When it comes to heavy-metal music, there's still nothing better than the instrumental build-up. Whether you're talking about the influential hard-rock of the '70s that pointed the way, or the bastard sub-genres that pigeonhole metal bands of today, the build-up is still anticipatory glory. The build-up is everything. You may remember the climax, but it's nothing without the foreplay.
Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath laid the first bricks with “Stairway to Heaven” and “War Pigs.” If “Stairway” was eight minutes of perpetual bustle in your hedgerow, then “Pigs” was Shiva on a bad day: Tony Iommi's down-tuned guitar snarling the riffs before finally biting and barking a storm of nuclear bombs at your head. And while hair metal bypassed the build-up for what many times equated to an aural premature ejaculation, bands like Guns ‘N Roses (“Welcome to the Jungle”), Metallica (“One”), solo Ozzy (“Crazy Train”) and, especially, Slayer (“Dead Skin Mask,” “Jesus Saves” and just about every other song in their catalog) would tease and poke with one-chord riffs and pounding kick-drums until the beat-down fully began.
The newest batch of metal bands hasn't strayed too far from the original brood, with bands like Slipknot, Mastodon, The Sword, Meshuggah, Opeth and Early Man building-up while simultaneously breaking down the old guard. But there's always reverence for that beloved intro. If Beethoven invented it musically, then metal made it downright requisite.
And so it is with “Separation,” the opening track of As I Lay Dying's newest album, An Ocean Between Us. It's barely more than a minute of slowly strummed instrumental expectancy complete with indiscernible radio static and diminutive guitar solos, which all segues into “Nothing Left.” The guitars get faster. The drums get louder. And then, with knuckles white and fists clenched, just when you think you can't wait any longer, the singer's voice rises, screaming like a bear rudely awakened mid-hibernation: This world was never worthy / but how can I call it unfaithful? / Every promise was fulfilled as decay crawled from its throat / like the dead rising from an open grave.
“It's very important. When you're playing it, when you're anticipating that next part, you know it's going to make the song hit harder, or hit the right way,” explains AILD drummer Jordan Mancino, a Vinny Paul-meets-Raymond Herrera style of player who often sounds like he has four arms.
As I Lay Dying is undoubtedly San Diego's biggest metal band and currently one of the most successful within the entire genre. During the course of seven years and four albums, they have sold more than a million CDs, been nominated for a Grammy (for Best Metal Performance) and toured the world several times to play for tens of thousands of fans. An Ocean Between Us debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard Charts, nestled rather uncomfortably between Swizz Beatz and, uh, Nickelback. They've twice been named Artist of the Year by the San Diego Music Awards, were voted 2006's “Metal Gods” by MTV2 and welcomed on both the Vans Warped Tour and Ozzfest. And all before any of them were even 25 years old. So why haven't most San Diego music fans ever heard them, much less heard of them?
“It's definitely been a very gradual, steady climb,” remarks singer and guitarist Tim Lambesis. “The first tour, we played for 50 people. The next tour was for 70. Eventually it was over 100. Now it's for thousands. But still, many people don't know who we are outside of the scene.”
It was that underground scene that spawned the group, with Lambesis and Mancino always the core of the band. The duo, along with original bassist Noah Chase and guitarist Evan White, formed in 2000 from the ashes of two hardcore punk bands. Although those groups' sounds were influentially similar, both Lambesis and Mancino craved a band more akin to the metalcore bands they grew up on in North County. Initially, it was hard for them to get gigs; as Lambesis recollects, they were often too metal for hardcore-punk audiences and too punk for metal fans. They often ended up playing at, of all places, local churches, which didn't really scare the band too much, as all are devout Christians.
“San Diego was such a huge punk and hardcore place,” Lambesis reflects. “Typically, hardcore bands and Christianity didn't fully blend. We didn't find friends on either side, whether it was because of what we believed or the type of music we played.”
One thing both Lambesis and Mancino had going for them was an immediate chemistry that resulted in their first full-length album after being together only two months. The result, Beneath the Encasing of Ashes, and the band's breakneck touring in Lambesis' parents' Suburban, was enough to get the attention of Brian Slagel, owner and founder of the legendary Metal Blade Records, who immediately signed the band.
“They had a freshness to what they were doing,” says Slagel from his office in L.A., adding that he saw something in AILD that he says takes other bands years to perfect. “We were very impressed with how far along the band had come so early in their career. Even after the first time seeing them live, you really felt that these guys had something special.” This coming from the guy who, back in the '80s. gave a little-known band called Metallica its big break.
While Mancino says they originally sent their album to Metal Blade as more of a whimsical joke, the band immediately became one of the company's biggest acts, releasing Frail Worlds Collapse in 2003 and what many consider to be their commercial breakthrough, Shadows are Security, in 2005. The band also increased its tour schedule to nearly nine months out of the year—a hectic pace, but Lambesis maintains that it was their focus on the road, not to mention their face-burning live show, that made As I Lay Dying so successful.
“All bands love music,” he says, “but when some bands go out on tour, they do all fun and no music.”
“We try to go as nuts as on stage as our music sounds on record,” Mancino adds. “We're passionate about what we do, and I think it comes across.”
The perpetual touring has also helped the band develop a more distinct, even melodic, brand of metal that has garnered them fans outside of the mosh pit—something clearly revealed when An Ocean Between Us debuted in Billboard's Top 10 last year. Lambesis says the band drew influence from the thrash metal of the '80s, as opposed to what contemporary bands were doing.
“We really didn't want to release the exact same album twice.”
Lambesis also says that while many fans were perhaps taken aback by the new sound, they eventually came to love it. “If you're trying to be different for the sake of being different, then metal kind of loses its aggression. A lot of bands can write a thrash-style riff, but then there's no melody to it. A lot of bands can write a melody, but there's no aggression. What makes this album stand out is the balance.”
Something that hasn't changed, however, is the band's Christian faith—and the stigma that comes with it. Just as they felt out of place when they first started, Lambesis and Mancino say fans and other bands are sometimes unreceptive when they find out about their faith. They openly talk about their spirituality, and yet they've never genuflected to the point where a Slayer or Celtic Frost fan might feel like AILD was at their front door, Bible-in-hand, ready to share Jesus' love. Lambesis thinks that having a relationship with God can't help but influence his musical perspective, but not overtly. To paraphrase T-Bone Burnett, he doesn't sing about the light; he sings about what he sees because of the light.
“Because I am a Christian, that always influences my perspective and the way I approach a situation,” says Lambesis, who has a “rocking Jesus” tattoo that he received on The Learning Channel's reality show, L.A. Ink. “But I honestly don't believe that makes our music only appeal to one type of person.”
“People are going to think what they want to think, regardless of what we say or do,” Mancino reminds. “But, I think music has gotten to the point where everyone's a little more tolerant. The majority of people just want to listen to good music.”
And while they may be serious about their beliefs, the guys certainly have a sense of humor. Before Lambesis heads back out on the road with AILD, he's doing some quick shows with Austrian Death Machine, his rather unique, if not completely strange, side project. The band consists of Lambesis playing every instrument, the music in the same death-metal vein of AILD, but lead vocal duties are shared with Arnold Schwarzenegger samples of some of the governor's most famous movie quotes. Think “If it bleeds we can kill it,” “Come with me if you want to live” and, naturally, “It's not a tumor.” Lambesis says he knows someone who shares an office with Schwarzenegger's lawyer and thinks that a copy of the album (called Total Brutal) will somehow end up on a certain someone's desk in the state capitol.
Until then, Lambesis remains devoted to the mission he started with As I Lay Dying—not a mission of faith, but a mission of music for all. Members have come and gone, but he's adamant that the current lineup, with bassist Josh Gilbert and guitarists Phil Sgrosso and Nick Hipa, are in it for the long haul. Both he and Mancino say they sold more copies of An Ocean in the first week than they ever thought they'd sell.
“It was a very proud moment to think that music had actually become my living,” says Lambesis. “Growing up, you always hear those people who say, ‘Don't pursue a job for money; pursue a job because it's what you love to do.' That's exactly what happened.”
Says Mancino: “When Tim and I started this band, we didn't expect things to get to this level. At the time we got together, bands that sounded like us weren't selling hundreds of thousands of records, they were selling 10,000 records tops and playing cafés and youth halls. Somehow, it worked out for us.”
He then later adds, “I still think the best is yet to come.”
Seems the build-up isn't over after all.
As I Lay Dying plays Wednesday, Sept. 17, at the San Diego Music Awards at Viejas' Concerts in the Park. 619.220.TIXS. www.sandiegomusicawards.com.