State of the Metal Union: Five Acts Showcase the Evolution of Shred

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Neil Shah reported “heavy metal has become the unlikely soundtrack of globalization.
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Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Neil Shah reported “heavy metal has become the unlikely soundtrack of globalization.” Under the headline “The World Goes Head-Banging,” the article told of metal’s popular dominium from Scandinavia to Russia to Latin America, Japan, Indonesia, and beyond. Depending on when you check the stats, Spotify will claim the most loyal streaming audience is for either metal or rap.

Of course, the cool aspect of metal’s continuing cultural upsurge—even if you don’t dig the enraged cookie monster vocals favored by some bands—is that the guitars are loud, proud, and front and center. Not only that, both the old guard and the newbies typically embrace technique that’s frighteningly precise and fast, alternate tunings that expand the instrument’s range, and technology—given the number of metal players adding Kemper Profilier amps and other high-tech tools to their rigs. We interviewed five metal acts with recent or upcoming releases—Aeges, Invidia, Miss May I, Once Human, and Wolf Hoffman—to reveal how they keep the music vital.

Aeges

By Michael Molenda

When Aeges guitarists/vocalists Cory Clark and Kemble Walters and their band mates Tony Baumeister (bass) and Mike Land (drums) first signed on to record Weightless [Another Century] with producer Bob Marlette (Black Sabbath, Rob Zombie, Anvil), they may not have known they’d have to write 30 songs before Marlette found the 13 tracks everyone ultimately deemed worthy to grace the album. But the Los Angeles-based band—which fuses savage guitars with shimmery delays and ambient vistas—persevered and delivered a modern-metal epic.

Thirty songs? Wow. It must have been an intense pre-production process for Weightless.

Walters: Bob said every song had to fight to be on the record. He’d say, “Where’s the melody? There always has to be something singing—even if it’s not the singer. What are the drums doing? The bass? Where’s your hook?” When we were writing, we’d think, “That’s cool. That’s a hook.” But after Bob would make us really listen to the songs, we’d say, “Oh, I guess that’s not as hook-y as we thought it was.” Also, we tried to throw a wrench into every song. Although we challenged ourselves to write catchy songs, we’d also throw in an odd meter that comes out of nowhere, or a big riff that turns a pop song into something unexpected.

How did the guitar duties for the album play out?

Walters: We never give each other specific roles, because we’re both very different guitar players. A good example would be “Save Us.” I had done a complete solo—just bulldozing with this heavy fuzz—and then I heard Cory noddling around on something very different. So I said, “Why don’t we start with your cleaner, prettier melody, and then I’ll come in and bulldoze with all this angst?”

Clark: After the main rhythm guitars were done, doing the “color parts” was kind of a free-for-all. Bob tends to mix as he records, so he would ask for a lot of stuff on the spot, and whoever grabbed the guitar first got the call. He’d say things like, “Hey, man, we need a chimey part for this section.” It was a challenge, but we wanted to impress this guy, you know?

What types of guitar rigs did you guys go for?

Clark: Mostly, I used my Les Paul, but this album was really part-specific, so we wanted to have a couple of different tones on each song. We always have a fuzzy guitar on things, but we also went for some Telecaster spank and some chime. We did a lot of layering. In fact, we recorded way too many guitars. Bob wanted a lot of choices at the final mix, but when we got the rough mixes, the songs were really cluttered. There were too many guitar tones fighting each other. As a result, there was so much stuff we didn’t end up using.

Walters: Bob had a bunch of guitars hanging on the wall—including a ’50s gold-top Les Paul that sounded good on everything. There was also a prototype baritone Fender Telecaster that we used a lot, as well as some Danelectros for the jangly stuff. Other than that, I pushed for my Reverends, because I freaking love them. One is a prototype that they never ended up making, and I also have a Reverend Descent baritone with Railhammer pickups.

Clark: In the control room, Bob has a bunch of really great heads set up, and we would A/B which ones sounded better in the track. There was also a soundproofed amp room and a bunch of speaker cabinets already miked up. I go for cleaner amps, and then I smash them up with my pedals. I think I usually went with a Fender or a Wizard for my tracks.

Walters: I had my Soldano, my Orange OR-50H, my late-’60s Fender Dual Showman, and my Vox AC30. The heavier guitar tracks usually had a Wizard for the chunky clarity, a Bogner set somewhat clean, and either the Vox or the Orange for my tone. We’d commit to a couple of different amps per track, and hit the front of them with all these crazy pedals.

And how crazy were all of those pedals?

Walters: Well, it was mostly about the fact we were using so many [laughs]. I had a Dunlop Band of Gypsys Fuzz Face Mini, and that thing totally changed the way I played a couple of chords. For example, the heavy rhythm guitar on the choruses of “What If” is the Band of Gypsys reacting to the Wizard, the Bogner, and the Vox. It just spits out these crazy harmonics. The other one that’s on every song is the MXR Custom Shop Sub Machine. It really helped clarify our low tuning [Walters and Clark tune the low E to either A or B, with the rest of the strings in standard tuning]. We also had Wampler pedals, EarthQuaker Devices pedals, a bazillion Dunlop and MXR pedals, and a bunch of weird pedals my friends made me. We’d say, “Can we use all 200 pedals on this record [laughs]?”

Clark: I tend to do more of the atmospheric, delay-shimmering stuff. I would just grab my Les Paul and run through my delay pedals. The go-to delay was a Way Huge Supa-Puss—it’s all over the record. I love the delay trails it produces, and it really helped notes stand out. It’s kind of like an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man, but a bit more modern sounding.

Walters: One cool thing that was at the end of every effects chain was the Pete Cornish Brian May Treble Boost. I think all it does is push 3kHz at 20dB, and it’s an amp killer. If you’re not playing, it just squeals. But it made those amps and pedals cut through anything.

Clark: Bob had a friend who was a pedal collector. He wasn’t even a player. He had boxes of all these Pete Cornish pedals—the whole floor was littered with them. It was great. That Treble Boost was really our secret weapon, though.

What’s it like out there these days for young bands?

Clark: There are too many bands, everybody’s trying to get attention, and rock music isn’t the most popular thing at the moment. But if you think like that, then you won’t do anything.

Invidia

By Michael Molenda

Forged from elements of alt metal, metalcore, industrial, goth metal, nu metal, and groove metal—thanks to its members’ service in bands such as Five Finger Death Punch, In This Moment, and Skinlab—Invidia recently completed its debut release, As The Sun Sleeps [SPV], with producer/cowriter Loren Mader. Tracking was completed with founding guitarist Brian Jackson, and Marcos Medina was added as co-guitarist just before the band started touring.

What are your current rigs?

Jackson: I’m currently playing a custom Schecter Hellraiser and a couple of 7-string Blackjacks. Also, it’s the first time we ran with Kemper Profilers. They’ve been amazing.

Medina: I’m also rocking that Schecter Keith Merrow Signature, a couple of Gibsons, and the Kemper.

Jackson: Logan introduced me to the Kemper when we started recording As The Sun Sleeps, and I fell in love with it right away. It’s great for touring. We’re on the road right now, and we’re not even using speaker cabinets. We just plug our Kempers directly into the house sound system. I don’t think I’ll ever play anything else.

Are there any challenges to monitoring the Kempers onstage when you go direct?

Medina: Not everybody is familiar with the Kemper “whole rig” situation yet. We run everything on our in-ears, so we’re fine onstage. We hear everything loud and clear. But, sometimes, we have to work around the P.A. system or the soundperson we get that night.

When you perform live, do you think your audience can tell the difference between the Kemper models and actual amps?

Jackson: We’ve been reliant on the bands we tour with to tell us what’s going on with our tone. So far, the response is that it sounds amazing.

Do you go for different sounds onstage?

Medina: As far as the live show goes, we’re projecting a similar tone, rather than trying to make it sound like two different guitar players.

Jackson: There’s a slight difference to our tones, but not a whole lot. We complement each other for the bigger picture of the whole band. We want the songs to be the main focus—not have one of us be one of those “look at me” guitar-hero types.

Marcos, as the newest member of the band, what influences do you bring to the table?

Medina: I don’t necessarily look to guitar players as influences. Of course, I can’t live without Jimi Hendrix and guitarists like that like that, but I’m actually really influenced by reggae music—as crazy as it sounds. The reggae vibe comes with me wherever I go.

It’s not that I come in on backbeats or anything, but I envision songs from a calm place. It’s like looking at a painting. You need to step back and really observe the canvas so you can understand it and enjoy it. It’s the same with songs. I step back, calm myself down—even if the song is as aggressive as it can be—and give myself time to absorb the music with a heightened clarity. Having that Zen-reggae-serenity helps me a lot.

Miss May I

By Joyce Kuo

B.J. Stead (left) and Justin Aufdemkampe.

B.J. Stead and Justin Aufdemkampe were still in high school when they signed their first record deal in 2008. Since then, their metalcore band, Miss May I, has been spent touring, recording six studio albums, and working with heavy-hitter producers such as Joey Sturgis (Asking Alexandria, the Devil Wears Prada) and Machine (Lamb of God). Now a long way from the early days of jamming in drummer Jerod Boyd’s living room, Miss May I just released Deathless [Rise].

What are your strengths and weaknesses as guitarists?

Stead: I’ve never been a super shredder like Jason Richardson or John Petrucci. The way I aspire to play lead is more like David Gilmour. He’s not the most technical player, but he always plays the right notes at the right time.

Aufdemkampe: I’m a very rhythmic player with a good right hand, but my weakness is dexterity. My left hand isn’t as strong as my right. To this day, before we play a show, I have to warm up to get everything loose. I usually alternate-pick through some arpeggios. I learned fast that if I don’t, during the first three songs of our set, my fingers won’t move the way I need them to.

For the Deathless sessions, did you have a mainstay setup?

Aufdemkampe: I have a custom Charvel, and B.J. plays Ibanez RG Series guitars loaded with EMG pickups. We both use GHS Boomers. We also moved over to Kemper Profilers—which allowed us to monitor with some good hi-gain tones, but not commit to anything until we mixed. Then, we’d take the dry, direct signal, and use it to re-amp parts as desired. This is badass, because when you’re recording, you’re more focused on your playing than your tone. But when the tracks are down, we can go back and focus 100 percent on the sounds.

What’s your songwriting process like?

Stead: We both have a mobile studio setup. If you want to put out content, being proficient with the recording process is very important for modern guitar players. I come up with a working title—like “Mammoth” or “Dragon”—and I try to write something around that theme. Also, I always try to start off songwriting sessions with a set intro part that helps the song evolve. Developing good arrangements is really important. Our first album, Apologies Are For the Weak, was just a mess of riff soup—riff one, riff two, riff three, chorus, riff four, and so on. We were guilty of not paying attention to how a song should unfold. Now, we take an approach that’s based on the conventional science of song structure. People have been doing it that way for decades, and it works for a reason.

Was it tough being a band with a record deal when you were all so young?

Aufdemkampe: A bit. Being in a band is awesome, but it also can be extremely stressful. When that stress gets thrown into a room with five people, it can get intense. I had my phase when I would get pissed off and just leave the studio. Now, we’re starting to grow up and realize that arguing stalls progress.

Stead: On the other hand, I think the best music comes from the people with the biggest passions.

Once Human

By Joyce Kuo

Once Human’s Logan Mader.

Once Human’s Logan Mader was the original lead guitarist of the popular Oakland-based groove-metal outfit Machine Head. After working briefly with Soulfly in 1998, he developed a passion for studio work, and began producing, engineering, and mixing bands such as Gojira, Fear Factory, Five Finger Death Punch, and others. With a full-time career in the recording studio, Mader took a 12-year hiatus from guitar performance until the 2015 inception of his melodic death-metal band, Once Human. The band’s sophomore album, Evolution [earMusic], features Logan accompanied by co-guitarists Skyler Howren and Max Karon.

How do you juggle being behind the scenes as a producer, and also being an artist and guitar player?

Actually, I had to reconnect with the guitar, because when I was producing fulltime, I lost my passion for playing guitar for fun. Now with Once Human, I’ve really got my legs back, and I’ve pushed myself to become a better player and riff writer. I’m doing this balance between producer guy and musician guy now, and it feels good. It feels complete.

How do you approach your guitar parts?

I’m a self-taught player. I never studied music theory or took lessons. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I just hear it and feel it. This is critical, because I’ve scored a couple of movies and video games completely by feel, and I pulled it off. I’ve often had to go outside the box of normal songwriting, but I really enjoy doing those sorts of things, because they expand my horizons musically.

Who were your early influences, and who are your current favorites?

Going way back to my childhood, I would say Dimebag. Metallica is a very nostalgic influence, as is Slayer and all the bands in the San Francisco Bay Area’s late ’80s/early ’90s thrash-metal scene. As far as the current metal scene, I try to listen to everything that comes out at least once. I think the guys in Periphery are amazing guitar players, but my new favorite guitarist is Max Karon—who joined Once Human. I met him while on tour last year. He was a tech and a monitor engineer, and, one day, I listened to some of the music he was writing. I was like, “What are you doing? You need to be playing!” So he started working with [Once Human vocalist] Lauren Hart and I on Evolution. He’s just amazing. His musical mind is pretty out there, but he always plays and writes with a lot of feeling.

What’s your present rig like?

I’m not super picky when it comes to guitars, but I prefer mahogany bodies, EMG 81 pickups, and a nice low action. I recently moved over to Ibanez, and I’m really happy with them. I started playing a 7-string with a really cool tuning—[low to high] G, C, G, C, F, A, D—on the new album. I also switched to a Kemper Profiler, and I love it. I’ve even created some of my own profiles. The fact you can so accurately capture the sound of any amp is amazing. For touring, it pretty much fits in a carryon bag, and it’s my whole backline. I don’t use speaker cabinets anymore—just in-ears and stage monitors.

What are your thoughts on the state of guitar these days?

I can’t imagine the world not being excited about guitar. Look at the state of the industry today versus 15 years ago. There are so many amazing players. This shows me tht the guitar is alive and well, and that it still speaks to young people as it always has.

Wolf Hoffmann

By Michael Molenda

Wolf Hoffmann

Wolf Hoffman’s journey through Headbangers Symphony [Nuclear Blast]—his homage to classical themes, melodies, and composers—was an eight-year labor of love involving his home studio, pro studios, samples and sound libraries, and, eventually, a session with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. And, as technology lurched forward during his record’s near decade-long gestation, the Accept guitarist found himself in a constant cycle of improving, refining, and replacing sounds.

Eight years is a long birth cycle for an album...

After Accept reunited around seven years ago, the band became priority number one, and my project sat on the sidelines. If I ever do anything like this again, however, I’ll try to do it in one go [laughs].

Headbangers Symphony is a striking hybrid of classical music, metal, and shred guitar. How did you approach the arrangements?

I was pretty ruthless. I never planned to do the original pieces any justice. I didn’t look at a Beethoven symphony, and say, “I’ve got to put all the great parts of this symphony in my piece.” I just went, “I like this little bit. I’ll steal that, I’ll write a riff or two around it, put in a solo, and return to the main theme.” I really just stole the parts that were interesting to me, and asked myself, “What else would I do with this piece if it was my original idea?” I looked at it as if it were an instrumental work of my own.

Did you write out the parts for the orchestra?

No, I didn’t. Thankfully, I had a partner, Melo Mafali, who is a classically trained pianist, arranger, and composer. He has a passion for rock music and metal, and I have a passion for classical music, so the two of us were like yin and yang. I’d hear something in my head, and play or sing it to him, and he’d work it out on a keyboard. Then, I’d go, “No, a little more this, or a little less that.” He could translate what we wanted—or how I felt about something—and put it on paper.

What was your go-to gear throughout the album’s eight years of sessions?

I have a signature Framus V that I use extensively for basic metal tones and shredding. I also have a ’62 Fender Strat, which has a nice mellow tone, and a PRS Singlecut with a mahogany body that’s a little too mellow for me, but I use it here and there. Then, there’s a 12-string Ovation and a Martin D-28 for acoustic stuff. I’ve been using Kemper Profilers for four years exclusively—although some of the guitar parts on the album are actually from demo takes that I did years ago using a Wizard amp. I’ve been a Marshall player all my life, and, in addition to some hot-rodded models, I have a ’70s JMP that doesn’t distort very much, but it has a beautiful chime. All of these amps and tones were profiled into the Kemper, and that’s what you hear on the album. You know, when I first got this thing, I thought there was no way it would sound like the real thing. But it totally feels and plays like my favorite amps. If I can’t hear a difference, then it’s good enough for me.

Was it challenging jumping between conventional songs with Accept and the instrumental work for own project?

No. I enjoyed doing both. But the good thing about instrumental music is that it’s all wide open. You can do whatever you want. That said, it’s not easy to fill five minutes of instrumental music without things getting repetitious and boring.

How do you pump up an instrumental piece after your internal judge tells you it may be getting too repetitious?

I just have to be my own worst critic, and ask, “Does it bore me?” If it does, it’s going to bore other people, as well. Usually, I record a bunch of stuff and listen back the next morning, and say, “What was I thinking? Let’s do this again [laughs].” To keep things interesting, I might start with a cleaner tone, playing very gently, and the next go around, I’ll change the sound slightly and put more aggressiveness into it. Towards the end it may be all out warfare. I’m a strong believer in that it’s not only what you play, but how you play it. All those little nuances can make a world of difference when you’re building a song.

How do you craft your solos? It depends on what it is. If I’m shredding, I’ll just go for it and do 20 takes to see what I come up with. But if it’s a moody piece where noodling isn’t the right approach, I actually think about every note that I play. I’ll sing the lines in my head first, and then try to play the part with my fingers. I don’t think about keys or modes or any of that stuff. I’m really more of a gut player. I find that if you’re not really sure of what you’re doing, and you’re just feeling out a song, there’s something magic about that.

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