: We would have doing records for them for like no more money. I think the highest it went up to was like fourteen grand or something after seven records. So we were like, that doesn’t sound great.
What changed after Anareta?
Jamie: The deals were actually reasonable at that point, that was part of it. We also know a lot of people [who] work at Season [of Mist] so we have a bit of a connection to them.
Matt: A big part of Season is the fact that they're mainly based in Europe. We wanted a lot more European exposure, just because we hadn’t really done it before. We haven't been there and that was the goal on the horizon. In addition to that, they have an office in Philadelphia. I think the fear of being on bigger labels was kind of assuaged by the fact that we can show up at their door if some crazy thing went down. Not that I think it ever would, but it is nice having that safety net. We can roll up to the door and be like, ‘yo, this shit's fucked up. What are you doing?’
And we know people [who] work for them. I think that made everything feel more comfortable because we know we have someone we trust on the inside, so to speak. It just was a no-brainer in my mind.
Damian: All that said, it was still probably at least a year that we were talking with them before we actually decided to do it.
When you were starting to get the album together did you feel any pressure for a follow-up?
Matt: I don't think we necessarily felt that. I think the pressure comes more from wanting to do something new, it’s more of an internalized pressure. We don't want to retread the same ground; we want to do something that surprises us. But at the same time I think there was at least a presence in our mind this this time around because Anareta was a big deal and got us more exposure than ever before. That became a slight element, in my mind anyway, approaching this album just in the sense of having the spotlight on us a bit more. But at the end of the day I still felt that it was more of a challenge for [me] and for us as what can we do to make our sound better? What can we do to make it more interesting? How can we challenge what we’ve done?
You say that you want to keep doing things differently. How did that manifest itself in creating this album? Was the process any different?
Alex: The recording of Anareta and Idol was a little bit different. Matt was essentially living with Damian for a long period of time while recording Anareta, maybe about a month. It was a consistent time where they were locked up together and they ate, slept and did everything else with Anareta.
Idol was stretched out over a longer period of time. I was also new to the band so we had to figure out the dynamics there. It's like this ongoing thing where people are bringing different ideas to the table and everything is a constant evolutionary thing. I'm sure all of the records were like that, but I think maybe it was heightened a little bit with Idol.
Four people intent on doing things differently can pull in different directions. Are there ever any conflicts and if so how do they get resolved?
Matt: think there's always a certain degree of conflict in terms of what we're doing. But somehow I think we kind of always end up still making it uniquely Horrendous. I think when we’re on the cutting board with all the songs, sometimes things initially might seem out of place, but by the time it's through the entire conveyor belt with everyone's putting some ideas on there -- different sounds, different aspects of the song -- it always seemingly ends up coming out exactly as it was intended. We can’t really escape the personality and the touches that we have on our songs. I'm consistently surprised by how seemingly wildly different ideas come together and it somehow still sounds like the natural progression of what we’ve been doing.
Damian: I don't know if we necessarily agree, but I would say that we don't have a uniform idea of where the band is headed. It’s more sort of like a gradual evolutionary process. Everybody’s listening to different things. They're bringing different inspirations for the table, and we're just collaborating and combining ideas whether we're writing or even during the recording stage – as we're adding leads off the cuff or experimenting with different vocal patterns for even different vocal types. I'd say from that standpoint there’s not conflict because we don't really have a vision of what it's going to be in the end.
Matt: I don’t even think it's that we don’t have a vision; it’s that the vision is so open-ended. One thing that I do think really separates us from a lot of people our age [who] are making music is that there isn't an end goal that is necessarily in our minds. Like, we don’t want to sound like Autopsy meets Death or something. I feel like a lot of people approach music that way, where they want to get these sounds and to build an idea or mythology from these sounds. Whereas us… We’re chasing something. The doing is what creates the vision whereas with other people it’s the other way around. Our very philosophy is exploring until we find the thing we’ve been looking for.
Death metal is often such a limiting genre. Horrendous is experimental but remains unambiguously death metal which isn’t easy.
Jamie: That’s what we want!
Alex: You should be able to exist in a familiar land and be able to explore possibilities infinitely. There shouldn't be an end of the road. I think that doors are always opening. I think that regardless of what comes out, whatever it is, it is marked by that impulse, marked by the belief that the scope doesn't have to be narrow. It’s marked by an agreement that death metal doesn't mean a single thing. I think that’s present in the music through and through.
Damian: I completely agree with what Alex just said. Metal is such a strange genre because so many people are looking to the past for what they're doing now. Because it is an institution, it has its own life and it has its own mythology and legend. People go back and pick those things out and want to replicate them. Whereas I think if you actually asked the bands we admire like Death or Atheist or Cynic, if you interviewed them back in the day, they're not saying we’re trying to sound like Death.’
That doesn't mean anything to them. There is no concept of what that is. They were just exploring and I think that's the grand scheme of the band for us is, this desire to explore and this desire to come to the end point and find out what it was we were working towards this full time.
There seem to be a lot of clean instrumental intros and passages. The album kicks off with “...Prescience” which is a minute-long bass solo, essentially. Were these interludes planned?
Matt: I don't think [they] were necessarily planned in advance – these things rarely are. But in my mind I had the idea and I think we all kind of did that since this was the first album that actually had a bass player on it, I thought it'd be interesting to open with bass. That’s us metaphorically ushering in the idea of Horrendous as a band with a bass player in it.
Other than that, the other instrumental track on the album just comes from a tradition in the band of doing instrumentals. It's not the idea of being clean necessarily or having an acoustic section; it’s just that we've always done instrumentals. We’ve always chosen a unique avenue for doing that. On the last album we had “Siderea,” this really melodic sprawling instrumental track. The album before, Ecdysis, had that eighties metal song on it [“When the Walls Fell”]. I think we just like experimenting with things like that and breaking up the action.
One thing I think the band really nailed on Idol is the balance between melody and heaviness. I feel that those two components have always been a part of what Horrendous does but this time out the ratio seems perfect.
Matt: We all are pretty big fans of melodeath in general. Damian is a huge fan of melodeath -- he can answer the most obscure questions about melodeath! There's always been this desire to have a large melodic presence that wasn't done and in a cheesy or forced way. What I like about melodeath is that it has gives extended potential for a larger emotional net and a larger emotional impact. One of the things I do love about our band is that we don't shy away from tapping into that kind of emotion. Most death metal is only the raw and the vicious and the dark and I like how we found a way to get other types of feeling into the music without it feeling completely cheeseball. And that is very intentional. Our use of melody is very intentional and very measured in that sense.
Alex: There was a good indicator of that. When we were first getting scratch tracks together and we first started listening to everything, we were all worried that there wasn’t enough melody in the record. I think Idol is a little bit more aggressive than Anareta is. But as the album came together, we were like holy shit, there's more melody on this record than we can even handle! It's all over the place. Even some of the riffs have melodious aspects to them. That balance is definitely on everyone's mind.
Matt: It’s funny, so much of that happened in the studio. Suddenly we were like, oh shit; this is somehow perhaps more melodic than our last album. It’s funny because the skeletons of the songs, the basic riff structures of each song are not all that melodic but that’s just how things worked out. Things built up and things transformed and evolved and that's just what it turned into. It’s kind of amazing that it does both so well. I think it's much more of an oppressive album than the last one but amidst all that there’s still so much melody laced through.
What are your goals for Idol? What do you hope to achieve with this record?
Jamie: For me, I think my highest goal was a European tour in summer. Getting to that experience is the highest thing for me aside from just putting out the best possible album we could. But I think we did that already. So for me it's just hoping for a European tour.
Alex: I definitely have a different feeling. I think I have a unique perspective. I grew up listening to heavy music. I did not move to Philadelphia chasing after heavy music and I didn't play heavy music for my first couple of years here. It came back to haunt me in a way that I am very, very excited and grateful for. You mentioned the possibilities of different genres. A big goal, a hopeful goal which you maybe can't even really be measured for me, is that this record is the kind of music that pulls people in and makes them think about the boundaries of a genre of music and also what it looks like to tear those boundaries apart or bend them in one way or another.
Can you see Horrendous reaching a point where it’s not death metal anymore? Where people say things like, “I liked them when they were a death metal band,” like what happened with Cynic and Atheist?
Damien: I don't feel we’ll ever move completely away from it. I think everything that we do always goes through a death filter, I guess you could say. Like Matt mentioned, we have that instrumental that's pretty much just straight-up eighties cock rock riffs, but it still has a death metal production and it still fits within the context of that album.
Matt: I think this speaks to what Alex was saying a few moments ago. Will it always be death metal? I guess that depends on how willing people are to be more porous with their boundary definitions. It's always going to be heavy. We're always going to be screaming. There are going to be moments of aggression and speed and riffs, but what does that mean per se?
The hope is that we can arrive at some future destination where those are the building blocks. But I have a desire to carve out something that is completely unique and different than something that, as Alex said, does play with what that word even being anymore. The coolest thing in my mind that could ever happen is that you could become a small element at least in redefining what that means.
What does that word mean? I guess that's my final thought and I will say that there are already people that barely fairly sanctuary death metal band.
Besides, there are already people who barely think we’re a death metal band. We’ve already got that. Life goes on.
Horrendous will be on tour in November. Dates below (all dates with Tomb Mold and Daeva):
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