By Nicki Escudero
By Amy Silverman
By Brian Palmer
By Chris Parker
By Troy Farah
By Lauren Wise
By Lauren Wise
Ruts are normal. Nowhere is this truer than in art, where it's easier to be a follower than a leader. So it is that metal and hardcore, which broke out of the morass of their longtime heavily scripted, regimented styles by cross-pollinating, have slid back into predictability after a brief burst of creativity. Fortunately there are acts willing to go beyond the cliché of the soaring choruses and blistering breakdowns to push the boundaries of this newly evolved style. Underoath, and Between the Buried and Me came to their respective sounds from different directions and aren't necessarily similar, but both are doing their parts to redefine the genre.
BTBAM is definitely the more idiosyncratic of the two acts. Inspired by acts like Dream Theatre and Pain of Salvation, the North Carolina quintet brings together a whiplash-inducing blend of styles. Typical songs — if they have such a thing — range through growling death metal, art rock embellishment, bruising hardcore, jazzy explorations, and dreamy atmospheric pop in the course of one (often long) composition.
"We just have all these influences. It's like painting a picture and we have a lot of colors. We're just kind of a dab of this and a dab of that," explains guitarist Paul Waggoner. "We were taking influence from all kinds of music and just wanted to sort of combine that. It was like, 'God, we love Cannibal Corpse, but we also love the Allman Brothers.' We didn't want to draw a line like we can't do a certain style."
The band formed a decade ago from the ashes of Waggoner and vocalist Tommy Rogers' old outfit, Prayer for Cleansing. Their talent was apparent from their eponymous 2002 debut. But it wasn't until their 2007 fourth album, Colors, that they really learned to tame their disparate influences into something at once coherent, beautiful, and shocking.
"It was a challenge in the early days, but now it seems almost normal to us. We can write a totally bizarre, quirky part in 5/4 and then almost at the drop of a hat go into a traditional rock chord progression with a melody," he says.
Underoath took longer to find their direction — which is to be expected, given that they first started almost 13 years ago while the members were still in high school. Indeed, with drummer/vocalist Aaron Gillespie's April departure, there's no one left from that first incarnation. There's been plenty of turnover, but the departure of founding lead vocalist Dallas Taylor, prior to their 2004 album, They're Only Chasing Safety, set them on their current path.
"We realized, after it was mixed, how polished it really was, and that wasn't what we were really going for," says keyboardist Chris Dudley of the gold-selling album. The label tried to encourage them to reprise the album, but they were ready to move on. "We were like, 'Yeah, we probably could sell a lot of records if we kept doing what we're doing, but we're not happy doing what were doing, so we're going to do what we want to do."
Though replacement vocalist Spencer Chamberlain went along with the pop-inflected metalcore sound of Safety, he helped push in a more supple, atmospheric direction for 2006's Define the Great Line. While still delivering thundering intensity (particularly during their fiery live shows), Underoath has introduced more subtlety, dynamics, and finesse. Since the departure of Gillespie — whose pop sensibilities had forced the other five members to compromise their vision — the band's just finished an even more experimental follow-up to 2008's Lost in the Sound of Separation.
"Aaron leaving was a breath of fresh air. Like being able to really step back and look at our situation and be, 'Wow, we can literally do whatever we want,'" says Dudley. Another impetus for change is their recent discovery of Chamberlain's vocal versatility. "The impact that he had on our music going from They're Only Chasing Safety to Define the Great Line is equal to what it is from the last record to this record . . . We knew he could sing, but at no point had we given him a whole record."
Thankfully, it's in the nature of creative types to go against the grain as styles stultify.
"Many people are just writing and recording records that are going to be good in the moment. It's the hot thing, and 13-year-old girls are going to buy it and bands are going to get rich — kind of the opposite spot to where we're at," says Dudley.
"It's cool that people are trying to push the envelope. It's necessary to keep heavy music from becoming stagnant and getting boring. Who likes hearing the same bands being manufactured over and over?" asks Waggoner.