September saw two high-profile metal releases from Iron Maiden and Carcass, plus a reissue of Metallica’s “Black Album,” one of the best-selling metal records in history, complete with a tribute so ill-conceived it’ll make you want to invest in oil companies to hasten our demise. But Blast Rites is more about legends in the making, the groups should have their own dubious tribute albums in about 30 years’ time. (That is, if metal still exists 30 years from now.)
Portland’s Unto Others already had a sound poised to elevate them from the underground, a melodic machine driven by both NWOBHM’s raw-hewn leads and Sisters of Mercy’s more rocking edges. Vocalist Gabriel Franco practically slips into Andrew Eldritch’s slithering charisma when he dons shades, and guitarist Sebastian Silva would be the subject of a million guitar magazine posters were this still the ‘80s. With Strength, their second record (and first as Unto Others, as their first album Mana was recorded as Idle Hands), which comes out Friday on Roadrunner, they’re as gothy and rocking as ever — yet with a harder resolve and an aim to be classic, not just look the part.
Here, they embrace thrash more on tracks like “Why” and “Heroin,” reach for huge melodies on “Downtown” and “Just a Matter of Time” without skimping on the darkness and even get a little dancey on “Instinct.” Better yet, they also transform Pat Benatar’s “Hell Is for Children” into the swagger-dripping rocker it was always meant to be, the perfect antidote for hearing someone butcher “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” in a karaoke bar for the umpteenth time. Unto Others have a unified sound, embracing that there is no one right way to rock — a contradiction, were it not for the weariness and longing that are too real. For a metal metal album that will define 2021, look no further.
SPIN: Strength has much of the Unto Others sound, but it definitely goes in some unexpected directions. How do y’all want people to be surprised by this record? Gabriel Franco: Right off the bat, the first song’s [“Heroin”] gonna get ‘em. Anyone who’s listened to us before will not be expecting the first track. From there on, it’ll ease back into a little more comfortable territory for your average Unto Others or Idle Hands fan. For me, the songs are a bit more visceral; the lyrics are a bit more emotional, as opposed to straight-ahead storytelling kind of stuff I did on Mana. Overall, it’s just a darker, more gritty record.
Unto Others have gone through some real struggles in the past couple years, with the legal battle over the name change, guitarist Sebastian Silva dealing with immigration issues and having big support slots cancelled because of COVID. For every big step you take, there always seems to be a big step back. Did these struggles play into the record at all? 100%, but I wouldn’t call it a big step back. We’re taking our steps forward, and a wall gets placed in front of us, and we either have to climb it or go around the side or make our own way through it. But that doesn’t just apply to us — that applies to everyone’s lives. It’s just whether or not you decide you have the willpower to keep going and get yourself through that. Strength is completely a record about perseverance through struggle.
Since y’all found a distinctive sound early on, was there a conscious move to not box yourselves in with Strength? The most encouraging thing to me is the people who try to box us in are all in disagreement. No one can come to a conclusion of who exactly we sound like. I had one guy in one of my other interviews the other day say, “You guys went for metal more and toned down the goth on this record.” Literally the next interview some guy said, “Man, you guys really upped the goth and toned down the metal on this record.” Whatever, man. I write pretty much all the music myself; everything comes authentically from what I feel like I like or dislike. You’re getting an emotional reflection of where I’m at personally at the time. That’s what this record is, and as long as I remain an individual myself — which I hope I am — the music will remain individual and we’re not gonna be pigeonholed.
What about the rockier end of goth — the Sisters thing — appeals to you? Straight up, I’m a massive classic metal fan. [In] “Just a Matter of Time,” you can hear “Rapid Fire” from Judas Priest. I spent seven years in a retro power metal band [Spellcaster], and we went around and toured the U.S. doing that shit. During that time, we listened to a lot of fuckin’ heavy metal. It’s pretty much ingrained in my psyche at this point, and it’s gonna be pretty hard to weed that out. I’m able to listen to music from different genres and combine it in that music that I hold so close to my heart, and that’s what you get with Unto Others.
Unto Others has this dark romanticism that’s really appealing, and it comes from not being afraid of hooks. How are hooks important for what you do? Like I said, I spent a lot of time in the underground, “true metal” kinda elitist scenes, and they always pissed me off because people did one thing and said another. There were so many bands that I met, when we were partying, they were throwing on Madonna or Lady Gaga or shit like that. So you all like this music, but you’re too scared to put it in your own songs? I’ve never understood that. Oh, that’s right, because it doesn’t fit in what’s supposed to be metal or something. I just do not subscribe to that mentality at all. I like what I fuckin’ like. Who doesn’t want a catchy chorus? You listen to Judas Priest, but you won’t write a chorus like Judas Priest? What are you talking about?
“Bad Romance” is pretty much a W.A.S.P. song. It’s fuckin’ awesome. I’ve said that particularly about that genre of pop from that era, and even before. It’s very heavy metal, if you break it down to the core pieces of what the song is, you’ll find they’re using the same exact riffs that Iron Maiden, punk rock, and new wave all use. People go “Gabe, how do you blend goth rock and punk and heavy metal all together?” They use the same three chords, all of them. 3-5-7, C-D-E on the guitar. All you need is those chords and the attitude and you’re in business. That’s what “Bad Romance” has about it. That’s what Lady Gaga had about her; that’s why people latched on to her.
And a lot of those pop songwriting teams are Swedish. Metal is bigger over there — they know what’s up! One of my favorite bands is Scooter, the techno band from Germany. I showed it to my buddies, and they’re like, “Turn this shit off. It sucks!” But I keep playing it, and I’ve converted them all. Now they’re all listening to it. I’m like “I’m telling you, it’s heavy metal! It’s just in a techno format.” If there’s any doubt that they have heavy metal in their blood, go watch the video for “Fire.”
With this record, I’m hearing a desire that you heard from bigger bands in the ‘80s — that want to go beyond a core metal audience, to cross over, to go to the top. Is that what you’re going for: to transcend limitations?I’m wearing a Queensrÿche Empire shirt right now. That is the prime example of a band really reaching their creative zenith. There are so many bands that would have taken [Queensrÿche’s 1983 song] “Queen of the Reich,” took the small success they had with that record and said, “Well, guys, this is what we gotta do. This is how we get popular. We gotta make ‘Queen of the Reich’ again, except better.” Queensrÿche, naw, they did Operation: Mindcrime, kept going and reached Empire. It’s such an untouchable record. I would love to get to that point in my career, where we’re writing something that’s so fucking beyond what we could do.