2020, The Year that Wasn’t – or – Rock and Roll in the Days of the Plague

Clearly, this has been a fucked up year. Going into 2020, I was looking forward to a European Tour with Gruesome in the spring, followed by a trip to Japan and Australia with Exhumed in May, and then in June, Exhumed and Gruesome had scheduled a three-and-a-half week US tour together. After that madness, Exhumed was supposed to be headed to Europe for festivals and gigs with Necrot in August. I spent weeks planning with our agents, merchandisers, designers, and of course the good folks at Relapse. Spreadsheets were built (and rebuilt, and re-rebuilt), T-shirt artwork was commissioned, travel insurance was purchased, visas were applied for. Of course, all of those plans have since been canceled because – well, you know why. As they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

I’m not here to bemoan the situation – there are many others who are in far tighter spots than I and my extended family of relations and band-mates. I’m healthy and so are my family and friends. I’m certainly not looking for sympathy nor will I ask you for money (although I’m happy to sell you stuff). My takeaway from the pandemic is that we all exist at the whim of forces far beyond our control – earthquakes, hurricanes, and uh, global pandemics. Watching the work I had put in to planning this year blow away like a fart in the wind was demoralizing, sure – but it was a good reminder that we can’t control or plan for everything, even though it usually pays to live pretending that we can.

2019 was the year that we finally planned and executed an Exhumed release / touring cycle correctly, and it paid off. We completed a grueling but awesome six-week tour with Gatecreeper, Necrot and Judiciary and managed to come out of it in the best financial shape the band has ever been in. 2020 was looking to build on that and get even more ambitious. We’ve put a pin in those plans, obviously. The good news is that most things fell through far enough in advance that the initial financial fallout was relatively muted – except for the Gruesome European tour with Krisiun, where we already had plane tickets booked and merch printed. We’ve been handling that the best we can by selling “Fragments of Psyche” cassettes, tour merch and we also have “Dimensions of Horror” poster flags in the works.

Despite everything going on, I must be a glutton for punishment because I’m somehow still optimistic about the future – I’m very excited about the upcoming Exhumed / Gruesome split 10” and CD that’s coming out June 5th. It was originally scheduled to coincide with the dead-in-the-water summer tour I mentioned above, but with everything going on, we figured we shouldn’t sit on it. In times like these, new music is a source of enjoyment when things might seem a bit shit otherwise. (That said, I totally respect bands’ decisions to delay their records and if I had a two-year tour cycle hinging on the timing of this release, I probably would shelve it.) This is a special one-off slab of festering Death Metal that deserves to be heard, just like our fans deserve to hear new shit from the bands they dig in these trying times.

Hopefully we’ll emerge from this mandatory hiatus with a scene that’s something like the one we remember – but the unpleasant truth is that inevitably, some venues will close, some promoters will throw in the towel, and underground touring acts will be faced with lower offers and an even-more-crowded playing field as dozens of rescheduled tours coincide. Not only will the avalanche of rescheduled gigs be a total clusterfuck, they’ll be competing for ticket sales among a cash-strapped audience, many of whom haven’t had regular work for months. That’s not pessimism, that’s just realism.

The flip-side of all that is that hopefully we’ll all appreciate the scene that we’re a part of and realize how much it means to us. It goes way beyond just music – underground metal forms a unique community that binds us together just as much as our shared love for sick riffs does. Rest assured, as soon as it’s safe and sane to get back into the van and make some noise, we will be back in your town stinking the place up.

One last tangential thought – When I think about the downtime many of us have suddenly found ourselves with, I can’t help but think about the world we live in and the kinds of lives we’re leading. Lucky for me, I never get bored. I’ve been writing music, reading, getting back into running, working on a novella for Grindhouse Publishing, and I even found time to update this blog. However, I know many are going stir-crazy. When I look for an example of an enjoyable life stuck at home, I think about my Grandparents. They led quiet, but rich lives. My Grandmother Laura was an excellent pianist, an avid reader and so-so Italian cook. Her husband Ken, my Grandfather, constantly had multiple DIY projects going, was an excellent marksman and hunter, as well as a very mediocre oil-painter. Their home was their world, and they took pride in it – everything was well-maintained and if it broke, they probably fixed it themselves. Their lives would make a pretty dull book, but they were full and admirable lives nonetheless.

It’s harder to live like that today – so many of the devices that fill our homes are so specialized it’s easier to replace than repair. It’s hard to concentrate on reading a book or playing an instrument with thousands of movies on Netflix to choose from or your phone constantly vibrating with alerts from myriad apps. Of course, the real kicker is that so many of us exist in more financially precarious circumstances than my grandparents did, which is a very real source of stress and distraction. We live in a world rich with selection, but with little real choice, where getting what you want is easy, but getting what you need isn’t. In the pre-internet age so many of us felt starved for media, but now that it’s all literally at our fingertips, we see both sides of that double-edged sword: with so much signal comes nearly infinite noise. Despite all of this, I hope this forced deceleration of our lives’ paces provides an opportunity to reconnect with truly personal things that make us truly fulfilled. If we use this time to tune out some of the noise, our own voices can grow louder and clearer. And hopefully we keep raising them and listening to them when the noise inevitably returns.

See you on the other side,

Matt

May 8th, 2020

Compartmentally Murdered

OR: Everything I ever needed to know I learned from reading comics

In Season 2 of Broadchurch, Jocelyn Knight (wonderfully portrayed by Charlotte Rampling) says something to the effect of “Compartments. It’s how we survive in this world.” I’ll spare you any analysis of the character or the series, but if you’re into tightly-plotted, well acted British crime dramas, I highly recommend Broadchurch.

One thing I talk about often during interviews is the process of writing for several different bands and projects and if the the process is different for each. And I could basically quote Solicitor Knight verbatim – it is all about compartmentalization. As far as arranging the riffs and ideas, the process is very similar for all my stuff. If you read my earlier blogs about song-construction analysis / technique (which I’m far more qualified to gas on about than British crime TV), I truly believe that a good song is a good song, regardless of genre. If I’m writing an Exhumed song, I’m looking for a good hook, and a solid verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge concept. Same for Pounder, and Gruesome is only slightly different. But in terms of the riffs and ideas themselves… There is little to no overlap between any of the projects, especially as Gruesome moves forward in our homage in the Death catalog into the Human era and beyond for our next records. I can usually tell immediately where something my hands pry out of the fretboard is headed.

As being in multiple active bands is somewhat of an anomaly and being the primary songwriter in multiple active bands across multiple sub-genres is even more of an anomaly, I’m often asked where my ability to create this kind of mental “sorting system” came from, and like so much of the framework of my thinking, it was formed in my childhood as a result of my obsession with superhero comics. Don’t worry, I’m not setting you up for a 5,000 word essay about the Scarlet Witch’s love-life or which incarnation of the Justice League is my personal favorite. There is a point here. As a kid I loved Marvel comics like the Avengers, Alpha Flight, and of course, the X-Men and Spider-Man, as well as DC books like the Marv Wolfman / George Perez era of the New Teen Titans and the Paul Levitz / Keith Giffen era of the Legion of Super-Heroes. When John Byrne, my favorite Marvel artist at age 10, moved to DC to revamp Superman, my allowance money followed, just as it did when Frank Miller left Marvel’s Daredevil to work on The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One for DC. Despite having sincere fandom for properties developed by the House of Ideas (Stan Lee’s ever-so-modest name for the Marvel bullpen of the 1960s) and their Distinguished Competition (Stan’s name for DC – get it?) I was acutely aware from a very early age that the characters existed in distinct, separate universes. The only time those universes collided were when I got my Secret Wars and Super Powers action figures out to engage in a battle royale – then all bets were off and I got to explore the burning questions of the 1980s elementary school set, like which Dinobots could beat Wolverine and if Superman could defeat Skeletor. But I digress. The point is, I learned – directly from being a comic book fan – at a very early age to take the ideas that populated my imagination and sort them into different, discreet internal worlds, and to sort my comic collection by publisher, the physical manifestation of that mental sorting process. Now that geek culture (or as I call it “nerd shit”) has taken over mainstream pop-culture, I can FINALLY use these terms to explain myself to people and have many of them actually know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Comics back issues
Places like this were where I spent my time and allowance as a kid. So yeah, chicks dug me.

I imagine each band as existing within its own distinct universe, possessing specific immutable laws and boundaries which define the work I do in creating material for them. As I’ve always stated, I prefer to create within some kind of boundaries, as it gives structure to the project. Without any boundaries or rules, music can come out sounding really unfocused and arbitrary, which I find annoying to listen to (Mr. Bungle drives me up the fucking wall). I love R&B, Powerviolence, Synthwave, 1960s James Bond soundtrack, Delta Blues, AOR and Crust Punk, but mixing them together in one project would be a stylistic clusterfuck of epic proportions. Here’s a quick outline of how I sort things out (compart)mentally for my bands. (See what I did there?)

Exhumed tunes to B and our lyrics have remained stubbornly fixated on the same gory, morbid imagery and aesthetic since the beginning of the band. The defining sonic element of Exhumed is that it’s primarily kinetic. There aren’t many down-tempo, introspective moments in our discography (though Death Revenge inserted some) because the attack is the core element of the sound. Even mid-paced tunes like “The Shape of Deaths to Come” or “Night Work” stay away from dragging the beat or being “doomy.” Tonally, we focus on diminished intervals, chromatic, descending riffs, and what I call “The Death Metal notes” B, C, D and E flat (or, on the 6th string, open-string, first-fret, third-fret, fourth-fret – the Scream Bloody Gore opening riff note combo). We also use a fair amount of traditional metal melodies for the solos, to provide a bit of contrast (although not-so-much on the new record).

Dekapitator shared much of that kinetic energy, but we tuned to E, my vocal technique was totally different, and we focused on recreating the thrash template that was woefully uncool when we started the band in earnest in ’97. There’s the tried and true E, G, A, B flat combo (“the Metallica riff”) and lots of more chromatic stuff in the early Kreator vein, with pull-offs and “wheedlies” a la Exodus and Destruction. On the second album, we also included little moments that directly referenced bands like Slayer and Rigor Mortis and the leads got a little more aggressive, as more melody crept into the riffing.

Pounder uses mostly melodic riff ideas rooted in traditional minor scales, and additionally uses some pentatonic, blues based progressions so that whatever we’re doing still feels rooted in “rock” rather than “power metal,” which sometimes gets so melodic that it feels sugary to my ears. Plus my admittedly-limited vocal skills are more suited to gritty hard rock than to soaring melodies, so it makes sense to retain that feel as much as possible. There are ocasionally Phrygian and Harmonic Minor patterns in there for contrast as well, but those darker-sounding palettes aren’t the main focus. We also use more ascending riffs and progressions, as the music is more upbeat than my other bands. The “Stagefright” chord progression of ascending up the minor scale to build tension is one of my favorites to employ here. We tune to D, which helps me hit some of the pitches in the vocal melodies with less strain, although I have a bad habit of simply writing higher-pitched melodies that are still at the upper limits of my range, which is something I’m really trying to work on going forward.

Gruesome of course, emulates Chuck’s riffing sensibilities to the best of my abilities. We tune to D, and try to capture similar sonic approaches with each record to various Death albums. Chuck added new elements to his arsenal each record, with Scream… being firmly rooted in Phrygian progressions, as well as pioneering the aforementioned “Death Metal notes,” and many variations of the “Halloween riff” (Tonic, Fifth and Minor Sixth). There were some primitive stabs at traditional minor licks and riffs in the intro for Denial of Life and the verse of Evil Dead, but they were fairly unsophisticated. Leprosy didn’t bring a ton of tonal changes, but it did see a lot of modulation (playing the same riff or progression in different keys) and began a long tradition of Chuck arpeggiating power chords and creating riffs out of tapping sequences. Of course, the execution and production were leaps and bounds ahead of Scream… as well. By Spiritual Healing we can hear some traditionally melodic stuff infiltrating the formula as well as an affinity for shamelessly flashy sections peppered throughout the more traditional Death Metal stuff. Chuck also incorporated more tri-tones on this record, which would become even more prominent on Human. There was also a noticeable reduction in tempos on Spiritual…, and a real focus on articulating the 16th note tremelo picking integral to Chuck’s (and Death Metal’s) style. It should go without saying that the addition of James Murphy elevated the musicality of the solos immensely and set the standard for Death Metal lead guitar at the time. Human brought the same level of ambition to the rhythm section, with Sean Reinert’s drumming in particular being a paradigm-shatterer. Chuck’s riffing continued to evolve with the inclusion of “add9” chords and expanded use of tri-tones, as well as some non-traditional time signatures, but Human is truly where he fully grew into his riffing style. The next two albums continue in a similar vein, with Individual Thought Patterns focusing more on riffs played in a higher register and utilizing rhythm hooks, and Symbolic simplified a lot of the riffs and incorporated more traditional metal melodies and hooks, giving it a more confident and streamlined feel. I don’t really count Sound of Perserverance as a Death record, as it was written as a Control Denied album, so I’m not going to mention it here.

The point of all this is to expand on the concept of compartmentalizing the writing process by creating and following a loose set of guidelines for each project to ensure that I’m not just making Exhumed records under multiple monikers. My goal has always been to justify each project’s existence as it’s own independent thing. I’m not hoping that Exhumed fans buy Pounder records just because I’m in the band if they’re not into traditional metal (although that’s flattering and nice if they do). I want Pounder to exist as a completely independent entity and the last thing I want anyone thinking when they put on Uncivilized is “that really sounds like the guy from Exhumed.”

As far as my ambition to create multiple standalone projects with “lives” of their own, of course part of it is ego-driven. I hear something and think “Fuck, I can do better than that” and I’m willing to at least try and put myself out there and see what happens. The bigger part of it however, comes from sheer love for music in general, and metal in particular.

Relating things back to comics, my personal hero is Jack Kirby. I could burn through 10,000 words about why I admire him, but I’ll summarize his greatest hits here for you. Kirby is best known for co-creating of pretty much every classic Marvel character of the 1960s that’s not Spider-Man or Doctor Strange. If you’ve seen Thor: Ragnarok you know what a Jack Kirby Marvel comic looks like. He also pioneered romance comics in the 50s, did monster books in the late 50s and early 60s, co-created Captain America in the 40s, and did war and western comics in the 40s and 50s. In the 70s he expanded the DC universe and gave it its most compelling villain, Darkseid (Thanos was Marvel’s Darkseid knockoff), all while trying new “magazine-size” formats of comics about gangs of the 20s and supernatural phenomena, while incorporating photo collages into his work. He also worked in animation, defining much of the visual look of Thundarr the Barbarian (the most metal Saturday morning cartoon ever) and created tons of lesser-known properties for comics and animation, including an incredibly bizarre comics adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Thundarr
Thundarr takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where sorcery and the remains of 20th century technology are both tools in the battle between good and evil.

My point is, the guy was prolific as fuck and he did good work across multiple genres that has stood the test of time. I think to myself: if Kirby can do romance books and create the Eternals, I can play grinding Death Metal in Exhumed and power ballads in Pounder. I’ll never measure up to his accomplishments, but I can try my best to embrace the spirit of his work and his work ethic. Even as an industry veteran in his fifties, Kirby continued to push himself and the comic book medium to do more, explore more and be better. I try to emulate that drive in my own work, and I guess I’m an “underground metal veteran” at this point. I’m trying my best to be like Jack – indefatigable, fearless, generous, and always exploring. It’s great to look back on my previous accomplishments, but new vistas ahead are far more interesting.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some riffs to write.

But what about the riffs?

On March 18 (fully 18 days behind schedule) we entered our newly christened Darker Corners studio here in beatiful San Luis Obispo, California to finally begin working on the 7th Exhumed full-length. I haven’t been able to update this site because things have been too hectic. I’m just now beginning to be able to gather my thoughts, if I’m honest.

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Mike, myself and Sebastian enjoying a fine pilsner beer and the fruits of our labor.

By now, a band building their own recording studio is far from novel. It’s an idea that had been floated in various iterations in the Exhumed camp a few times over the last few years. I’ve always been resistant to the idea. It’s expensive, it’s labor-intensive, a recording studio can quickly turn into a money pit, and I never really wanted to be an audio engineer. I figure, I’m the main songwriter, lead vocalist, and one of two lead(ish) guitarists. I’m also the point of contact for our label and agents, and I manage a decent amount of our online presence as well as the day-to-day tasks such as advancing shows, fulfilling mailorder and other miscellaneous shit. And I have a full-time day job, at least 2 other bands, and avwife and a dog. I’m not really looking for another hat to wear. (I also never wanted to fulfill our own merchandising site, so as you can see, I don’t get my way too often) Ultimately we were more-or-less pushed into this course of action (as I discussed in my previous blog posts), but thankfully, our long time Front-of-House soundguy / guitar-tech / fifth Beatle Alejandro Corredor relocated to the Central Coast, so we had an audio engineer (he also plays bass for Pounder and engineered and mixed Uncivilized).  And with Mike’s extensive construction background, we had someone who could plan and execute the building side of things professionally and affordably. If we were gonna do this, the timing wasn’t gonna get much better. But I still had misgivings.

My mindset was “never make a record where you live.” If you make a record where you live, things will invariably come up that distract you from the process – your job, your relationship, your friends, other life-events, etc. etc. Those are all important things that rightfully demand your attention, but when I’m making a record, I cherish the two weeks when I get to pretend that the recording process is the most important thing in the world and nothing else gets any serious attention. When we were working on Death Revenge for 10-12 hours a day in Orlando Florida at New Constellation RMP with the incredibly-skilled Jarrett Pritchard, the only non-album things there were time for were eating, shitting, sleeping and washing down the session with a few beers wile nodding off in front of the TV for the night (I  think I started Rogue One four or five times, great movie to fall asleep to) .

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What, me worry? (yes, our “couch” is a van bench and that’s a seat-belt buckle)

Though my worries proved sane and prescient their fruition was nowhere near as dire as I feared. We continued to work efficiently, even in the midst of full-time employment, life-changing personal events and all of the day-to-day demands of family, job, pets, etc. I’ve found the life / recording balance difficult to maintain, but as we limp towards the finish line of the process, the excellent results are proving difficult to argue with. T-minus one day before I board a plane bound for Mexico and our ensuing Latin American tour with Beyond Creation, just about everything is recorded. Once we’re gone, our engineer / co-producer Alejandro will turn everything over to Joel Grind (of Toxic Holocaust fame) to mix and master and we should be able to approve the mixes from the road and keep things on schedule. So despite delays caused by everything from shipping mix-ups, rain, the existential morass that is Home Depot, and a bunch of other stuff I am too brain-fried to remember right now, things seem to have pulled together. Of course, the proof will be in the pudding when the album comes out and people love / loathe / ignore it, but as of now, at the 11th hour, I’m feeling pretty okay about everything. Of course, writing something like this is exactly how you jinx things, right? So, fingers crossed.

{Here’s an aside I think is relevant – I’ve been occasionally asked why we’re on such a tight schedule and we need to be done recording by the time we leave for tour April 2nd. “Surely,” their reasoning goes “now that you have your own studio, you can call our own shots and take as long as you want to make records, right?” Well, technically we do – and I can see why people would think that, but… let me tell you a little something’ about the good ol’ “Music Biz.” While streaming, online downloading and YouTube make music accessible instantly, in underground metal, physical media is still a very important aspect of an album release. In light of that, the renewed interest in vinyl over the last decade+ have caused manufacturing lead times to steadily increase. Most record pressing-plants shut down in the 90s, and the few remaining wax-merchants have struggled to keep up with demand now that Major Labels are getting American Apparel shoppers to drop $35 on 180-gram Rumours re-presses. Also because of the internet, releases have to be more precisely coordinated than ever. In the 80s, when Pac-Men roamed the earth and Rappin’ Rodney was high art, album release dates would often be staggered in different markets with no impact on sales. In the internet era, once one person has a record, everyone can potentially get it overnight. So things need to be more controlled than ever as far as timing the release across multiple digital platforms, mail-order, and yes, brick-and-mortar record stores (the higher profile the release, the more crucial this is). All of that means that once every element of an album is approved (mix, mastering, sequencing, song spacing, artwork, layout, etc) it takes about 5 months before the label can to take it to market (assuming their release schedule can accommodate it).

So – do the math – if we left the record partially finished, did our Latin American tour and returned to polish it off throughout May, it would likely be approved for manufacture sometime in June. That means we’d be looking – best-case-scenario – at a November release date. Any delay (and with Necrocracy we experienced 5 months worth of them, so they are very, very real possibilities) and we’d be looking at 2020, since very few albums are released in December. Everyone is too busy buying Xmas shit then, and between inclement weather and the Yuletide shop-a-ganza, December is an impossible time to tour. Since touring is our primary source of band income (you’ve read about this phenomenon elsewhere by now, right?) we plan to be out on the road in the states immediately upon the album’s release and then head to Europe quickly after. That’s about two months of touring, which means that we need the record to drop in October, so that we can be home before Xmas season really kicks into high gear (about December 10). Besides, I’m looking forward to yet another Thanksgiving dinner at Cracker Barrel (that was sarcasm). So, realistically if we don’t have the record signed off on by April 15th, our prospects for of anything financially-sustaining for the rest of 2019 begin to rapidly dim.}

Meanwhile, back at the main subject of this blog post…

As far as the studio itself, we opted for an older ProTools HD rig, simply because it was much more affordable than even the stripped down current version. We set up 16 channels of pre-amps, and ran a snake from the live-room to the control room by rigging the wiring up in a manner not wholly unlike the electrical wiring in the rebel base on Hoth (sorry for all the Star Wars references).

Rebel Base
Or something like that…

We already had a some drum mics, but we picked up a couple more, as well as lots and lots of miscellaneous clamps, cables, and things of that nature. We found some really cheap office furniture on Craigslist and got a bit more from Mike’s move, snagged a free office chair from Facebook marketplace, slapped a couple posters on the wall, and lo and behold, it was starting to look like someplace you could make a record at.

As our April 1st deadline began closing in on us at a rate that I would describe as “ever-increasingly alarming,” and I felt a bit like Luke, Han, Chewie and Leia in the Death-Star trash compactor (okay, last one, I promise), we turned to Alejandro to assemble the technical stuff in the studio, so he did the vast majority of wiring things up and such. I acted as the mediator between our shopping list and our budget, trying to find places where we could get things cheaper and determining what was really necessary (we began tracking with a mouse that only worked when we used a paper towel as a mouse-pad, and even I had to admit that we needed to “splurge” on a $30 track-ball mouse).  We would have been able to begin earlier, but we had an order for a pre-amp that was not fulfilled, and then an Amazon Prime delivery that stretched into a 4-day debacle, so by the time I was sitting in the control room listening to Mike’s first drum take, I felt like we had already ran a marathon. Fortunately (mild spoilers to follow) this new record doesn’t have the expansive scope of Death Revenge, which had film-score elements, tons of guitar layering, and complicated vocal arrangements, lyrics and sequencing to put together. I think on top of building and assembling the studio, tackling a project that complex would have been an act of hubristic self-sabotage, like when Luke abandoned his training on Dagobah to take on Vader at the end of Empire. (fuck, where do these keep coming from?!?)

The good news is that we’ve all made a bunch of records at this point and once we finally arrived at the point where we just needed to execute the songs, it was so much easier than worrying about how much drywall we could fit in the van and when the hell our TRS snake was getting delivered. Sitting down to record the songs themselves really turned out to be a relief and a massive release of the tension that had built up over the course of the building phase of things. The only things I particularly like about being in a band are the things that directly involve the music itself, and I can honestly say that I’ve never felt like there were so many obstacles between the songs and the (nearly) finished product as there have been for this record.

Looking back on the process, I’m now at a point where I can feel good about the material and about the recording as it stands so far. The myriad of hassles we’ve all endured to pull this thing together have been worth it. Of course, come October, when the record should be released, this could all blow up in my face and the album could be universally panned, but until then, I’m gonna enjoy feeling pretty good about what we’ve accomplished. I’m just gonna relish finally being able to get a good night’s sleep now that the most difficult stages of the construction and installation are in the rear-view. Fingers crossed that the force is with us.

 

Is it really a construction project if you’re not late, over-budget or both?

Day 4,234 – The war drags ever on. Okay, that was an exaggeration. But it’s now March 3rd and we’ve been building a recording studio (for a full recap, refer to my previous blog post) in beautiful San Luis Obispo all 63 days of 2019 so far. Of course, we’ve juggled construction with our day-jobs and “normal” lives, which has proven to be at least as challenging as anticipated, although our significant others have been real troopers throughout the process (my dog has been less understanding, but I’ve bribed her with lots and lots of bones and squeaky toys).

At the time of this writing, the live room is finally finished and is sufficiently acoustically “dead” to record in, and soundproofed thoroughly enough to satisfy the most finicky of neighbors (like ours). I can’t tell you what a relief it was when the decibel reader confirmed that the room was more than quiet enough for us to rehearse / record at all hours (including 9-5, M-F) in the industrial area of San Luis Obispo where our studio is nestled. Even though our first run-through of songs we’ve been playing forever would be generously decribed as “rusty as all hell,” I couldn’t help grinning like an idiot just be jamming and cranked up again.

I’d like to take a moment to rockognize the herculean efforts of our drummer and all-around workhorse, Mike Hamilton for doing the lion’s share of the construction work involved, and more often than not, with a smile on his face.

For those of you who are curious or are thinking about building something similar (take my advice: don’t!) here’s a brief outline of what we did. (Keep in mind, “we” means mostly Mike, but Dylan, Alejandro and I helped a bit)

Step 1: We built the frame of the jam room, a box inside our warehouse space, with storage up top and a nifty stairway to get up to the storage area. That was all done last Autumn, while I was on tour with Gruesome.

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Insulating the ceiling was the easy part. Figuring out how to screw in 8′ sheets of drywall up there was when shit got real. 

Step 2: We framed a wall on the right-hand side (the one with the finicky neighbor) with 1 layer of rock wool (insulation), and one layer of drywall.

Step 3: We did a layer of rock wool and two (!) layers of drywall on the ceiling.

Step 4: On the right-hand side wall, we left a 2″ air gap, then framed another wall, with another layer rock wool and three (!!!) layers of drywall.

Step 5: We framed the back and left-hand walls with a layer of rock wool and 2 layers of drywall.

Step 6: We framed the front wall / doorway, then left a 2″ air-gap and framed the inner front wall / doorway, both with a layer of rock wool and with 2 layers of drywall on the inner wall and 1 external layer of drywall on the front wall. We also lined the space between the two doors with foam and hung foam on the inside of the doors themselves.

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So much drywall. At this point, we’re one hanging-light-bulb-on-the-fritz-swinging-back-and-forth away from really capturing that “serial killer’s homemade prison” aesthetic.

Step 7: We carpeted the floor.

Step 8: We covered the right-hand side wall with sound-dampening foam, and then built sound traps – basically wooden rectangles insulated with, you guessed it, rock wool, wrapped in fabric, and hung them around the room to deaden as much sound as we could.

Step 9: We built a 3″ drum riser, insulated the bottom with (wait for it…) rock wool, sealed the bottom. We also lined the bottom with pieces of rubber from a (non steel-belted) tire in 1″ intervals.

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Mike’s insulating the door here, but you can see the sound traps and the half-way finished drum riser. I think this is the point when I started getting really impatient.

Step 10: AKA, the fun part – we moved in the gear.

Jam room
Ready to make some fucken noise! (in a way that’s respectful to our neighbors and is acoustically sound, of course!)

Now – we’ve furnished the control room, received delivery of our (admittedly dated) Pro Tools rig, and have ordered all of the myriad cables, microphones, monitors, mic clamps and accoutrements necessary to actually record the mountain of new material that we’ve accumulated for this next Exhumed record.

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The soon-to-be-operational control room. The view may suck, but we got an entire set of office furniture for $45 – who says Craigslist is just for tweakers and sexual deviants?

Because my philosophy is “if there weren’t deadlines, nothing would ever get done,” we have until April 2nd (when we board our flight for beautiful Monterrey Mexico to begin a 20 day Latin American tour which will be immediately followed by a week-long West Coast tour) to record a new album and EP. So in one sense, a huge amount of work is complete, which allows us to undertake another daunting task – recording the fucking record.

A month sounds like plenty of time right? Except that we haven’t been able to rehearse while the studio has been under construction. So there’s a fairly significant wrinkle in the equation. But fear not, dear readers – that’s never stopped us from undertaking a recording before.

I’ll keep you guys posted next time I come up for a breath.

Excelsior true believers!

Harv and the lads

2019: Construction “Mad Builder” – or -“Eternal Renovation” (“Infernal Overbuild?” I could keep going…)

So… I haven’t done a blog post in a while. I’ve been super busy the past few months, but I’ve toyed with a few different topics to address here. Each idea I had wasn’t feeling quite right for different reasons: Too sappy and over-share-ish (I’m fucking sick of writing songs about people who have recently died because it’s depressing as hell, and I should tell my bandmates and friends how much I love them before somebody else croaks); too repetitive (did you ever hear about the time Exhumed played in [insert city name here] and we partied so hard that we almost [lost our shoes / got arrested / accidentally did PCP]); or too much like an advertisement (GuitarPro is amazing, I use it for EVERYTHING, you should too). So I held off until I had something I thought was worth barfing onto the proverbial page over.

Well here I am barfing so…

To bring in 2019, Exhumed is undertaking something that’s new to all of us and will provide brand new opportunities for us to fall on our collective face. We’re building a recording studio where we’re gonna track a new album by the end of March. That’s the short version. The full, unexpurgated tale as it stands so far is below.

Some background to get you up to speed… When Erik Lindmark (R.I.P.) picked up stakes and relocated Unique Leader Records from beautiful San Luis Obispo, California to the land of Orange Juice and “Florida Man,” he sold his buddy Mike Hamilton (his former bandmate in Deeds of Flesh) the label’s old screen printing press. So, for about the last year and a half, we’ve been printing a lot of our own merch. For a while, we shared a rehearsal room and had the screen printing shop set up in a warehouse space in front of it, but eventually we moved into a different rehearsal spot where we had our own room with space for our ever-expanding piles of gear and ample wall-space for me to decorate like my bedroom circa 1989.  While it was a big improvement having a rehearsal room all to ourselves that had enough space for 3 full-stacks, a beer fridge and my vintage Slayer and Venom posters, it wasn’t the most practical thing paying two separate rents – one for the rehearsal room and one for the screen printing shop, not to mention trucking back and forth between both locations.

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The old jam room. It smelled a bit, but it had character.

Circumstances changed at the screen printing shop, and there would no longer be enough space for us there – which was a problem. Our landlord at the shop however, presented us with a potential solution – a space in an industrial complex was opening up that would be big enough for a jam room, a screen printing shop, and band / personal storage. The whole situation appeared to be extremely serendipitous. I was on tour with Gruesome when this all went down, so I only had second-hand knowledge of what was going to happen, but it seemed great.

If you’re thinking “there’s gotta be a ‘but’ coming up here,” congratulations astute readers, there is. When came to the studio the first time, there was already the shell of a rehearsal room built, with a stairway leading up to a storage loft – so far, so good I thought. I’ve rehearsed in a few different industrial / storage type facilities throughout the years, and the general rule has always been that after a set time (usually between 5 and 6 pm) you can start making noise, but not before. After that time though, you could knock yourself out cranking amps and bashing cymbals to your heart’s content. I glibly assumed that circumstances at our new HQ would be similar. I’ve been wrong lots of times before dear reader, and this was definitely another one of those times. While we were trying to organize the new space / print merch / rehearse for our Fall tour with Revocation, it became clear that our new neighbors liked to work nights and did not like a Death Metal band making a racket in an industrial shop with a high-ceiling and a metal rolling door.

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In October, I thought this was gonna be good enough for a rehearsal room / shop. I was so young and naive then. 

After going back and forth with the other tenants in the building and the landlord, we were put in an unenviable situation. We had moved all of our gear, screen printing equipment and personal storage stuff into a space where rehearsing was going to be impossible. Moving back to our old jam room was not an option. Finding somewhere else to rehearse, and then setting the shop up in yet another different location would be a major hassle and could take months. Soundproofing the jam room would take piles of cash that we simply didn’t have, and we would have been spending all that dough just to make the neighbors happy, which wasn’t my idea of a good use of our money.

The only way forward (or at least the only way that wouldn’t make all the money, work, and energy we’d already expended be a total waste) was to build a soundproof room that we could not only rehearse in, but record in, never mind the fact that nobody in the band is an audio engineer. We were planning on doing a new record within the first quarter of 2019 anyway, so rather than blowing our recording budget to go work with a pro (which has been working out really well for us), we decided to blow our recording budget on building a basic studio ourselves and buying the gear we’d need to make a record in the same building that we rehearse and print merch in (which is virgin territory). What could go wrong?

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The best time to work with insulation? The day before you record Pounder vocals, of course? (Not pictured, me coughing away)

Thankfully, I’ve had pretty positive experiences with largely “homemade” records – Uncivilized by Pounder was recorded almost exclusively in people’s bedrooms, and Savage Land by Gruesome was recorded primarily in Gus’ rehearsal studio in Fort Lauderdale. First off, we talked our long-time Front-of-House Engineer Alejandro Corredor (and Pounder bassist, who also recorded and mixed Uncivilized) into advising us on the studio gear we’d need to create something suitably non-shitty and for some construction advice. Between his input, that of some local friends, and of course, information on the interwebs, we cobbled together a construction plan.

Thankfully, Mike and Dr. Philthy both work in construction when they’re not on tour playing blast beats and splattering people with blood respectively. I’m more of “make a spreadsheet about it” kind of guy, so it’s a damn good thing those two know how to do drywall, build decks and stairs, and all other sorts of extremely practical stuff. After assuaging our hand-wringing neighbors and getting the landlord and the record label to sign off on our dubious scheme, we set things in motion.

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Mike and the Doc finishing off the first of two layers of 5/8″ drywall on the ceiling (after the two layers of insulation)

We’re currently about a week into the work, and despite an experience at Home Depot that could have been Kafka’s inspiration for The Trial, I’m excited about this project. Every band dreams of having all of the means of production under their direct control (that came out a little more Marxist than it sounded in my head), recording, merchandising, artwork, etc. and this is a big step for us to get as close to that goal as currently possible. Also, it’s cool that this record is gonna be a challenge, because I like the tension that comes with the possibility of failure. We’re doing something we’ve never done before and entering entirely new territory without sacrificing the core of what the band is all about – we’re way outside of our comfort zone and that makes the whole experience fresh and invigorating – also potentially nerve-wracking and stressful, but hey, you take the good with the bad. I’m also stoked on a personal level, because I’ve already learned a lot about construction in general (I still suck at it, but at least I have a grasp on what the hell it is we’re doing at this point) and I’m going to be diving head-first into learning about setting up a studio and engineering a record. Of course we’ll have adult supervision from Alejandro as we get tones and track the album, and we’ll then send it off to our buddy Joel Grind for mixing and mastering, so we won’t be letting the lunatics run the asylum just yet. Lastly, I’m very juiced about the new batch of tunes we’ve worked up and excited to get Sebastian involved in the writing and recording process of the album.

A band is like a shark, it’s gotta keep moving or it dies, and this is a new area of things for us to explore and a new challenge for us to come together and meet. One of the reasons that band-mate friendships tend to last forever (or flare out spectacularly with a lot of bitterness) is that in a band, you’re working together to achieve stuff you really care about and you have to overcome obstacles together, and that forms a really deep bond that goes way beyond “Oh hey, that’s Marlene from my fantasy football league.” As construction continues, I’ll try and keep things updated here with our trials and tribulations. So far my sore shoulders and the surprising lack of complaints I got after putting on my Janet Jackson / Jodi Watley / Paula Abdul playlist have been the most noteworthy developments. We have until the end of March to build a studio and rehearse / record a new album, so the gauntlet has been thrown down, so it’s time to put up or shut up. By the length of this missive, it should be abundantly clear that shutting up isn’t in my nature.

On Songwriting III

Putting the puzzle pieces together

Welcome back, those of you with long attention spans. If you’ve been reading through the first two installments (thanks), we’ve established what components make up most “popular” songs – “popular” here including everything that isn’t classical or jazz, so we mean everything from My Bloody Valentine to Terrorizer to Lana Del Rey to Whitney Houston. The most direct way to make general observations on how songs are generally put together is to dissect other people’s song and analyze their structures. Through studying songs, you can find what resonates the most with you as a listener, and then carry that into your songwriting.

The weird thing is that for most musicians, everything I outlined in the previous two installments (what’s a verse / chorus / bridge, music as a form of communication, etc) is stuff you learn right away as an instrumentalist or composer. However, many people playing extreme metal are self-taught, or have focused very narrowly on one aspect of playing – being “brutal,” sweep arpeggios, 240bpm blast-beats, etc. Extreme metal is a genre whose appeal is its apparent lack of any real rules – there can be keyboards, harsh noise, odd time signatures, screaming, singing, sound effects, whatever. That lack of orthodoxy often carries over to much of the songwriting in the genre. There are certainly great albums without a lot of traditional structures (Slowly We Rot and Effigy of the Forgotten come to mind) but even most of the extreme stuff that has become “classic” still has some kind of verse / chorus pattern.

So without further ado (unfortunately for you, dear reader, further ado is kind of my specialty) let’s take a look at the basic construction of some songs – we won’t get into the more specific stuff like mapping the key changes and number of repetitions of parts at this stage, we’re just going to create general outlines.

So Come On, Jump in the Deep End

My philosophy is to learn from those I consider the best, so here’s a breakdown of two of my all-time favorite songs side-by-side, both of which are fairly compositionally complex, especially to a non-musician.

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Both of these songs have a lot of separate parts, but they also both essentially go:

intro / verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / verse / chorus

with some extra bits. The extra bits are part of what gives each song its “personality,” but if you go too far afield of a traditional structure, that personality gets lost because the song becomes difficult for listeners to follow. So you can include fairly elaborate / complex arrangement variations while still retaining a basic sense of form. Slayer does all the extra riffing and “jamming” at the beginning of the song, Metallica does it in the middle. Metallica uses a more traditional pre-chorus, Slayer uses a transition riff as a “post-chorus.” But ultimately, these are both fairly traditionally structured, if elaborate, pop songs.

Anatomy of a Heavy Metal Hit Single

Here’s a side-by-side comparison of metal tunes that are less structurally complicated and have shorter run-times that we all know and have heard a million times:

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Pretty similar, right? All Wasted Years needs is a 3rd verse, and they’d be practically identical, structurally speaking. So, on one hand yes, I’m boiling art down to a formula, but on the other hand, the formula is pretty rad. It’s also the same formula as 99% of pop songs that have been on the radio for the last 40 some-odd years, so like it or loathe it, it works on the level of connecting with listeners.

The hook in Rainbow in the Dark is so infectious, they even thought they could sell beer with it.

Song Structure – Taking it to the EXTREME*

(*Disclaimer: this section is not about the use of Mountain Dew or Monster Energy Drink to improve your compositional skills)

After looking at the previous examples, I hear you saying (from all the way across the internet, I have really good hearing) “these are all dad metal songs – what about more extreme stuff? That stuff breaks all the rules!” So let’s dissect some classic extreme metal staples.

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These examples are a little bit more elaborate or quirky, but still firmly rooted in the verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / verse / chorus template. The Autopsy tune falls into a structure type I’ll get to at the end of this post (cliffhanger!). I’ve chosen older examples because a) I’m old and these are the songs I like, and b) these songs have stood the test of time to be considered classics in the genre (or at least Decibel put them all in their Hall of Fame series).

Ultimately, structural quirks are a matter of personal preference. Some people hate long intros, some people love ’em. Some people don’t like guitar solos, others can’t get enough of ’em (looking at you, Trey Azagthoth). There’s still a lot of room for variation within more straightforward song construction. Ultimately, any song with discernible verses and choruses is a lot closer to being catchy than 90% of the Death / Extreme Metal that’s out there, so just the presence of hooks and choruses will help differentiate an actual song from a “song.”

In the early days of “extreme metal,” the extremity and style of the music was so shocking that having a well-crafted song was less important, simply because of the novelty of the style’s trappings. In 2018, we’re 31 years (!) removed from Scum and have heard thousands and thousands of blast beats in the intervening years, so just being “extreme” isn’t particularly interesting – hence people adding all kinds of different instrumentation or combining seemingly incongruous styles (folk metal, world-music influenced metal, etc). These are gimmick-based ways to stand out – “Sure you’ve heard metal, but have you heard it with a xylophone as a lead instrument?” I’ve never cared for that kind of approach, which again is simply a personal preference. I just want to hear extreme metal with actual songs. Speaking of Scum, even a song flies by in a blur like The Kill by can manage to have coherent structure –

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They packed all that into 19 seconds – now that’s what I call efficiency.

Sometimes the structure is more obtuse, like most pre-Heartwork Carcass songs. Here’s a comparison of Exhume to Consume and Heartwork to give you an idea of how much they streamlined their arrangements.

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So, while Exhume to Consume is pretty zany, it still has verses and choruses (even though each “chorus” has different lyrics, so maybe I’m fudging the rules a little here, or maybe Jeff was). Fast-forward four years to the much more confident, musical iteration of the band that wrote Heartwork – Not only are there fewer individual parts in this song, but the song reuses more of the same parts in novel ways. I personally like Exhume to Consume better as it’s rawer and nastier in disposition, but in terms of quality songwriting, Heartwork is far more direct and effective. Identifying these elements and being able to chart them out will help you wrap your head around how songs work – after you start seeing similarities in these breakdowns, you’ll start immediately hearing them as you listen to music.

The Patterns of a Certain Individual’s Thoughts

As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time studying the Death catalog, Chuck’s sense of song-structure is one of the clear through-lines throughout his stylistically varied career. Death songs consist of multiple verse sections (usually between two and five), often featuring key / tempo / time signature changes and breaks that culminate in a chorus, followed by a bridge with at least one guitar solo section. After the bridge, the multiple verse sections repeat, culminating in a second chorus and the end of the song. Spiritual Healing is a good example of a longer iteration of that formula with more different parts and The Philosopher is an example of the same song form, but more compacted and featuring an outro. This isn’t exactly your standard pop song-structure formula, but it really isn’t all that different either. Chuck also uses highly repetitive lyrics (often only the first or first two verse sections feature differing lyrics) which help to balance the complexity of the music with something that remains catchy and listenable. Here’s a breakdown of three Death tracks from different points in their discography as well as a Gruesome track:

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When I’m writing for Gruesome, it’s a very specific process that reflects my interpretation of the Death catalog, not necessarily what I would do from my own sense of song-writing style. We also tend to have more parts and breaks because we don’t have the novelty of having our own style – we’re assuming that the listener is familiar with the source material that we’re referencing, so we spend less time displaying the individual riffs and throw a bit more stuff at you because you’re already familiar with it. We presume that we’re already on the same page as the folks listening to us – we like Death, you like Death. So we take some liberties in terms of pacing and amount of riffs per song compared to what Chuck and the gang(s) were doing.

Money, meet mouth

In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, here’s a breakdown of songs that I’ve written for four pretty different projects, so you can see how they compare structurally and call me out for any number of musical transgressions:

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They’re certainly not identical, but… they all have 2 or 3 verses and 3 choruses with guitar solos in the middle so they ain’t exactly wildly different either.

Pounder “Web of Fear”

Scarecrow “Scapegoat Parade”

Stairway to… Somewhere Else

Before I wrap this up, I want to discuss one other fairly common song structure type I haven’t gotten into but I alluded to earlier when we looked at Ridden With Disease. I call it the “Stairway to Heaven” structure – a song has a fairly traditional verse / chorus structure but then instead of a traditional bridge, the song goes into a contrast section that develops as much as a separate song normally would and – here’s the important part – never returns to the original verse / chorus section. These songs often retain the feeling of being more “jam” oriented, a vibe that is mostly associated with 60s and 70s stuff. Here’s some examples.

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One important thing about these three examples is that each use different ways to contrast the sections of the song. “Stairway” has a drastic dynamic change between the initial part of the song and the second half, “Mesmerized…” goes from 4/4 timing to 6/8, and “Sanitarium” uses a tempo shift and consistently loud dynamics to contrast the second section of the song from the moody dynamics of the verse / chorus part of the song.

Chartwork (see what I did there?)

To anyone who wants to improve as a songwriter, I’d task them to find 10 songs that they like and break them down similarly. Then, take 10 songs that they don’t care about but are “hits” or “classics” and break those down. If you really decide to attempt this, make sure to include stuff from different genres and different time periods. You may be surprised at how structurally similar many of these songs are.

When I do stuff like this, I usually grab a guitar and try to at least figure out skeletal interpretations of each part, and make notes on chord progressions, how many times each part repeats, the number of beats of any transitions, etc. How deeply you go is up to you, but you should at least be constructing rough outline maps like the ones I’ve included above.

My intent behind this fairly extensive comparison / contrast exercise is to find commonality between different songs and understand their differences in construction. You should be able to make maps of your own songs and unless you already have a record deal and are playing packed shows every night, you should probably work to make them look fairly similar to some of the examples above. As I press onward into this exploration of songwriting, I’m going to get into practical examples of building a song and analyzing different transitions, but I feel like this post is already pretty bloated and unwieldy, so if you’ve made it this far, thanks!

On Songwriting Pt. II

On Songwriting Pt. II

Nuts, bolts, warts and all

My last blog post, for those of you following along, was about the attitude and work ethic that helps me write a lot of songs for different projects in different styles. It’s been fun discussing the aspect of musicianship I’ve chosen to focus on, after I realized that I wasn’t a genius and that being the shreddiest shredder that ever shredded was kind of a hassle: Songwriting (in case you missed the title there). If you missed it, check it out here if you’re so inclined. That said, this isn’t one of those sequels that you won’t understand if you aren’t familiar with the first installment.

A key element of any process is defining your goal and understanding the steps that it takes to get there. So let’s start with something that seems simple – what is a song? It’s a word that’s so ubiquitous and something that seems so obvious that when we try to really put it into words it can be difficult to articulate.

The dictionary defines it as a poem set to music, but that seems too narrow. WIkipedia has a more elaborate entry you can look at as well. I would say that a song for our purposes here is a musical composition, usually featuring a lead vocal, created for popular consumption.

What we’re talking about is not a symphony, not a cantata, not a waltz, but specifically a popular song – popular in that it’s part of pop music (which is the larger umbrella that encompasses rock, which itself is the larger umbrella that includes metal,etc), not classical or jazz. Speaking of symphonies, a helpful aspect of classical music is that it has fairly strict definitions and forms– specific movements that proceed in a certain order for a piece of music to be a symphony or concerto, etc. Once you apply that formal mode of structural thinking to popular music (rock, folk, pop, dance, death metal, etc.) you can start breaking songs down into structural elements and formulating generalizations about how they’re composed.

One realization that took me a long time to come to (which felt like a breakthrough, even though it seems painfully obvious) is that ultimately, a piece of music is designed to be listened to – to create a form of communication between the performer and the listener. There’s supposed to be some mutual understanding achieved. So if you’re writing songs, you’re attempting to communicate. Even if your subject matter is obscure, esoteric, or intensely personal, the only way to effectively convey it is by communicating as clearly as possible.

Song structures help the listener grab onto songs, making communication more effective. If you craft an 11-minute song with 25 different non-repeating parts that are extremely technically difficult to play and then write non-repetitive, non-rhyming lyrics to go with it, you’re going to have a hard time communicating your ideas effectively to most listeners. That’s not saying that it can’t be done, but you’re really stacking the odds against yourself. Song structures that are familiar to the ear allow the listener to grasp a song immediately and resonate with it – the composer and audience are basically speaking the same language.

Think about why a section appears in the song. Is its sole purpose to show off what a good instrumentalist you are? If so, don’t make it the focus of the entire song. Use it as a contrast section, or else what was a mutual experience between the listener and the musician becomes a monologue of “look how great I am.” There’s a reason why singers are typically the most famous band members – they’re the ones literally speaking the same language as non-musician listeners – words.
Here’s what happens when you just write music to show how good you are at playing:

And here’s a great, catchy song with an excellent instrumental contrast section that also highlights outrageous virtuosity:

If you want someone to listen to your song, think about what you like as a listener. How do songs that have special meaning for you make you feel? I’m not saying write a song solely for in the hope that it’ll become a hit single – you have to be expressing yourself honestly to make something compelling and your material has to be novel in order to catch an audience’s ear. But think about how you’re conveying your ideas and how to make them clear, interesting and powerful. The place that all of this comes from is still personal / emotional, but use a rational approach to channel that into something listenable.

So now that we’ve defined what a song is and what it’s supposed to do, we can break songs down into component parts and learn about those components and how they combine to create a good song. We know a good song when we hear one, but that’s not enough information to help us write our own songs. So without further ado, let’s cut open a song and poke around in there to see what makes it tick.

Primary components of songs

In broad terms, most (dangerous words there) rock and pop songs follow a fairly similar structure – verse / chorus / verse / chorus / bridge / chorus (often songs will include a 3rd verse after the bridge before the last chorus). This is the structure of most of the music on the radio, be it country, classic rock, pop, R&B, etc. You may be thinking something like, “but extreme metal is all about throwing out the rules and just doing what thou wilt!” That’s fine, but if you come up with a better song than “Wasted Years” or “Master of Puppets,” you just let me know. I’ll be waiting. The reason that this structure is so prevalent is because it is digestible, listenable and familiar. It contains enough elements to be interesting, but still digestible. It’s not so challenging as to drive away an audience. And, just as stories generally consist of a beginning, a middle and an end – the good ol’ 3 Act structure – songs also have 3 primary components. This may seem pedantic, but bear with me as we loosely define these components.

Verse

A verse generally features the same music, but different lyrics each time. Verses generally serve to establish the tone and theme of a song and build up to the chorus. Here’s the verse from “Master of Puppets” for an example:

1st verse: End of passion play, crumbling away… (etc)

2nd verse: Needle work the way, never you betray… (etc)

3rd verse: Hell is worth all that, natural habitat… (etc)

Chorus

A chorus generally features the same music and lyrics each time. Choruses tend to be the most memorable, repetitious parts of a song and often feature the song-title prominently in the lyrics. Musically, choruses are often more open and are designed to feel like a release of tension from the build-up section of the verse. Here’s the chorus for “Aces High” for example:

Run, live to fly, fly to live

Do or die, won’t you

Run, live to to fly, fly to live

Aces High

Bridge

A bridge is what we would consider to be a “contrast” section. Most extended musical themes and guitar solos are featured in the bridge section. The bridge serves as a way to highlight the chorus and verse by being a separate entity. In pop music, songs in major keys often feature bridges in minor keys or vice versa. Verses may or may not feature a vocal section. The bridge of “Master of Puppets” is a great example because it utilizes almost every common element of bridges in one song. The clean guitar section is a dramatic dynamic contrast to the rest of the song, which builds into a brooding melody, and then builds to a vocal section with a completely different cadence and lyrics than the rest of the song, followed by an extended guitar solo and another riffing section that appears nowhere else in the song.

Secondary components of songs

Now that we’ve outlined the basic building blocks of songs, there are some other elements that may be used to add variety.

Pre-chorus

A pre-chorus is an additional section between the verse and the chorus that generally serves to heighten tension before it is released in the chorus. A common way to achieve this is modulation, playing the same musical riff or phrase at a different pitch, often one whole-step higher – as in songs like Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, …And Justice for All, etc. South of Heaven uses a similar technique, using the same key change but with a different riff. There are many other ways to achieve this sense of escalating tension – half-time or double-time feel drumming for example. In Exhumed our “generic song formula” uses a double-time verse (the “Slayer” beat) and a quadruple time pre-chorus (blast beat) before the chorus, which generally returns to a double time feel (see Deep Red, Death Revenge etc). You can achieve the same effect as pre-chorus without actually adding an additional section by altering the last section of a verse – for example: changing the beat the snare drum falls on, adding more elements (backing vocals, changing between a bass-line and a pedal point, etc) or other ways that make sense in whatever particular composition you’re working on.

Intro

This should be fairly self explanatory. The intro can be a separate section that sets the tone of the song and stands alone (Welcome Home [Sanitarium] is a ready example). An intro can be something as simple as a drum fill (Painkiller, or Welcome Home by King Diamond, for examples), a drum beat with a lead-guitar lick (Cockroaches by Voivod) or an extended musical section with multiple parts like Hell Awaits. Extended build-ups (Enter Sandman) or musical themes from the composition played markedly differently (Wherever I May Roam) also fall under this category.

Outro

The standard pop songwriting playbook tells you that if you have a monster hook in the chorus, keep repeating that shit and fade the song down – that’s the surefire way to have the song stuck in the listener’s head (“Living on a Prayer” anyone?). Conventional wisdom would assert that the second “catchiest” way to end a song would be at the end of the final chorus, so as not to dilute the hook – see Pull the Plug. Often that feels too poppy for a metal song, so a separate outro piece can be used to cap off a song, or a part from the intro or bridge will reappear to serve as the outro. Any ending that is not the chorus or verse would qualify. One thing I like about Repulsion is that most of their songs, even while generally clocking in at two minutes or less, still have great structures and usually include a separate outro section.

So Where Are We?

Now that we have defined what a song is, what it’s composed of and and what those components are, we can actually start looking at various songs and seeing how similar they may or may not be. And by dissecting songs from our favorite bands, we can start to find patterns in their work and replicate or ignore those patterns in our own as we see fit. So if you thought the first two installments here were dry  – next time, I’ve got charts. Ah yes, charts the essence of rock and roll.

And as a quick ending note, sorry for the delay in getting this updated – originally I had planned for this entry to be combined with the next one, and due to my poor editing decisions, I got delayed – then Exhumed went to Europe, and life and stuff kept getting in the way of me coming back to this. Hopefully this won’t be a pattern. Anyway, as usual, hope this was informative and not too painful to read.  Cheers, all!

On Songwriting Pt. I

As the promo cycle for the new Gruesome record Twisted Prayers draws near (shamelss plug – click the link to pre-order), a fresh round of interviews are about to ensue, as will further well-deserved opportunities to revisit Chuck Schuldiner’s profound musical legacy. There will also be many questions about the process of putting the record together – bold, incisive questions like “What was it like working with producer Jarrett Pritchard again?” (killer, he did a great job, this is the 4th record I’ve worked with him on in the last few years, so… um… hot take there!) and “What was it like having James Murphy do some solos on the record?” (very cool, 15 year-old Matt would have been blown away, James is a lovely guy who has been very kind about Gruesome from the beginning. – there’s a shocking revelation for you). These interviews rarely get into the meat of the songwriting process, which is disappointing, at least to me. The real work behind the songs is what makes the producing the record a thing that has to be done in the first place, but most interviews stick with surface-level stuff, which is often little more than name-dropping and mutual back-patting.

Tearing Down the Myths

I’ve learned through the years that music journalists prefer musicians to present their creative process something like this:

I went into the (forest / cave / psychedelic trance / ancestral home) where I commune with the (inner demons / childhood traumas / forces of evil / internal neuroses / drug addictions / spirits of pagan ancestors) that comprise the creative energy that flows through the universe, of which I am but a (humble / deranged / drug-addled / sexually desirable) (conduit / servant / messenger). Which makes me a (fascinating / tragic / dangerous / deep / intellectual / controversial / groundbreaking) talent that’s worthy of your attention.

I personally detest that kind of answer and most interviews that proceed in that fashion (and naturally end with the journalist humbled and awed by the opportunity to bask in the presence of such genius) make me physically ill.

As a prolific songwriter (notice I didn’t say “good”) I can’t help but think this kind of journalism is less elucidation and more obfuscation. It’s pretentious and counter-productive to truly understanding how music and art is created. Thinking about things in terms of metaphysical inspiration completely contradicts everything I know about craftsmanship and musicianship. The initial spark for a song or a certain aesthetic may have come from some sort of bohemian experience (may have), but craftsmanship and musicianship are the tools that nurture that spark and help it become a flame – that’s how songs and albums are written. And those things are work. They are the result of endless hours of frustrating practice. They take time, dedication and cooperation. Those basic building blocks of a craft are far less sexy than some sort of exclusive access to a fundamental energy, but the good news is that they’re things that everyone can understand and everyone can do. To chalk the creation of art up to some kind of unknowable talent is to make it exclusive, the province of the “gifted.” To talk about what it actually entails in a forthright, practical manner is to make the process accessible and comprehensible to others – to truly communicate and foster an empowering way of thinking that says “hey, if you like rock and roll and you wanna do it too – Good news – YOU CAN. Here’s how I do it, maybe that would be helpful.” (Yes, I realize the purpose of band interviews is to sell records, not to actually impart, you know… useful information)

To understand something (in this case, the process of songwriting / composition) we must start with an extremely basic premise: That knowledge is knowable. The sort of interview answer I alluded to above premises that the creation of art is animated by some metaphysical force that the “non-artistic” cannot understand. As someone who finds this kind of metaphysical explanation loathsome (whether it be an explanation of the creation of the universe or an album) I call bullshit. I’ve been cautioned that perhaps I’m too honest when I speak to the press, and it’s probably destroyed my ability to cultivate an “image.” I’ve always been tolerated as a “fan” – which of course I am. Why else would you play the style of music I do? In the eyes of many music fans and journalists however, being a “fan” means that you can never truly be an artist. Because the world of publicity is a zero-sum “reality:” You’re either born with an un-quantifiable gift beyond the possession of mere mortals, or you’re just another consumer of art, forever on the outside of the truly sublime, looking in with the hoi polloi and creating inferior, jealously derivative art work for hardcore genre completists or tasteless idiots only – not folks who truly love whatever art form you’re working in (you know, the people that own ten Death Metal records total and then write about the genre as if they love it and are authorities on it). Fans and journalists don’t really want a creator that’s “just” one of them. They want someone to idolize, someone to worship. A fundamental lesson of metal (and punk) is supposed to be that being a worshiper is fucking stupid. The desire to worship is for the weak, feeble-minded conformists of the world. Wasn’t that the point of all the anti-Christian stuff that the aesthetic of the genre was built on? So the idea that a musician should create a persona that people can’t fathom (see pseudonyms like “Lord / Baron / Count blahblahblah” or self-mythologizing interviews where musicians refer to their bandmates, or worse, themselves, by their full names, etc) and can only worship from afar comes across to me as a total crock of shit.

Of course I have musical heroes (not gods), but they’re not infallible, nor do I perceive them to be. More importantly: they all came from somewhere. There is a traceable line of influence and a trail of bread-crumbs throughout any musician’s catalog that you can use to reverse-engineer their work, not to diminish it, but to see it as it truly is: something that comes from somewhere. “Seek and Destroy” is a mashup of Diamond Head‘s “Sucking my Love” and “Princess of the Night” by Saxon. Don’t even get me started on “Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” which is the intro from “Roundabout,” the verses and choruses from “Rainbow Warrior,” and then the outro has one one Metallica riff before it goes into the rhythm hook from “Tom Sawyer.” “Hello From the Gutter” re-purposes the riff from “Don’t Make No Promises” by the Scorpions. Half of World Downfall is just Master riffs. The chorus from “Torn to Pieces” is a slight update on the “Fight ’til Death” verse riff. I could go on and on ad nauseam but you get the idea. To hammer home my point again: Riffs and songs come from someplace. The guys you’re fans of are fans too (or at least they started their career that way), and they aren’t nearly as original as you might think (or as their publicist would like you to believe). Even Maiden got pulled over by the riff-police for “Hallowed be thy Name,” so the idea that my favorite musicians have some kind of special knowledge or “god-given talent” (one of the most odious phrases I can conceive of) is bunkum. Hogwash. Balderdash. Claptrap. Horse-pucky. What they do have is a novel take on their influences and great songs.

So how the hell does one write a bunch of songs then?

One of the nicer things people say to me is that I’m an extremely prolific musician. Compliments make me uncomfortable, but that’s one I’ll accept. I’d like to believe that I’ve managed to maintain a certain level of quality to the material I’m churning out – at least to a point where I can keep convincing record labels to give me studio budgets to record my shit. So I wanted to talk about songwriting and offer some thoughts, experiences, and insight into the process that makes projects go from the “Hey it would be cool to write some songs that sound like Death” to “Gruesome announce the release of their new album Twisted Prayers.” Some of it will be philosophical, some of it will be purely nuts and bolts. How much may be interesting or helpful is subjective, but all of it will be honest.

How does one write three albums in a year when you have a wife, a full-time job, and multiple touring bands? While it’s not uncommon for musicians to play in multiple bands, being the primary songwriter in multiple bands is more unusual. So here’s how I balance my workload.

Compartmentalize

For me, each band scratches a particular itch. Gruesome is obvious – it’s an homage to Death, which really streamlines the writing process. Pounder is my chance to play traditional heavy metal, which I listen to a lot more than Death Metal and Grindcore these days. Exhumed is where I kind of mix everything up a bit – the last album referenced everything from Christopher Young, Daft Punk, Slayer, Terrrorizer, Metallica, P.L.F., Exodus and Harold Faltemeyer – but the music still fits firmly within the Bermuda Triangle of Death Metal, Thrash, and Grindcore. So I keep my ideas about music, as a listener and as a writer, in different sorts of boxes. If I tried to fit all the stuff I write into one project it would be really disjointed and uneven, two things I can’t personally stand (hence the lack of Mr. Bungle albums in my record collection). I learned to compartmentalize my imagination as a young comic book fan in the 80s. I loved Legion of Super-Heroes and I loved the X-Men, but I realized that they inhabited different universes (DC for the Legion of Super-Heroes and Marvel for the X-Men). They don’t cross over- just like I don’t want to hear Napalm Death do an acoustic album, I don’t want to hear Diamond Head use blast beats and Death Metal vocals. To me, things are what they are and are best when they retain a purity of artistic vision. So each band / project is a self-contained universe with its own immutable laws. That gives me a way to categorize my ideas. Now, I hear you saying “why are you putting boxes around your imagination? That sounds like a limitation!” To which I respond, “great question, imaginary person. To me it doesn’t feel limiting, it feels like I have structure, without which I would spin off into a million different ideas without being able to follow through on any of them.” Again, this is just what works for me, which may or may not be helpful to you.

Be a part of a team

When I was younger, my immaturity and insecurity wouldn’t allow anyone in my band to be a better musician than I was. Which on one hand, helped me improve as a musician to compete with the guys around me, but in another, less obvious, way really stunted my musical growth. Once I started playing in Scarecrow, a band built around a musical vision rather than a group of friends (which was what Exhumed was for years), I quickly realized that I was the worst musician in the group. By that time, I was in my early thirties and had the perspective to see the situation for what it was: a tremendous opportunity to learn. If you perceive yourself to be better than everyone around you, you’ll never let yourself learn anything from them, which is a depressing prospect. Try to surround yourself with killer players and listen to them, watch them, observe them, see how they think, how they approach their instrument.

The key to making music, which should be extremely fucking obvious, is listening. Don’t just listen to your own ideas – listen to your band-mates, try to understand their approach to the songs and see what they bring to the table. Put yourself in a situation where you need to up your game or you’ll look like an idiot being carried by those around you. If you actually give a fuck about what you’re doing, you’ll rise to the occasion, or failing that, you’ll learn a lot while you try your best.

Another key dynamic for a primary songwriter is an environment where people can be brutally honest with you about your material. If every time someone doesn’t like your riff, you throw your guitar down, storm out of the room and threaten to fire them, it’s not going to foster honesty and collaboration. The folks in your band want to help you write your best stuff (which is also their best stuff), so don’t make it harder for them. At the same time, you need to have the confidence to believe in your ideas and the knowledge that your band-mates won’t be right all the time, so it’s a bit of a balancing act. How do you balance those two tendencies, you ask?

Be Objective

This is probably my core value as a songwriter and musician – and hopefully as a human being as well. Learn to think of the piece of music you’re working on from the outside. If you heard it and had no idea who wrote it, would you think it was good? Would you really? Think about others’ ideas the same way. Of course, no one can ever be 100% objective. It’s just not possible, but it’s something to strive for. It will hurt your feelings when you work on something for three hours and someone else comes up with a better part in five minutes, but if it’s a better idea, by all means use it. Serve the song – as a player, and as a writer.

Get a bigger measuring-stick

A lot of local musician types love to brag about how they’re the best in their local scene / high school / bar circuit or whatever. Even if it’s true, they’re only really comforting themselves. Echoing the band situation, compare yourself to the best, not to the people around you. Once you’ve stuck with playing for a few years, you’ll probably be pretty decent and can easily find other musicians that make you feel better about yourself. Sure your Death Metal band may be better than the other local Death Metal band, but is your band as good as Morbid Angel or Immolation? Because that’s what you should be shooting for. Being king of the ant-heap is just an ego-boost for you, and has nothing to do with actually doing good work. Hold yourself and your work to higher standards than you hold others to. You’d be surprised what kind of results you can get out of yourself when you don’t settle.

Everything is crucial, everything is trash

You have to treat being in a band and writing a song like it’s the most important thing in the world. Pour all your energy into it. If you’re not tryomg dozens of variations of riffs and arrangements and sit for hours by yourself agonizing over tons of details, you’re not trying. It’s a meticulous process of trial and error that should keep you up at night if you really care about it, but it also doesn’t matter at all. If you dropped dead tomorrow, the world would keep spinning and not even notice you were gone, let alone that your song never got finished. There are so many important things happening every day, life or death shit, that your song doesn’t matter at all. Remember that existential insignificance (hopefully) before you get in a screaming match with your band-mates about a riff. The thing you’re getting upset over, even if you’re a stadium-packing rock god with hordes of fans waiting with baited breath for your next platinum single, isn’t really that important.

Remember that even though you’ve worked really hard on something, it’s completely possible that it’s simply not good. Or not good enough. So you need both complete dedication to, and complete detachment from your work. It’s probably never going to ever be good unless you sweat every detail and put in the work to really craft something, but don’t believe in something just because you’ve put in all that work. Believe in it only because it’s actually good. Again, listen to your song. If someone else wrote it, would you give a shit? If the answer is no, throw it away and start again. Throw it away and never look back, because:

Riffs are a renewable resource

Always use your best stuff. Always. Don’t “save” something (unless you’re already signed, making records and have a tangible schedule with deadlines and release dates, marketing strategies, etc) for something that may or may not happen later. Don’t hold onto it until a better thing comes along (I hear people say things like, I’m saving my songs for the album we’re gonna release ourselves next year, this EP doesn’t matter). Sometimes, nothing better ever comes along and that one EP / Demo / Albanian compilation tape is your band’s entire discography. Conversely, if you think something you’ve written might not be good enough, it probably isn’t. If your band-mates unanimously don’t like something you’ve come up with, scrap it. You’ll come up with something better.

You have to believe that more and better ideas will come, or you’ll become so attached to your work that you’ll lose objectivity about it. That’s a tough pill for younger musicians to swallow, because when you’ve only got five songs that took you a year of hard work to compose, it’s tough to let go of a tune. For me, I’ve got a discography as long as my arm and I think a lot of it isn’t that great anyway, so I’m completely comfortable with the reality that sometimes my ideas suck. That said, I only became comfortable with my rampant suckiness when I became confident that there will always be another idea. That’s a perspective that comes much more easily with age, but it’s a valuable one. If you truly want to be a songwriter, you will continue. One shitty song, one album that doesn’t sell, one demo that gets rejected, one bad review, one show where nobody comes out – none of those things will stop you from writing songs. And the more you write, if you’re applying yourself and learning and listening, the better those songs should get. Of course people may not like these better songs more (“Their demo was way better”), but they will be qualitatively better songs (more on how songs stack up qualitatively to follow).

Define yourself

I started Exhumed when I was fifteen. We signed with Relapse Record when I was twenty-two. That’s some depressing math: I was in the band seven years before we got signed – a loooong time to play basements, shithole bars, and community centers – even for a teenager. And when we finally did ink our deal, I was already older than most of my favorite bands had been when they recorded my favorite albums. I took stock of where I was in my “music career” and the answer was disheartening. I had to accept that I was not a genius, not a visionary, not a genre-defining trailblazer. I made a pact with myself when I turned twenty-one that if the band hadn’t signed with a proper record label by the time I was twenty-five, I was going to quit. Clearly, if I couldn’t secure a record deal, I wasn’t doing good enough work. Luckily (unluckily for my bank account and credit rating) we got signed and went on to do a bunch of shit since.

Since then, I’ve realized that I can’t control what happened before, and I’m not any of my heroes. How old they were when they made their records is their story, not mine. I’ve accepted that my bands aren’t cool enough to win awards or get glitzy photo shoots in magazines, so I don’t gauge my personal concept of success by that kind of stuff – or anything else determined by other people. I had to redefine what my goals were and structure them in a way that a) allowed myself to be happy and not jealous of others or worrying about what others thought of me and b) gave me as much control over my own development as possible.

Even though Exhumed and my other bands will never be arena-slaying rock gods, I’m able to put out records and work with great people in the industry that I’ve met through the years. That’s a HUGE opportunity. To be able to email a record label and have someone write you back – that is a big thing. I’m accustomed to it now and it seems normal, but I try to remember that it really isn’t. It’s the same thing with the group of musician friends that I know and work with. The guy playing guitar in Gruesome plays in Possessed, one of my absolute favorite bands. The guy playing “The Exorcist” onstage with Jeff Beccera is also learning and recording my riffs. That’s crazy. Even crazier is that I’ve actually played with some of my favorite bands. I try to remember that I’m extremely fortunate to be where I am (certainly I’ve worked hard, which is a big factor, but there are other contributing factors that aren’t directly attributable to just me) and I should be capitalizing on the opportunities that I have right this fucking instant to write, record and perform as much music as possible. Beyond the idea of appreciating what I have, it’s also an incontrovertible truth that none of this goes on forever. There are untimely deaths, debilitating conditions, market upheavals and all sorts of things that can take all of this away at any given moment – to say nothing of the fact that I’m not getting any younger. I try to remember that life is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.

I’ve tried to define myself as a musician too. There’s an ever-flowing stream (see what I did there?) of guitarists who play circles around me, and trying to be the fastest / most extreme / ____est is a goal that only allows one person to succeed. It’s an all-or-nothing Ricky Bobby “if you’re not first, you’re last” mentality. There will always be someone faster, hungrier, etc. And if you’re known as the ____est, you’re going to attract competition from others that have “something to prove.” So I decided to hone something besides my technical chops – songcraft. I studied, I read about The Beatles, charted out songs, figured out tons of chord progressions and arrangements from pop, motown, country, and anything and everything else that had hooks. I looked around the Death Metal genre and found a real dearth of actual songs. I found tons of speed and aggression and energy and sick riffing, but not that many verses, catchy choruses, or truly crafted compositions that were conceived as songs.

As far as my overall work ethic and philosophy, that’s something else I learned from comic books. Alan Moore can write a gritty Batman story like The Killing Joke and fun, nostalgic romp like 1963 or a macabre period thriller like From Hell. Hell, Jack Kirby (my personal hero and main life inspiration) drew (and co-plotted) 80% of all Marvel Comics for most of the 1960s by himself, creating and co-creating just about every summer blockbuster for the last 10 years. So I should be able to write a nasty Death Metal song, an epic power ballad, a 1980s training-montage synth piece and anything else I might want to do. If Kirby could draw 5 comics a month, plus covers and pin-ups, I should be able to write 3 albums of quality material a year. Kirby was incredibly creative, because he worked his ass off. He had to be, his livelihood depended on it. And that’s how you should be working if you want to be prolific and professional, like your fucking life depends on it. You know what I do before work? Work on my material. You know what I do on my lunch break? Work on my material. You know what I do after my wife falls alseep? You know what I do in the van on tour when I’m not disgustingly hungover? Work on my material. That’s the real “secret” to this whole thing.

Now that the philosophical side has been exhaustively covered, my next blog is gonna get into the nuts and bolts of putting together a good ol’ fashioned ditty.

Thanks for reading, see you at the bar!

What the fuck is this site for anyway?

That’s the question I’m asking myself. Basically, I’m a busy dude with a bunch of active bands and ambition to be a comic book writer and between all of those endeavors, I often end spread thin and feeling scattered. Hence this site – an online place for me to dump all of the contents of my brain out and promote all the different releases, gigs, projects, etc. that I’m doing. I also wanted to revive the blog I did for Exhumed a few years back, but I didn’t want to limit it to stuff that was “Exhumed-related.” I enjoy writing about records that I’m a fan of, the evolution of the DM underground, and have occasionally dabbled in ill-advised think-pieces.

I wanted someplace where all of those things and more would make sense to post – as well as promoting all the junk I’m selling – I’m just being honest about what 90% of internet content is here.  So stay tuned here for more blogging about various things, musical and otherwise.

As far as what I’m currently doing – I just finished up working on the Pounder debut album, which will be called “Uncivilized” and will be out later this year on Shadow Kingdom / Hells Headbangers, I’m eagerly awaiting the beginning of the promo cycle for the new Gruesome record “Twisted Prayers,” and I’ve been developing a comic book script that’s inches away from being ready to pitch – which will be a new and more than likely extremely humbling experience for me. Hopefully years of being a musician have helped me grow accustomed to working intensely hard on something and really believing in it so that others can half-heartedly check it out and then say it was “okay.”

Beyond that, I’m working on another musical project – not a band at all – that’s more soundtrack-related. Details will come on that as it develops. I don’t want to jinx it as it’s sort of out of my wheel-house and quite ambitious in a very nerdy way.

At any rate, I’m going to document all of that here, and I’ll also be posting stuff about songwriting, the process of putting together a band and an album and stuff like that. So… yeah. This is just the sort “hello, I’m here” kind of thing to get the ball rolling.

Thanks for reading – Cheers!

Matt – March 2018