Into Eternity's Tim Roth talks about the tragic year that informed his band's new album, life in the Candadian prairies, and what it means to be a "hybrid band".
As the songwriter and lead guitarist for a band that has scratched and clawed its way up the extreme metal ladder, rung by rung, to the cusp of something rather significant, you'd think that Tim Roth would have been on top of the world. But while Roth's band Into Eternity was reaping the rewards of relentless touring and increased exposure, things were much sadder on the home front. In fact, the annus horribilis Roth went through is enough to break the toughest of us, as cancer took the lives of three of the people closest to him: in late 2006 best friends Dave and Danny Stephenson succumbed to the disease, the brothers' deaths two months apart, and, if that wasn't enough, Roth's father died a year later. Like any other creative person, Roth turned to his art in search of any kind of outlet.
"At the time I couldn't really sleep, even after my dad died," says Roth, on the phone from his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan. "Normally I have no problem sleeping, I can sleep anywhere, especially from all the touring we've done, you learn to sleep on couches, on floors, wherever, but I could not sleep for the first time in my life. So I would just write, I would just sit at the computer, it would be three in the morning. And it all just flowed out, I wasn't even intending on writing, it just came out. So if I wasn't inspired, I guess I wouldn't have written anything, but it turns out I was."
Those late-night songwriting sessions would plant the seed for the Canadian band's fifth album, The Incurable Tragedy, in which Roth and his bandmates -- vocalist Stu Block, guitarist Justin Bender, bassist Troy Bleich, and drummer Steve Bolognese -- would channel all that raw emotion into a record that easily ranks as Into Eternity's defining moment to date. "If I didn't have the music, I don't know," Roth admits. "The first single's going to be 'Time Immemorial', and I wrote that literally two hours after I got out of the hospital, after my dad died. We took his belongings, came home, and I grabbed my acoustic guitar, and I just wrote it just like that. I wasn't planning on it, I wasn't thinking, 'Okay, I gotta write a song now,' it's just the way it is."
Treading the fine balance between the soaring bombast of progressive/power metal and the taut discipline of technical death metal has always been the band's forte (2004's Buried in Oblivion and 2006's The Scattering of Ashes are both excellent examples), but The Incurable Tragedy sees every member elevating his game significantly, and as a result, those two seemingly disparate styles mesh astonishingly well, a pall of genuine sadness looming over the entire record. In a form of music as rigid as technical death metal, so much emphasis is placed on time signatures, complex riffs, and shredding solos that there's barely any room for any emotion or atmosphere, but Into Eternity has managed to sound as dexterous as ever, yet at the same time know when to take a step or two back to let the songs breathe.
"I knew I wanted to do something more melodic on this album as far as ballads go," explains Roth. "Our ballads on this album and the acoustic and melodic stuff we did [are] 100 percent real, exactly what I was feeling at the time, like pure anguish. I think it's different when a songwriter is maybe sitting down and saying, 'Okay, I want to write a ballad, I want to write an emotional piece', and that's maybe a little bit forced, but in this situation it was 100 percent real. So for me it was really easy.... This is exactly how I was feeling, so I'm so glad that we wrote these songs and [I] got it off my chest. I'm totally happy with the album, the peaks and valleys, the heavy songs, we still have all the progressive stuff, and death and clean vocals."
Into Eternity's Tim Roth
Although Roth's expressive solos and ferocious riffs are front and center, The Incurable Tragedy would not be anywhere near the success that it is were it not for the vocal efforts of Block. Replacing singer Chris Krall in 2005, Block's arrival was a significant step for the band; his astounding range, from blood-curdling screams to the requisite death growls, allowed Roth the freedom to stretch out more as a songwriter. As strong as The Scattering of Ashes was, it still felt like Block was trying hard to make an impression as the band's new frontman, his delivery from beginning to end completely over the top.
On the new album, however, Block sounds far more disciplined as a singer, pulling out the screams for effect, but knowing when to tone things down and let the melodies carry the song. As a result, we get tracks like "Spent Years of Regret", "Diagnosis Terminal", "Time Immemorial", and "A Funeral Hymn for Thee", where the actual vocal hook, not the technicality, nor the bombast, is given preference, and Block pulls it all off with the skill of a leather-lunged veteran who knows when to say when.
"He was amazing on this album...he's the perfect frontman for our band," Roth agrees. "I had a clear vision on quite a few of the songs of what I wanted, exactly, right down to the melody and the lyrics, but Stu can just jump in any situation. On songs like 'Tides of Blood' and 'Diagnosis Terminal', I said, 'Go crazy, write all the lyrics, do all the melodies.' Like on 'Timeless Winter' on the last album, I said, ' Just go crazy.' And he does it in our style too, like how I would write it, so I'm not uncomfortable letting him do that because he totally knows our style.
Cobalt, Landfill Breastmilk Beast (Profound Lore)
Quickly emerging as one of America's finest black metal acts, the Colorado duo has served up a three-song EP that strongly hints at some very big things to come on its third full-length, due in 2009. New track "Stomach" is part black metal, part discordant prog metal, part towering doom, and is easily the band's catchiest track to date. The blistering cover of "Extinction" by crust legends Nausea shows us that the gulf between crust punk and underground black metal is narrower than some might think, while the half-hour "Ritual Use of Fire" is an engrossing, highly disturbing journey into ambient atmospherics.
Wetnurse, Invisible City (Seventh Rule)
Just when you think metal music is in a pretty good place these days, along comes a CD from out of friggin' nowhere (okay, more like Brooklyn) that forces you to completely rethink things. There's brave, and then there's arrogantly audacious, as Wetnurse dares to not only create a maniacal mélange of noisecore, progressive metal, avant-garde doom, and grind, but actually manages to make everything sound cohesive, to the point where we're not floored by its clever intricacies, but by just how unbelievably catchy it all is, best exemplified by the contagious groove of "Life at Stake". Capped by a second half that can best be described as incredible, this is one for the year-end lists.
Vader, XXV (Regain)
Nowhere is the "re-recorded classics" gimmick more overdone than in metal, and while the idea of Vader re-hashing their old stuff in commemoration of their 25th anniversary is enough to have eyes rolling, the Polish death metal greats pull it off in typically classy fashion. Of course, it doesn't hurt that little has changed, as they're as tight and brutal as ever, plus improved recording technology means that Piotr Wiwczarek and company can add a significant punch to the 26 songs, some of which dating back to the 1980s. An immensely satisfying retrospective by one of the most reliable metal bands around.
"He has the voice I always pictured in my head," he continues. "Someone who can do all the chest vocals and all the death vocals, but can also do all the really high falsetto. His falsetto voice is so strong. Some people sing falsetto and it's real weak, but he actually pushes his falsetto out of his chest, like a lot of air, and it's real loud. It's actually ear-piercing. We'd be sitting in our RV and he'll do it...it'll rip your ears off," he laughs.
Trying to find fellow musicians with the same commitment to the craft has been a huge challenge for Roth, but these days it appears that Into Eternity's lineup just might be the most stable it's been in years. "It used to be really hard, but now that we have a bit of success, it seems to be no problem," says Roth.
The addition of Bender and Bolognese, both of whom make their debut on record after several years of touring with the band, has especially solidified things, and according to Roth, has led to significant improvements musically as well. "It totally changed the whole sound of the band with those guys," he elaborates. "As far as the drumming goes, we had Jim [Austin], our original drummer, do the demos on the album. I had a drum machine, this cool program, and Jim did all the drumming, and the songs were super-fast, blastbeats, it was just insane. But when Steve came in, he listened to our ideas, and the good parts of the stuff he would take, but he added a lot more groove, a lot of kick-snare stuff, and man, it totally changed the songs. 'Diagnosis' sounded totally different with Jim's drumming on it. Steve just has that backbone, that groove, and he's a trained drummer, he knows all his time signatures, he studies his drums every single day. He's nuts."
Living in the vast, open spaces of the Canadian prairies is a far cry from the more centralized metal scenes of North American cities like Montreal, Boston, or Los Angeles, but despite having to travel ridiculous distances touring North America, Roth couldn't be happier with his decision so keep Into Eternity based in Regina, a city of 180,000. "We have to do it the old school way and tour because we're from Saskatchewan, in the middle of nowhere, so you have to go to the people. That's just the way that is," he explains. "I remember our label told us that we should move to the States, but it's so cheap to live in our hometown. That's the biggest advantage. The worst thing is going to Florida to start a tour, which we've done a few times...we've even ended three tours in Florida and had to come home, it's like a 50-hour drive. So that's the one down side, but you can't beat the cost of living here."
And credit has to be given to Century Media Records, who in the last few years have landed the band plum spots on some very high profile tours, sharing the bill with such bands as Megadeth, Dream Theater, Symphony X, Children of Bodom, Mayhem, Hate Eternal, and the Dillinger Escape Plan. They're the ultimate road dogs, willing to play anywhere that'll take them. All the while, the band's following has steadily grown, and with the release of The Incurable Tragedy, that bond between the band and its loyal audience will only strengthen. "Everybody kept saying we were finished after Buried in Oblivion," says Roth. "As soon as we started touring...of course the band members were gone because it's so stressful touring and we were making no money, so then everyone was saying that we were nothing, and we were finished. But I always thought our band was somehow a bit different, even though I'm sure every band thinks that. And it was just because we toured so much, I think that's how we got our name. We could have turned down half those tours, but we just try and do everything and keep trying to build our fanbase.
"If you do anything long enough, I think you can strengthen it, it's like a muscle, if you're lifting weights or doing whatever, you're getting stronger doing it every day, it's the same thing. I think all the touring helped a lot, for sure."
Playing a style that appeals to fans of both death metal and power metal has enhanced the band's profile immeasurably, and their chameleon-like adaptability will be showcased yet again as they'll spend August on the Canadian Summer Slaughter tour alongside such death standouts as Necrophagist and Beneath the Massacre, and then spend September and October as the direct support for American power metal stalwarts Iced Earth. Very few bands can successfully play to such wildly varying crowds, something Roth is fully aware of, to the point where he practically beams with pride when talking about it.
"We're a hybrid band, which was always a bad thing when we started because nobody wanted to sign us. We used to always do death metal tours, and then we only did power metal tours, but now we can do anything. I think it's because of our vocals, I guess. For the Iced Earth tour, I know we're going to try and do a bit more of the melodic stuff, and then for the Summer Slaughter tour we'll just cater to that crowd and be full aggressive. It's cool that we're one of the few bands that can do that."