One of the best stories of the last few years in the realm of US death metal has been the rise of Horrendous. On the one hand, parts of that story actually aren’t all that uncommon: three lifelong metal dudes from Philly get together to make the kind of music they want to hear, but no one else seems to be playing. What’s not very common, however, is the fact that those three metal dudes came strapped with some of the gnarliest riffs the genre has heard in ages. In a span of roughly five years, starting with the release of their first full-length The Chills in 2012, they went from being primarily a studio-based project to a coveted slot on the 2017 Decibel Tour, releasing two more critically-acclaimed albums along the way: Ecdysis in 2014 and Anareta the following year.
2018 is shaping up to be the biggest year yet, thanks to the release of their fourth long-player Idol, which is also their first for international powerhouse label Season of Mist, with whom they recently signed after a long and fruitful relationship with Dark Descent. In another first, Idol also marks the debut of bassist Alex Kulick, the first permanent bass player in the band’s history. With him in the fold, Horrendous has finally morphed into the progressive death metal juggernaut they were likely always meant to be – the natural successor to the throne that Atheist and Cynic held for so long.
I had the chance recently to chat with drummer Jamie Knox and guitarist/vocalist Damian Herring about Idol and the whirlwind last few years for the band. Check it out below, and make sure to grab a copy of Idol from Season of Mist here.
Indy Metal Vault: Hey, so first off – thanks for the interview. If I were talking to almost any other band, I’d be starting off here by mentioning your leap to Season of Mist and how 2018 is shaping up to be a big year for Horrendous, but assuming my math is correct, you’ve been having a big year at least since Ecdysis came out in 2014. If memory serves, you didn’t really intend to play live back in the early days of the band. Now I don’t think it’d be much of a stretch to say that Horrendous is one of the elite of the current wave of American death metal bands. Have you had a chance over the last few years to pause and soak it all in, or are you still kind of caught in the whirlwind of the band’s success?
Jamie Knox: Thanks for the kind words! In the early days we didn’t have any reason to think the band would grow into what it has become, and live appearances were pretty uncommon to the point that we didn’t bother getting a bass player – teaching someone all the lines and practicing with them seemed like a waste of time. While it did feel like things were beginning to change a bit for us back in 2014, the last few years have made 2014 seem like a period of relative inactivity. From the tour we did with Tribulation and Youth Code in Fall of 2016 until now, it has felt like a nonstop whirlwind, honestly. We have been busier in this recent period than ever before, to the point that it is becoming difficult to keep up with everything (interviews, shipping merch, etc.). Now that Idol is finally out, we’ve been trying to soak everything in, but we’ve become busy preparing to play shows to support the album. It is fun but pretty tiring, haha. It’s a shame that we can’t play in this band for a living since this would all be much easier, but such is life.
IMV: That being said, it has to be kind of cool to be label mates with Gorguts, Cynic, Alkaloid, Beyond Creation, and Atheist, especially as your sound is evolving in a more progressive direction. How did you end up making the move from Dark Descent to Season of Mist? I’ve read several interviews where you’ve had nothing but positive things to say about Matt Calvert—and for what it’s worth, I’ve never had anything but positive interactions with him myself—so I’m guessing it wasn’t a decision you made without giving it considerable thought first. What ultimately convinced you to make that leap? I’m guessing Season of Mist wasn’t the first bigger label that tried to lure you away.
JK: Yes, we are excited to be able to join a roster with these and other interesting bands, and that diversity was certainly a selling point. It is true, we do still love Matt and Dark Descent, and I’m sure we’ll continue to maintain a working relationship. The decision was a very tough one, particularly since a number of us are already fairly indecisive people, haha. I think a whole year went by between the offer being made and us accepting a version of it. We got advice from a number of individuals that had experience with Season in one way or another, and got some music business-type individuals involved as well to make sure a step like this would be worth making. We did get offers from other labels as well, but Season felt like the best fit – we reached a point that we were either going to move to Season or remain with Dark Descent. I think the opportunity to get our music out to a new audience – from Season’s big European presence, to its varied roster of bands that attracts different listeners – was a big factor in the move. It also made financial sense, and we were already friendly with a number of Season employees. Michael very clearly believes in what we are doing as well, which became clear from several informal meetings we had together. So in the end, we took the dive and made the tough decision to try something new.
IMV: Even though I feel like you started moving away from that sound with Ecdysis, anyone who initially dismissed Horrendous as being one of those HM-2 worshipping, Swedish death metal clones was (a) wrong to begin with, and (b) increasingly more incorrect with each successive release. With Idol, though, I feel like Horrendous has completely crossed the Rubicon into prog-death territory – there are moments on Idol that remind me more of Atheist than any of the Swedish bands. I am curious, though, as to how deliberate you were about that move into more progressive territory. Was there a point where you consciously said ‘no more Swedeath,’ or was it more of a natural progression?
JK Our musical progression is more a product of our own tendency to experiment with the variety of musical ideas that come to us. All four of us listen to an incredibly broad swath of genres, some of which would probably be shocking to some fans, and I think these different approaches to music eventually make their way into one’s psyche. We are definitely at a point where we don’t worry if certain riffs or sections sound “metal enough,” or anything like that. On top of this openness, we also really like to challenge ourselves with each new record – how can we top what we have already done? What new techniques can we try that might have seemed impossible in the past? Instead of setting out and saying “I want the new album to sound like X,” we are just in a different place once we begin writing each new album, and we really try to let our creativity flow and see what happens. I don’t think we ever really know what the final product will feel like until we get there. Regarding the “Swedeath” sound, Damian was simply enamored with the HM-2 guitar tone as a producer back in the day, and I think it worked for our early material. We certainly were influenced by bands like Entombed and Dismember, but I never felt like we were trying to emulate them. Over time, we became interested in using cleaner, less harsh, more emotive guitar tones, and our more straightforward death metal riffs have been diluted by all the other musical ideas we’ve incorporated, so it was more a natural progression than an attempt to abandon a particular sound.
IMV: To my ears at least, there are two major differences between Idol and your previous albums. The first is that you’ve added a permanent bass player to your lineup in Alex Kulick, and he definitely makes his presence known on the album with his jazzy, liquid bass lines. You waste no time in introducing him to listeners, either, since he dominates Idol’s opening track “…Prescience.” How much did having a permanent bass player in your studio lineup for the first time influence your songwriting process for this album?
JK: Alex had written that introductory track as an interlude for the album, and we thought it would be cool to make it the album opener, almost as an introduction of him to the audience. Alex’s involvement has changed the songwriting process in a number of ways: for one, he is very involved in the free jazz and experimental music scene in Philadelphia, so he brings that perspective to the band. He also is much better at playing bass than Matt and Damian, who shared bass duty on all previous recordings. And on previous albums, bass was written in the studio almost as an afterthought; that isn’t to say that we didn’t carefully craft the bass parts, but Alex wrote his bass parts for this album over the span of months – they are simply more calculated and carefully crafted. His feel on the instrument is different as well, as you mentioned, and it fits in really well with the rest of the band.
IMV: The thing that I think surprised me the most about Idol is how much cleaner it sounds overall than your previous releases. I’m used to a certain amount of grit in the production on a Horrendous album, so I’ll admit that I was a bit taken aback the first time I heard “Soothsayer,” though it didn’t take long for it to grow on me. The lack of grit actually makes sense given the progressive nature of the music. I would have guessed that you used an outside producer this time instead of having Damien do it again, and I’d have been wrong with that guess. Did you approach the recording process any differently this time? Or is the cleaner sound the result of something in the mixing or mastering?
JK I personally like that the production is cleaner – I think it fits our current style and sound much better than previous ones would.
Damian Herring: While I do think Idol is noticeably cleaner than Ecdysis or The Chills, I don’t think it’s that much cleaner than Anareta. Perhaps “smoother?” Regardless, I certainly don’t take that negatively, haha. One of my primary aims is always clarity (not in an unnatural, sterile way), and I think my production skills have improved over time. Every album has represented the very best of my recording and mixing ability at that particular time, and I’m always trying to outdo myself. I want every record to sound better than its predecessor. For example, on Ecdysis, I wanted more natural drums, so we tried it, and we were all very happy with the results. On Anareta, we wanted to continue that direction, while also experimenting with the guitar tone (and making the performances tighter), and I think there was a big step-up overall in terms of polish. Between those two albums is probably where there’s the largest jump in production, and not just because of the lack of HM-2, haha.
Idol was particularly challenging to mix, as there are so many layers of harmonies, counterpoint lines, atmospheric elements, etc. We really went all out, even more so than before, so I’m happy to hear that it sounds “clean” despite all the chaos at any given moment. The actual recording setup for Idol was quite similar to Anareta, but every recording session is unique, and there were differences in the overall process. For Anareta, once the drums were complete, Matt and I basically lived together for a month, living and breathing the album until it was finished. Idol, on the other hand, was recorded in a much more spread out fashion. We recorded on weekends over the course of more than a year. Obviously, the bassist and bass were completely different this time around, and another major difference was some experimentation with mic placement on the cymbals. Regardless, I suspect less grit is a result of mixing and performances and what I thought sounded ideal for this album, but it wasn’t a conscious decision.
IMV: Since the subject of gear fascinates me, what did your studio rigs look like this time around? Obviously the HM-2s are long gone – if memory serves, you didn’t use them on Anareta either – but in general, do you still rely more on your amp heads for tone than an array of pedals?
DH: On every release, we have used my Peavey 5150 as the studio head. You’re right that on Sweet Blasphemies through Ecdysis, we got our tone mostly from the HM-2, and on Anareta and Idol, we primarily used the 5150’s natural tone, to focus less on such an idiosyncratic, identifiable sound. I still love the HM-2, but it’s a lot less clear, which isn’t conducive to the complexity of our current riffs and compositions, and carries a certain innate quality to many listeners’ ears. You could play almost anything with an HM-2 and you’d still get dubbed Swedish death metal. Not that that’s especially important, but the point is the pedal has a certain overbearing character. And to be fair, the HM-2 is not completely gone. I actually used it on one of the leads on Idol–see if you can spot it!
IMV: Lyrically, Idol seems to be a bit heavier thematically than some of your previous work. The PR notes call the album “an exploration of defeat, of the gods we build in our minds to escape the responsibility of action and change as we relinquish our agency.” How did you decide on that for the album’s concept? Can you unpack what that means a bit?
JK: Matt ended up writing the lion’s share of the lyrics this time around, but Damian and I also contributed, and I think all of us had a tough couple of years leading up to the completion of this album. We all went through different personal tribulations and crises, but we were also greatly affected by the sociopolitical state of the US and Western world that began unraveling in 2016. We didn’t really set out to make a concept album or anything like that, but once we got all the lyrics together, it became clear that terror, alienation, self-doubt, and other negative feelings pervaded the lyrics, and that a lot of these stemmed from outside sources exerting power and influence over us. It was a recognition of the different idols in our lives, both exterior and interior, in an attempt to call them out and perhaps try to instead exert some degree of power over them (or at least to diminish their influence on us). Essentially it became an exploration of the causes of this negativity that we were all feeling and bearing.
IMV: Once again, Brian Smith handled the cover art for Idol, and once again, he absolutely killed it. Horrendous seriously has some of the gnarliest album art in the game. How closely do you work with him at this point in developing the cover concepts? Did you go over ideas with him for Idol, or do you basically leave him to his own devices at this point?
JK: We love Brian’s work and have been fortunate that he has continued to work with us. For Idol, the piece already existed and we asked to use it since it felt very fitting for what we had created. But for our prior two albums, he created the works specifically for us. We gave him small amounts of direction (for example, suggesting rough color schemes) and left most of the creative power in his hands. I think this is why he likes to work with us – we trust him and really let him do what he wants with the art, and it has really paid off for us. To us, the cover art for this album is a personification of the idols in our lives as a monstrous, intimidating beast.
IMV: You seem to be playing live a bit more regularly these days. There’s a short run of dates coming up in November, and you’ve got your first European performance set for next May. Do you plan to do more extensive touring behind Idol at any point?
JK: Yes, we have played far more shows in the last few years than ever before, and we hope to keep up the greater live presence at least to some degree. We do have day jobs, so we have to be careful and methodical when planning our tours. In addition to the scheduled US shows, we will undoubtedly schedule several more short runs in different parts of the US to support the album, probably in the first half of 2019. We can’t wait to play in Europe for the first time in May, and we also hope to string together some type of European tour in the summer. But time will tell – there are a number of factors involved like work schedules, the details of tour offers that we get, etc. I’m certain that we’ll do a good amount of touring for this record, but it is hard to say where and when much of it will be at this point.
IMV: Thanks again for being willing to answer a few questions. I like to leave the final word to the artists. Anything else you want to add?
JK: Thanks for the questions and for spreading the word, hopefully we’ll see you on the road sometime soon.