By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Ruts are normal, and nowhere is this truer than in art, where it's easier to be a follower than a leader. So it is that metal and hardcore, which broke out of the morass of their heavily scripted, regimented styles by cross-pollinating, have slid back into predictability after a brief burst of creativity.
Fortunately, there are acts willing to go beyond the cliché of the soaring choruses and blistering breakdowns to push the boundaries of this newly evolved style. Underoath and Between the Buried and Me came to their respective sounds from different directions, and, though they aren't necessarily similar, they're both doing their part to redefine the genre.
BTBAM is definitely the more idiosyncratic of the two. Inspired by acts like Dream Theater and Pain of Salvation, the North Carolina quintet brings together a whiplash-inducing blend of styles. A typical song—if they have such a thing—ranges through growling death metal, art rock embellishment, bruising hardcore, jazzy explorations and dreamy atmospheric pop.
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"We just have all these influences," explains guitarist Paul Waggoner. "It's like painting a picture and we have a lot of colors. We're just kind of a dab of this and a dab of that. We were taking influence from all kinds of music and just wanted to sort of combine that. It was like, 'God, we love Cannibal Corpse, but we also love the Allman Brothers.' We didn't want to draw a line like we can't do a certain style."
The band formed a decade ago from the ashes of Waggoner's and vocalist Tommy Rogers' old outfit, Prayer for Cleansing. Their talent was apparent from their eponymous 2002 debut. But it wasn't until their 2007 fourth album, Colors, that they tamed their disparate influences into something at once coherent, beautiful and shocking.
"It was a challenge in the early days," Waggoner says. "But now it seems almost normal to us. We can write a totally bizarre, quirky part in 5/4 and then almost at the drop of a hat go into a traditional rock chord progression with a melody. [Colors] was sort of the breakthrough album for us in just going for it and saying there are no rules."
Underoath took longer to find their direction—which is to be expected, given that the group first started almost 13 years ago while its members were still in high school. With the April departure of drummer/vocalist Aaron Gillespie, there's no one left from that first incarnation. The departure of founding lead vocalist Dallas Taylor prior to their 2004 album, They're Only Chasing Safety, that set them on their current path.
"We realized after it was mixed how polished it really was, and that wasn't what we were really going for," says keyboardist Chris Dudley of the gold-selling album. The label encouraged them to reprise the album, but they were ready to move on. "We were like, 'Yeah, we probably could sell a lot of records if we kept doing what we're doing. But we're not happy doing what we're doing,'"
Though replacement vocalist Spencer Chamberlain went along with the pop-inflected metalcore sound of that album, he helped push the band in a more supple, atmospheric direction for 2006's Define the Great Line. While still delivering thundering intensity, the band has introduced more subtlety, dynamics and finesse. With the departure of Gillespie, the group's just now finished an even more experimental follow-up to 2008's Lost In the Sound of Separation.
"Aaron leaving was a breath of fresh air," Dudley says.
Another impetus for change is their recent discovery of Chamberlain's vocal versatility.
"We knew he could sing, but at no point had we given him a whole record," Dudley says.
Thankfully, it's in the nature of creative types to go against the grain as styles stultify.
"Many people are just writing and recording records that are going to be good in the moment," Dudley says. "It's the hot thing and 13-year-old girls are going to buy it and bands are going to get rich—kind of the opposite spot to where we're at."
"It's cool that people are trying to push the envelope," Waggoner says. "It's necessary to keep heavy music from becoming stagnant and getting boring."