[13 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“The state of New Hampshire’s motto is ‘Live Free or Die’, and there was a story on the news, maybe eight months ago, where a guy there decided that he wasn’t going to pay his taxes, because he came up with a job title for himself where he basically poked holes in the state and federal taxation system. So therefore he decided he couldn’t pay his taxes because if he was attempting to destroy a system, paying into that system would be a conflict of interest. He ended up going to court for it and he lost the trial, and they were like, ‘You gotta pay your taxes, it doesn’t matter of you want have this job, that’s fine, but you have to pay taxes just like everyone else.’ So he goes home and starts making public statements about how he’s got enough guns and ammo and supplies to last him indefinitely, so he’s not coming out of his house and he’s not paying his taxes, and when the feds come to get him, he’s got an arsenal prepared to meet whatever they’ve got to throw at him. And his statements ended up garnering the support of all these militia groups all over the country, so people started bringing more supplies and more people, to the point where there were 45 guys at his house all holed up with guns and ammo and supplies. That was all true.”
You wanna be entertained? Just get Guy Kozowyk to explain his songs. The vocalist for New England deathcore standout, the Red Chord, is on the phone from his grandparents’ house, enjoying his first extended break from writing, recording, and touring this year, and instead of enjoying some rare quiet time, the dude is graciously—and vividly—regaling PopMatters with lengthy tales about how the many ideas that dominate his band’s third album, Prey for Eyes, came to fruition. Case in point: the rampaging opening cut “Film Critiques & Militia Men”, which Kozowyk is five minutes into describing. Oh, and did I mention the track is only 65 seconds long?
“I started writing the song from an imaginative standpoint where you’ve got 45 guys in this house, the government is not really planning on sending the Feds in, it’s not going to happen, this is over property tax,” he continues enthusiastically. “So the song begins with a bunch of these militia guys being bored out of their minds, and their kids are sending them DVDs and stuff to pass the time, and the movies that they watched are The Number 23, The Devil Wears Prada, Ghost Rider, and Live Free or Die Hard. And basically it was the militia guys being holed up in this house, watching these movies. The militia guys are watching The Number 23, being like, ‘Jim Carrey shouldn’t do horror, we just wanted to see The Mask—this is bumming us out.’ Ghost Rider, they’re really bummed on Nick Cage because he’s so hit or miss and some of his movies are pretty bad. The Devil Wears Prada: the idea of militia guys watching a movie about the fashion industry is just funny to me. And finally the only movie the militia guys agree on is Live Free or Die Hard. So the peak of the song is, ‘Live free or die / Live free / Die hard / I don’t know, and who cares what the devil wears?’”
Such a detailed explanation suits the Red Chord perfectly, though, as the band’s hyperkinetic musical assault is enough to overwhelm the senses upon first listen, but as 2005’s breakthrough Clients proved, the longer you stick with the album, the more it digs its way into your subconscious to the point where you can’t get certain moments out of your head: the mechanical skronks and squeals accentuating “Fixated on Plastics”, the psychotic variation on metalcore during “Antman”, or Kozowyk’s demented yet vivid character sketches. And not only does the band’s new disc hold up just as well lyrically, but it displays an even more gripping balance between technical wizardry and accessibility, highlighted by a pair of extended jams: first on the Moog-driven instrumental “It Came from Over There” and the terrific, five-minute coda of closing track “Seminar”.
Entombed, Serpent Saints (Candlelight) Rating: 4 The ninth album from the Swedish death greats gets off to a blazing start (the title track kills), but once we hear L-G Petrov bellow, “Hey, ho / We are Satan’s people” on the second track, it immediately becomes apparent that these death ‘n’ rollers have completely run out of ideas, the rest of the disc becoming a tiresome slog.
Fueled by Fire, Spread the Fire (Metal Blade) Rating: 6 The retro-thrash revival continues to gain momentum, and this re-released debut by the SoCal foursome will please anyone who grew up on the Bay Area thrash of Testament, Death Angel, and Exodus 20 years ago. No breakdowns, no groove—just pure speed and taut riffs, best exemplified by such cuts as “Striking Death” and the aptly named “Thrash Is Back”.
Hacavitz, Katun (Moribund) Rating: 7 Now this is blackened death metal, as the Mexican band, reduced from a quartet to a duo, brings a heightened sense of spaciousness that contrasts greatly with the claustrophobic mix of guitars and drums. Brutality, melody, and disturbing ambient interludes dominate “Tnieblas – Tenichtitlan”, while “Omitzhuicazquia” is as formidable a display of musical muscle and intricacy as you’ll hear all summer.
Madball, Infiltrate the System (Ferret) Rating: 7 More of the same from the NYHC mainstays, but considering they’ve got a really good thing going with producer Zeuss, more of the same isn’t a criticism. The disc’s slick yet robust production will thrill the Ferret fanbase, and even have the heads of old metal geezers bobbing, the band providing an appropriately pummeling backdrop for the likeable Freddy Cricien’s populist rants.
Rosetta / Balboa, Project Mercury (Level Plane) Rating: 7 It might seem like an odd fit in theory, with Balboa’s eviscerating blend of hardcore and post-rock and Rosetta’s more subdued, expansive sounds, but the two Philadelphia bands mesh perfectly on this superb split CD, ranging from Balboa’s punishing ten-minute prog epic “Kaddish” to the stately melodies of Rosetta’s instrumental “TMA-1”.
“As far as the riffs and the drumming and stuff on this CD, this is probably the most technical record that we’ve ever written,” explains Kozowyk. “I think it’s a little more structured in some ways, but like, the riff in ‘Send the Death Storm’ is pretty tough; the changes, the riffs, the drumming especially just kind of stepped up so much. The policy was just to try everything possible. It was definitely the most collaborative effort that we’ve ever had out of any of the records. I kind of feel like the record became a lot more progressive and solid because of that.
“It’s kind of weird if people are just, ‘Yeah, they’re not as technical anymore,’” he continues. “Our goal isn’t to be the most technical band on the planet, but the drumming and guitar riffs on the last two records are a lot simpler than on this one. We’ve always focused on writing good songs, even though we have the tech elements and the death metal elements and everything. Naturally, everyone has stepped up as players…it’s weird when you break it down and really look at it, yeah, there’s tons of groove on this record and there might be less of the straight-ahead, simple breakdowns, but there’s just more songwriting focus than trying to write this extremely fast thing that no one can play.”
Not only has the musicianship evolved significantly, but Prey for Eyes features a significant sonic shift as well, as the band opted to record with the great New Jersey hardcore producer Eric Rachel after collaborating with the much more slicker-sounding Zeuss two years ago. “With Zeuss’s production, it was what we were going for at the time, where we wanted something big and slick and polished, but this time around we wanted something a little bit more gritty and something that would capture the essence of the band universally a little bit better than Clients did,” elaborates Kozowyk. “One of the things that turned us on to Eric in the first place was the drum sound on A Life Once Lost’s A Great Artist CD. To us it was pretty much the best drum sound that’s ever been captured on record.
“Trax East Studio in general has done some of my favorite records ever, like the Snapcase records, Turmoil, Deadguy, the first Hatebreed record, everything that’s come out of the studio. Even bands like Symphony X and Human Remains—the production is really awesome and is very distinct, band to band. I personally didn’t work with [Eric] very much, because the guys were all working on instruments and I did vocals with one of the other engineers there, but they were ecstatic, and they really felt like Eric raised the bar, and he just pushed them harder to get the best takes possible than anyone we’ve ever worked with in the past.”
The quintet’s energy is contagious on the album’s title track, as is that of Kozowyk as he tells the story of how the song came about. “My brother works as a corrections officer,” he says, “and he told me this story where he walked in on an inmate doing something ridiculous, I think he was scribbling shaving cream and toothpaste all over the wall, and he’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Cut it out!’ And the guy wouldn’t stop. Finally the guy acknowledges him, looks over, doesn’t say anything, and rolls up a pant leg. And he goes, ‘What the fuck is that supposed to be, some gang shit?’ So he opens the guy’s cell and walks in, and he’s like, ‘What’s your deal? Why aren’t you talking?’ And the guy writes him a note that says, ‘When I roll up one pant leg it means that I want to be left alone.’ He says, ‘Left alone or not, put your fuckin’ pant leg down and stop scribbling all over the walls.’ And he goes, ‘What’s the deal with all this notepad shit, why are you not talking?’ And the guy wrote this message about how the devil reached into his mouth and took his tongue. So he makes the guy open his mouth, looks in, and he’s like, ‘I definitely see your tongue in there.’ And the guy just wrote the note, ‘Pray for eyes.’
“One of the things that they teach you as a corrections officer is to never go one on one with an inmate because it’s never going to be one on one. There are 50 guys to one officer, so if there’s a problem, you’ve got to meet it with 15 guys and you stop the problem right away and nothing gets out of hand. It’s funny, I remember when he first took the job he was learning all these weird knee-strike takedowns and stuff, and some of the lines are kind of goofy in that song. There’s kind of a dialogue between a corrections officer and a prisoner: “I’ll take you to the hole / You’re dead you’re dead you’re dead / I’ll tell you what I’ll do / You’re dead you’re dead you’re dead / I’ll tell you what I’ll do sir / I’m knee-striking you / Don’t think I’m afraid ‘cos I’m coming back 15 deep / That’s how the fuck I roll.” It’s just about prisoners acting up and wising off and whatever…it’s kind of funny, but at the heart of it is this weird, odd story about somebody writing this ‘pray for eyes’ note.”
The dude’s on a roll. There’s nothing for PopMatters to do but sit back and let Kozowyk riff away.
“I was reading books about Genghis Khan, and I came up with all these weird conqueror warlord lyrics…on [‘Tread on the Necks of Kings’], what comes to surface is the conqueror returning to earth to reclaim their place as the king of the world. But I had a dream that kind of inspired the song, where it was actually Bruce Campbell dressed like Elvis in Bubba Ho-Tep, but he kept morphing between being eight feet tall and 80 feet tall, and he’s actually coming back to earth to reclaim his place as the king of rock ‘n’ roll, and he starts slaughtering all these people, like Simon from American Idol and he’s got an army of midget Elvis impersonators tearing up the set of American Idol, and he eats Kanye West and all this crazy stuff. There’s actually a line in the song that I got right out of my dream where it was Campbell’s face, with the Elvis sideburns and everything, saying the line, but with Nate Newton of Converge’s voice coming out of the mouth. The line was, ‘We’ve come for the eyes and arms, but we’ll settle for the head.’ I don’t know exactly where I got that, but I definitely had the dream, woke up, wrote it down, and called Nate Newton to tell him that Bruce Campbell had spoken to me with his voice. And when we recorded the record we got Nate to do that part.”
The song “Responsibles” had already been a favorite of this writer, as it’s clearly one of the best tracks on Prey for Eyes, but the song got even better when Kozowyk explained that the song was directly inspired by the extremely profane, semi-improvised comedy of Trailer Park Boys, which, if you don’t know already, is the greatest Canadian sitcom ever. “It wasn’t necessarily Trailer Park Boys quotes, but most of the lines were inspired by the Trailer Park Boys,” he says. “Somebody played it for us randomly in Missouri or Los Angeles or something, and some of the guys became big fans when Mike [Keller] got the DVDs and everything. The beginning line kind of prefaces the whole song by saying, ‘It’s amazing what you can get away with saying if you present it right.’ Everything in there—‘Are you here to learn / Are you here to sell drugs? / I’ve heard that you could do both, you just have to wake up’; Ricky says something like, ‘Who said you can’t be a parent and drink and drug, you can, you just have to wake up in the morning’; and like the last line in the song, ‘Where’s my fuckin’ barbecue? I know you have it’—is straight up Trailer Park Boys. There’s the episode where Ricky loses his kid’s chicken, there’s lines in that song that sound so brutal, like, ‘Where’s the chicken? It’s essential to our operation’, and ‘What’s your problem, Mr. Dick?’, and ‘No one wants to own up to eating nine cans of raviolis.’ I’m a fan, I’ll admit it. It’s funny because one of the most brutal words in ‘Responsibles’ is a part where I yell, ‘RAVIOLIIIIS!’ as brutal as possible.
“As you can tell, we’re a very, very serious band,” he says, laughing.
The Red Chord has become renowned for its sense of humor (if you haven’t seen the video for “Stache Attack”, get thee to YouTube!), but while the band never lets the silliness supersede the music and reduce it all to nothing more than a novelty, that lighter approach does bring some welcome levity to a genre that can often take itself too seriously. Says Kozowyk, “At this point in time, it’s funny when death metal bands are just screaming about whatever, and I guess maybe I’m getting older and I’m not as angry as I used to be. I like death metal and hardcore and I like everything in between, and not every band has to be serious, but for us to be super angry at everything at this point, it’s kind of funny. We’re kind of adults, we’re the old kids in the scene.”
But with the Red Chord’s lyrical themes being just as complex as the musical arrangements that back them up, are kids better off drawing their own conclusions from what they hear and read in the CD booklet? “Sometimes I feel bad describing the lyrics because you don’t want to tell people what the end of the movie is until they’ve seen it,” he says. “Let them read it and get what they get out of it, and then down the line find out about it. I’m influenced not so much by Mike Patton, but I was really influenced by Faith No More when I found out that a song like ‘Digging the Grave’ wasn’t actually about digging a grave, it was about a cat pooping in a litter box and then digging a hole for it, and that stood out to me that you could have something that sounds really serious and be kind of crazy and have this weird double meaning. And all over the record there are double and triple meanings to a lot of the songs.
“I definitely have had people tell me, ‘That song of yours really changed my life, and it helped me through a hard time,’” he adds, “and then I don’t really know what to say, cause I’m just kind of like, ‘Heh, it’s about my dog.’”
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.