There are two reasons you should be paying attention to Rochester right now. The first is RXK Nephew, the workaholic rapper whose “American Tterroristt” is bar none the most insane song I’ve heard recently. (Yes, I’m late.) The other is death metal quintet Undeath, who do not work at the prolific pace RXK Nephew does but are by no means slouches. They are one of the most exciting newer death metal bands, as they don’t adhere to either to ultra-orthodox simplicity or bonkers technicality.
Rather, Undeath pepper their songs with slight twists, little leads and breaks that make you go “huh?” for a split second before you resume headbanging/windmilling/nodding/however you move your head when you listen to death metal. It lends to a macabre joy, and lest you might think they’re aching to smile to overcompensate for their more dour peers, they certainly aren’t: Their death metal is as rollicking as it is tight and serious.
Their second album, It’s Time…to Rise from the Grave, out Friday through Prosthetic, continues the ghoulish rollercoaster of their debut, Lesions of a Different Kind. “Enhancing the Dead” finally gets a real studio treatment after rawer appearances on their demo Sentient Autolysis and VHS tape Live From Hell, and it’s a testament to the time-honed “when they bring back the nasty riff but slower” principle. That last minute almost makes the whole song. You’d swear that “Defiled Again” didn’t come from Rochester, but from Trey Azagthoth’s gaming computer down in Florida — they really know how to get at that Covenant sound. “Rise from the Grave” is the most striking track, and it all comes from that bombastic opening riff, as much stadium crust as it is filthy death metal. If you need to make any situation a wrestling walk-on, that’s the riff to use.
Read more of our conversation with Undeath singer Alexander Jones below.
SPIN: Where do you feel like this record moves forward from the first one?
Alexander Jones: I feel like this new album is the next logical step for our band. We weren’t trying to get cute with it; we weren’t trying to add a bunch of unnecessary experimentation; we weren’t trying to be something we’re not. We were just trying to make the best Undeath record that we could possibly make, and I think that’s what we did with this one. Going into it, we looked at all the elements, all the aspects of Lesions of a Different Kind, our first album, that we really enjoyed, and we just took all those things and isolated them and tried to just expand on them as much as we possibly could. What that looked like was just bigger riffs, bigger choruses, bigger hooks, just more stuff to draw you in as a listener.
People don’t really think about hooks when it comes to death metal — how are those important for y’all?
I think it’s an underappreciated aspect of metal music — metal specifically, I feel like not enough bands are playing around with crafting a big hook. It’s such a universally accepted thing in pop music or more accessible genres of music — not that Undeath is trying to be a pop band, but why are those principles that have existed in other genres of music forever so taboo in something like metal? Which is funny, because for a long time in metal they weren’t. If you look back at bands like Sabbath, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, all what we would consider the classic forebears of heavy metal — all of their hits had huge hooks, huge choruses, huge riffs. They had that [crossover] appeal that got so many people into them. I think with Undeath it’s important to us: We take inspiration not only from death metal bands but also from bands like Sabbath and Priest just as much, because they wrote fucking bangers.
I feel that most in “Rise of the Grave,” with the big-ass surging riff at the beginning.
Totally. That was one of the first ones for the record that came together. I think that was the first riff or first song Kyle [Beam, guitarist] showed me when we were starting the writing process for this album. I was kinda blown away by it because, for one thing, I thought it was really cool, but at the same time, it didn’t sound like anything we had done before. It made me very excited to hear everything else he was gonna come up with. I think it’s cool because it’s the most distilled essence of what we’re going for as a band. We kinda flirted with this idea of a big, galloping verse riff here and there. We’ve gotten close to that before, but we’ve never actually said “fuck it” and done it. That song is us kind of putting all cards on the table.
There’s a gleeful misanthropy that runs throughout your music. You can’t say a song title like “Head Splattered in Seven Ways” without a grin on your face.
“Gleeful misanthropy” — that’s an excellent way to put it. That is the Undeath M.O. We know that we’re not serial killers; we know we’re not dudes who have felonies and crawl spaces full of bodies. We’re just overweight gamers from Upstate New York; we’re not trying to fool anybody. It’s about having a good time with us, reveling in this admittedly silly thing us and the people who like our music enjoy, which is death metal.
Metal is serious music, but it’s also ridiculous, and you have to embrace that.
In the early days of the band, in our first handful of shows, I would get onstage and try to exude this very dark and brooding and menacing persona, but the second I get offstage I’m hanging out at the bar and cracking jokes. I’m kind of thinking to myself, “Oh, I just got up there and lied to everybody.” There’s a lot of artists who are able to pull that off, that are able to keep up that mystique and not break kayfabe. For me, it’s never been my wheelhouse, I’ve never had that skill. I find a lot of comfort in breaking down that artifice and being myself onstage, and I hope the rest of the guys are having fun being themselves onstage, [and] as a result our music and our band have become more approachable.
That reminds me of when I saw Suffocation some years ago and Frank Mullen is doing his thing, being all brutal, and not a second after a song ends he’s asking the crowd for the Cowboys score.
On the flip side of that token too, when you see a band like Portal — that dude [vocalist The Curator] has the conviction, the natural persona to be able to get up onstage and wear a fucking grandfather clock on his head and not have it seem ridiculous. When he does it, you’re like, “What the fuck is wrong with this guy? This is crazy.” If I was gonna try and do something like that, I know that I wouldn’t be able to help myself from making jokes about it because that’s who I am; I’m pretty self-effacing.
“Human Chandelier” is pretty evocative, to say the least. What more can you tell us about that song?
Most of the songs on the record are pretty atonal, like they’re operating at one — not one speed, but they never really break momentum. They’re all coming at you the entire time. Those songs tend to be about gore and torture and people killing people and all that good stuff. The lyrical content fits the way that those songs feel because it’s just somebody coming at you with an axe or a knife trying to kill you. This one [“Chandelier”] feels more methodical, feels more deliberate, eerie, and haunting in a way that we’ve never experimented with before. The song builds and builds and builds, and in the end it drops out in this huge breakdown part, which feels like a chandelier falling on your head. When it came time to write lyrics, the feeling of the song lent itself pretty naturally to a lyrical concept of a madman constructing an enormous chandelier out of human bones and body parts and shit.
What’s going on with Rochester as far as metal?
There’s always tons of cool stuff going on around here, but I feel like the reason Rochester isn’t on a lot of peoples’ radars is because Rochester bands don’t really self-promote too much. We’re kinda just content doing our thing and playing at The Bug Jar every other weekend and maybe going down to Philly or going down to Brooklyn once in a while. For the most part, it’s an insular scene, and that’s not to say there isn’t cross-pollination — everybody who is in a band around here is in six other bands. You know everybody; you end up playing a large variety of music with a lot of the same people because you’re all into the same shit. Rochester has a really cool, really thriving music scene like it has for pretty much the entire time I’ve lived here. There’s just not a lot of ego, not a lot of unnecessary ambition — like there is ambition, but there isn’t that social-climbing weird aspect that you might find in other music scenes. It is very self-contained in a way I really appreciate. I’m proud to represent Rochester via Undeath. Hallucination Realized is an awesome band from up here; there’s a band called Holy Water up here that’s awesome. There’s cool shit happening all the time.
Last year, there was a video of you guys playing a skatepark — very hardcore. It’s cool when those two worlds come together in interesting ways.
It’s funny because to me when we did that show, it was so not unusual to me. But I feel like so many people saw that video and were like, “What the fuck is happening? What is this death metal band doing playing a skatepark?” For me, that’s just a Syracuse show. Shows in Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo — they just kinda happen wherever. The big DIY spot in Buffalo right now is literally the back room of an Italian restaurant. That’s just the way things work around here: just have shows wherever you can, and then because this region of the world tends to get passed over on tours a lot, people are super appreciative for any live music that happens.
More of this month’s best metal to put on while you put away our four-sides long-sleeves until the fall…
Sumerlands – Ageless Life (Relapse)
Metal superproducer Arthur Rizk’s group Sumerlands — featuring two of his Eternal Champion cohorts, bassist Brad Raub and guitarist John Powers, with Dream Unending drummer Justin DeTore — returns with a new EP and new singer. Magic Circle’s Brendan Radigan replaces Phil Swanson and brings electricity to “Heavens Above,” a mid-paced romp with some truly angelic leads. There’s also a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “I’m So Afraid,” and as someone who is not a Mac-head, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This is a taste for a new Sumerlands record coming later this year, and with a new Dream Unending record arriving in the fall too, DeTore’s priming himself for a great year.
Negative Plane – “A Work to Stand a Thousand Years” (from The Pact…, out April 30 on Invictus/The Ajna Offensive)
New York’s Negative Plane return after 11 years with The Pact…, and its leadoff track “A Work to Stand a Thousand Years” is more of their darkened, maze-like take on Mercyful Fate riffing, with bits of Tormentor’s skewed vision. If we have to wait a thousand years for the next album, I think it’ll be worth it.
Lament Cityscape – A Darker Discharge (out April 29 on Lifeforce)
You don’t typically think of Wyoming for unhinged industrial metal, but Lament Cityscape’s second record, A Darker Discharge, will have you rethinking that. As brutish as it can be, “Innocence of Shared Experiences” is breathtaking, like if Justin Broadrick fully reconciled Jesu’s heartbreak with Godflesh’s deathly lurch.
Feral Light – Psychic Contortions (out Friday on I, Voidhanger)
This Minnesota duo’s fourth record takes from modern strains of black metal, not shying away from melodies and the occasional oft-kilter riff without compromising on fury. Probably the most straightforward release in a while from the usually boundary-pushing I, Voidhanger, but what works well works well.