All That Remains' Phil Labonte talks about exercising restraint in creativity, recording the band's new album, 'Overcome', and not taking metal too seriously.
Considering how the constantly touring All That Remains has pretty much played everywhere you can think of in recent memory, a good majority of us already know how good a frontman Phil Labonte is. Whether playing at a tiny, cramped club, a mid-sized theater, or a large outdoor festival, the man knows how to get a crowd of any size going. The dude is like a ferret on Red Bull, a manic, frantic ball of energy unable to keep still, moving everywhere, imploring the fans to match his enthusiasm, his all-or-nothing approach made all the more likeable by his friendly, everyman personality. British rockers Art Brut sang out, "Look at us! We formed a band!", but it's Labonte who epitomizes that completely unpretentious attitude as well as anyone.
That charisma was on full display on a hot day in early August, as he and his band whipped a large Canadian Warped Tour crowd into a frenzy. It was noon, horrifically early by metal standards, but judging by the couple thousand sun-soaked faces crammed around the main stage, All That Remains might as well have been the headliner. No whining emo band would top them on this afternoon, as the band, clearly thrilled to be away from the studio after having finished their fourth album, teared through a ferocious yet unabashedly ebullient seven-song set. And knowing full well that All That Remains is the only true, dyed-in-the-wool metal band on this entire tour (sorry, Bring Me the Horizon, you're too inept to count), Labonte was truly in his element, hilariously deriding the post-hardcore scenesters on the other stages and in the crowd, and playing up the hesher shtick, including taking swigs from a gigantic bottle of Jim Beam in between scorching performances of fan faves like "The Air That I Breathe", "Not Alone", and "Six".
"I got to get up onstage and act like a jerk, and say terrible things. I thought, 'What would Phil Anselmo do?'" says a cheerful Labonte, on the phone from his home a couple weeks later. "I guess I'm kind of just making a joke about the whole metal thing, because we were definitely the most metal band on the tour, we have the dude with the big long hair and pointy fuckin' guitar. But at the same time, we get the joke. Metal's not the most serious thing, and if you take it too seriously, then it becomes even funnier. That's kind of why I got up there and had fun with it. I enjoyed myself thoroughly just getting up there and being a jerk," he laughs, adding, "We're not a bunch of big tough guy people in the band; we're just normal kids from suburbia that were lucky to play metal for a living."
With just a short time to decompress after that quick run with the Warped crowd, the promotional machine is in high gear in anticipation of the release of Overcome, the follow-up to 2006's breakthrough The Fall of Ideals, an album that catapulted All That Remains from one of the better bands hailing from the saturated New England metal scene to ranking among the more popular acts in American metal, their sales surpassing 100,000. Unlike such cutting-edge acts like Mastodon, the Dillinger Escape Plan, or Converge, for All That Remains it's not so much about pushing the boundaries of extreme music, but simply figuring out what the band's strengths are, and focusing on refining those qualities with each album. Consequently, while not exactly reinventing the wheel, the musical growth shown on each release has been significant. The Fall of Ideals boasted the kind of catchy vocal melodies and riffs that many American metal bands are completely incapable of, to go along with the band's increasingly unique variation on melodic death metal. Overcome, meanwhile, sees the quintet raising the bar for itself yet again, building on the formula of the last album, refining that sound even more, Labonte's vocals more varied and confident, the riffs and flamboyant solos by guitarists Oli Herbert and Mike Martin more textured.
Bison b.c., Quiet Earth (Metal Blade)
Equal parts classic metal, doom, and crust punk, the Vancouver foursome's approach might be on the blunt side, but there's no denying their second full-length doesn't grab a hold of us immediately. Sludgy gut-punchers like "These Are My Dress Clothes" and "Primal Emptiness of Outer Space" tread the same path worn out by High on Fire, Saviours, and the Sword, but it's on the bolder tracks like the prog-minded "Wendigo Pt 1 (Quest for Fire)" and the surprisingly textured instrumental "Medication" that show how close this band is to becoming one of the best metal acts in Western Canada.
The Human Abstract, Midheaven (Hopeless)
Fitting somewhere between the ultra-complex noodling of Protest the Hero, the more sedate prog metal of Three, and the arch tones of, erm, Incubus, the eclectic nature of this sophomore album never spirals out of control, searing math-metal arrangements offset by brilliant alt-rock choruses ("Breathing Life Into Devices"), Zappa and King Crimson colliding with technical death ("This World Is a Tomb"). Vocalist Nathan Ells has the range this sound demands and guitarists Dean Herrera and Andrew Tapley display some ridiculous chops, but young Sean Leonard might turn into this band's best asset, the keyboardist carrying on like a metal Keith Emerson.
Toxic Holocaust, An Overdose of Death(Relapse)
After two albums and a ton of splits, singles, and EPs, multi-instrumentalist Joel Grind has abandoned his trademark bedroom recordings in favor of a more polished approach with producer Jack Endino and Zeke drummer Donny Paycheck. While the music remains as trite a thrash rip-off as you'll ever hear, this time around Toxic Holocaust packs more of a wallop than it ever did before. Hugely indebted to the early days of the thrash era (think Venom and Show No Mercy-era Slayer) to the point of coming off as shameless, Grind is so committed to that old school sound, it's impossible not to admire, no matter how dumb it all is.
"For this record, we really pushed the boundaries of what we do and tried a lot of different stuff," Labonte explains. "There's way more acoustic stuff on this record than there's ever been, there's way more clean singing than there's ever been. To be honest, if I have to pick the song that to me represents [Overcome] the best, it would probably be something like 'Undone'. That song could be on The Fall of Ideals very easily and fit right in, it's one of my favorite songs on the record. When people hear the record, I know that's not going to be a song that they're going to focus on a lot, because it kind of is what you expect from All That Remains. That to me is the important part, because even though we tried all this other stuff, we still have so much on this record that is unquestionably All That Remains."
Overcome saw the band changing things up in the studio, as they decided to work with talented Florida producer Jason Suecof (Trivium, Kataklysm) instead of longtime collaborator Adam Dutkiewicz, who had produced the band's previous three albums. "[Suecof] was a little more open to giving his input," says Labonte. "I just think he was a little more open with saying, 'Hey try this, hey, try that.' I think Adam's first option is to stay away and see what the band has, whereas Jason, if he hears something, his first thought is, 'I hear this,' not, 'What are you guys thinking?' I wouldn't say it was a bad experience working with him like that. I will say that if we work with Jason again we're gonna need an engineer because Jason's very scatterbrained and has a very short attention span."
Bound to be a crowd-pleaser, the incessant "Two Weeks" is a terrific example of the band's chemistry with Suecof, as the song not only achieves the kind of impeccable give-and-take between Labonte's contagious choruses and the muscular metalcore chug of the rhythm riffs that we've come to expect from the band, but the song also features some audacious, layered vocal work during the verses, Labnonte's hardcore roar offset simultaneously by a stringly sung melody. It's effective, and rather clever, to which Labonte wholeheartedly agrees. "That's something I wanted to do more of…I wanted to do more of it on this record, but we kind of ran out of time in the studio. It's something I've been messing around with. I've heard a couple bands do it a little bit here and there, I think it's just a really, really cool dynamic, the extreme, brutal sound of a scream, and if you pitch it just right it'll match up with the singing.
"'Two Weeks' was the hardest one to write," he adds. "We had three different melodies for verses on that one when we decided we would go ahead and have a sung verse. That was the one where we tried the most different things. It just wasn't clicking. And if it doesn't click, you kind of can't let it go, and then a week before I left I came up with it, I sat down with Jason…it was really just the verse, the chorus and pre-chorus were done, we were sure about those really early, but the verse was what we were having a kind of struggle with."
Throughout this tautly arranged and performed album, we hear just how natural those hooks come to this band, how the clean/brutal tug-of-war always finds a middle ground, neither side overtaking the other. "Forever in Your Hands" has Labonte, a student of famed vocal instructor Melissa Cross, sounding the strongest he ever has, while the decidedly more aggressive "Chiron" contains a much more subtle melody in the screamed vocals, fitting perfectly with the song's predilection towards Swedish melodeath. The exuberant title track heads in a more thrash-oriented direction and the multi-faceted "A Song for the Hopeless" veers from mellow, to brooding, to ferocious, yet at the core of these tracks remains those ever-present melodies.
The album's closing track, a faithful cover of Nevermore's classic "Believe in Nothing", is musically a perfect fit with the rest of Overcome, but the discipline and restraint of the original song has also had a profound influence on All That Remains' own songwriting over the years. "It really is an amazingly structured and performed song," effuses Labonte. "The simplicity of that song is amazing, considering the players in Nevermore and how incredibly amazing those guys are at their given instrument, whether it be the vocals or the singing. Nothing's done over the top, nothing's done too much, and they're all so much better than the song leads you to believe, until you really kind of listen to it, and listen to the feel of the song, and listen to the changes on the drums.
"I personally think that when you're writing any song, unless your intent is to go ahead and be like, 'Yo, check out what I can do,' restraint is the most important thing. People respond to certain things. The more simple a beat is, the more often you're going to feel it. I don't get caught up in all the stuff that's going on around…just a way that you can fuckin' feel the beat, where there's not all kinds of stuff to distract you. That goes the same for guitar riffs. Get your melody and find your rhythm, and don't add a ton of extra stuff. Once you've got the melody, you don't need 17 million notes around it. Where's the focus -- is the focus on the rhythm of the riff, is the focus on the melody of the riff? Then just leave it alone, stop doin' stuff, let it sit. Too many cooks will spoil the broth, and too many ideas will spoil the song."
Considering how quickly Overcome was written and recorded, let alone the pressure Labonte puts upon himself as a songwriter and his headspace at the time, the focus and cohesiveness of the entire album is remarkable. "It was a really rough time for me," he admits. "We were going to Florida, we were working with a new producer, we had a very limited amount of time to write and record the record. We got down there and the record wasn't completely written. I had some personal stuff going on, some arguments with the management and the label about the release and the stuff we had planned. It was really tough, and I think that really came out in the lyrics…. With The Fall of Ideals I was definitely in a position where everything was good, my life was really, really cool, I was very happy with the position I was in and the stuff we were writing. The lyrics really reflected that kind of positive outlook. Overcome came from a much more negative perspective than The Fall of Ideals did."
After spending the better part of a decade building a fanbase from the ground up, going through a ridiculous number of member changes before finally settling on a stable lineup (bassist Jeanne Sagan has been with them for nearly three years, drummer Jason Costa for two), touring the continent over and over, and steadily evolving over the course of four albums, Labonte is thrilled to be able to eke out a living as a metal musician. At the same time, he's fully aware of just how much effort his craft constantly demands, especially if he intends to keep on improving at the same rate. "I definitely know that it's not easy to pull off the shit that we do, and do it in any kind of manner that would be considered suitable for consumption," he says. "It's hard, it's taken us ten years to get to where we are, to get to the point where we're mature musically. Some people, it's obviously inborn, and it comes a little more naturally or it comes younger, but I don't know your average metal band can pull off the stuff that a lot of professional metal bands can.
"Think of how many metal bands there are out there. Think of how many garage bands there are, how many people that are just trying to get something going, anything going, just to play some shows. How many people who are just like, 'Man, I wish I could just play one show, play in front of people.' I thought that for fuckin' years before the first time we actually played. I don't think just anyone can do it without putting the time and effort in. I'm not saying it's impossible for anyone else; I'm saying if you're gonna do it, it takes time and effort and work."