Dead But Dreaming: Unearth Interview

Posted June 22, 2011 in
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Welcome to Dead But Dreaming, blackhearts! This week, I sit down with veteran vocalist Trevor Phipps of the brutal Unearth to find out about their upcoming release Darkness In The Light, to get his thoughts on the current pulse of the metal scene, and find out why this album has fired up the brutal Boston quartet more than ever as they gear up to join Megadeth on the Rockstar Mayhem Festival. I’ve also got some web-exclusive reviews for you, including the aforementioned Unearth release, as well as Scale The Summit’s sophomore effort. So crack open a cold one and join us for some destruction.

Get your hardcore fix in Provo this week at the Deathstar on Friday June 24, as Brawl, Hardside, MDK and Blood Stands Still roll into town. Tickets are just $5 and can be purchased at or at the door.

For all of you 21+ punk and goth fans, So Cal legends TSOL will be headlining at Burt's Tiki Lounge with all-female punk troupe Civet on Friday, June 24. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door.

On Saturday, Fire In the Skies will be playing a CD release show at The Deathstar with Sea Swallowed Us Whole, Dead Wife by Knife, and Feed Me to the Poor. Tickets are $5, so come support some locals down in Provo/

Club Vegas will be hosting Such Vengeance (also playing a CD release show), Tezra and the Alias Code this Saturday at 8pm, and as always at Vegas, this is a 21+ show.

Get even more hardcore in your life on Sunday night in Provo, as Hammerfist, The Current and The Thousand play the Deathstar. Once again, tickets are just $5.

Interview with Trevor Phipps of Unearth

SLUG: First, congrats to all you Bostonians on your Stanley Cup victory! I hear Canada’s taking it pretty well.
PHIPPS: Yeah, I guess they would! [Vancouver is] a peaceful city, I have no idea why they’re rioting.

SLUG: Tell me about this new release, Darkness In The Light; how was the writing process, especially working with a new drummer?
PHIPPS: We didn’t write with a drummer. This fall we parted ways with Derek [Kerswill]. He’s more of a rock drummer. We did one last tour with him and then we had a talk with him just saying, you know, things aren’t working out. We decided to write the new record as a 4-piece with a drum machine. Ken [Susi, guitar] and Buz [McGrath, guitar] would write the riffs, Ken would plug in his drum machine, then we’d structure it and send it to Justin [Foley] and he’d track his ideas on his own through the click-track, and that’s how he put his parts together. Then he came out here to record the album.

SLUG: You saw this splitting with Derek coming for a bit?
PHIPPS: Yes, it kinda started last summer. We took most of July off to start writing the record, and it just wasn’t meshing. We talked about it the entire fall tour that we did with All That Remains and As I Lay Dying that it just wasn’t working out. The day after the tour we told him, you know man, you’re a great friend and all, but it’s just not working. He’s a good friend of ours still, the split was amicable, so it’s all good.

SLUG: Your vocals on the new album are sharper and far-reaching. What inspired the changes?
PHIPPS: The clean vocals are all Ken. On my parts, I wouldn’t classify it as clean singing, but more of a half-speaking, half-singing voice—I do more of that on this record than I have in the past. As far as my actual performance, I had an extra fire this time for some reason. I dug a bit deeper than the last couple records. I definitely gave the last couple records my all, but I think this time around I had more fire in my gut, and I can’t really explain why—more pissed off about shit, you know what I mean? It just kinda came out.

SLUG: Your music has long had a very positive message to it, almost a revolutionary war-chant type of feel, to rise up and fight oppression. So what’s put that fire in your belly?
PHIPPS: In my personal life, I’ve had some things happen—friends and family die, some tragic shit going on. It was my time to kind of vent on that aspect. There are a couple of political songs on this record: “Watch it Burn” and “Ruination of the Lost” are more political, and that kinda gets me going. But I did want to steer clear of political stuff on this record because I think the last few records have been heavy on that. I just kind of felt the need to vent some demons on this record and I think that’s what carried most of the lyrics. That’s also well why I had a more fired-up performance, because I was more emotionally involved in it.

SLUG: How has the reception been from your perspective? The reviews I’ve personally seen have been awesome.
PHIPPS: People are saying it’s either our best record, or our best record since “The Oncoming Storm” which was kind of our breakthrough record. We all feel it’s as good or better than that record as well, and it’s cool that other people agree with us. It’s weird being in a band sometimes. When you track a record, you’re so involved in it physically and emotionally that you always think it’s your best work—you just spent months and months doing it. But it doesn’t always hold up to the test of time, or the critics or even your fans. This time around we all really felt something a little bit extra and it seems like people are feeling the same thing, which is really encouraging for us because this is what we love to do and we hope to be around for a long time to come. This is our 13th year, 10th year of touring full-time, and we’re really happy with the reaction, and it keeps us going and takes us to the next level.

: Speaking of your long tenure on the scene, is it getting harder to maintain as you get older?
PHIPPS: Not tired at all. In fact I think on this record, the band had more hunger. We’ve seen a lot of bands come and go—our friends’ bands are splitting up left and right or going on hiatus. You see so many trends with bands we’re not friends with that we don’t even like, but it kinda fires us up too. You see one band sell 35,000 copies the first week, but then in two years they’re gone, people are like “What band are you talking about?” so it fires us up, makes us feel like we’re doing something good, and that people actually enjoy. We’ve never been the hip band, the big band, but we’ve been this band that packs up clubs and people do buy records of, even though it’s not in the 500,000 range. The band is happy with our career, but we’d love to take it to the next level. We look at Slayer; that band’s been at it since the '80s and they just keep on going, putting out killer record after killer record, they have a great live show and an amazing fan base. That’s kinda what this bands wants to do: be around as long as possible. This is the career we’ve chosen and we hope we last for a long time.

SLUG: What’s changed the most for you since The Stings of Conscience?
PHIPPS: Besides [two different] band members, we’ve all grown up. We started the band before we could even drink legally in the States. Now we’re all in our early 30s, bunch of dudes are married, just starting our adult lives, but we’re still a pretty young band. I think our band still has that fire, and we have that live show with high-energy, all the guys stay in shape and as far as us getting older, I don’t think it’s going to really matter until we’re really old.

SLUG: How was it working with Justin Foley [of Killswitch Engage], and are you guys stoked to have him touring with you for the album?
PHIPPS: He’s a longtime friend of ours. Before this band started we had bands we played in that played locally that never went national, and so we knew him beforehand anyway. So he’s a good friend. He didn’t really spend too much time practicing this record with us, mostly over email and then in the studio, so it’s going to be cool to actually jam with him live. We do have a drummer lined up for after Europe, but we did want to start the cycle with Justin. Killswitch isn’t starting up till October because of Times of Grace touring through September , so it made sense for him to work with us and for him to join us on the first two big tours. I think it will be a great live show with him at the kit.

SLUG: You guys knowing him so long has got to add to your overall chemistry.
PHIPPS: Sometimes it’s weird—we’ve had fill-ins before, and if that chemistry isn’t there on-stage it doesn’t work. I think we’ll have a great thing with Justin.

SLUG: One of your consistent and unique strengths is your melodic work, songs like “Aries” and “Equinox”, the interlude to “Zombie Autopilot”; not a lot of metal bands can hit the emotional levels you guys do with that stuff. Is it easier for you to write the melodic work as opposed to your more aggressive and brutal songs?
PHIPPS: I’m not sure it’s harder or easier—I think it goes hand-in-hand with our songs. On our first demo tape we did back in 1998, our first song on that was called “Shattered By The Sun,” and it was a pretty ripping fast song and at the end was very melodic, it was very Iron Maiden influenced. So I think our influences are definitely part of our writing. There’s such a broad spectrum of metal that came before us that has influenced us to write songs, and so I think we just dip into what we’re feeling for certain parts. I think both melodic and heavy will always be a part of our sound.

: Tell me about your writing process.
PHIPPS: As far as the riffs, it’s always been Ken. He’ll write the riffs and bring them to practice. This time not having an actual drummer in studio was different, so Buz and Ken had more time to work together privately. Then we’d hear the songs and give our comments on structure and what have you. As far as lyrics go, that’s all me. When I’m done tracking a record, I’ll always start a new log of stuff that might be a cool lyric or idea for a song. Sometimes I’ll have 2-plus years of notes of stuff that I might want to sing about or touch on, so when the songs are actually done, I’ll go to those notes. I get the vibe of the song and what it makes me feel, and then I read through those notes and pick one that might fit and try to work off that. Sometimes that works; sometimes it’s a whole different fresh idea that comes out.

SLUG: Do you find it hard to drudge up the emotions from a lyrical note you took that’s, say, a year or two old?
PHIPPS: It depends on how much it still means to me. I’d say that would hold true sometimes, that something may not mean as much years later. I’d say a good portion of the later notes will make good songs. This record’s more personal this time—it was actually harder to write first, cause I had to allow myself to put it out there. In the past it’s been more political. It was a bit more of a challenge for me, but at the end of the day I am very happy with it.

SLUG: Does it affect you performing live, when it’s that personal to you?
PHIPPS: I don’t know yet. The songs in the past that were really emotional for me. For example the song called “Sanctity of Brothers,” that’s a song about a friend of mine that passed,  he was only 27 years old; that song sometimes gets to me live. Or the song called “This Time Was Mine” that we hadn’t played in a couple of years is about my uncle that passed. So that would always bring up some pretty real emotions for me on-stage. I’m not sure I show it, but I definitely feel it. This record is more stuff along those lines, but we haven’t played the songs live yet so we’ll see how that goes.

SLUG: How do you feel about the current state of metal?
PHIPPS: There’s things I like and don’t like about it. I like that there’s more of a focus on the aggressive bands now like All Shall Perish and Suicide Silence that are just heavy. For a while, when the term “metalcore” got coined, there was a bunch of bands trying to copy Killswitch Engage with too much emphasis on clean vocals, and it got to be overkill with it. There’s bands that do it well and bands that don’t do it well. I do appreciate that there’s real focus on the aggressive stuff right now. What I don’t like about it is, there’s so many trends that come and go so quickly, it makes me feel like there’s a lack of attention span and dedication to bands. You’ll see certain bands like Madball who do OK in the States, but they’re huge in Europe, and there’s a lot bands like that. I think people are looking to jump from one hot thing to the next. When a band actually does have a long career like Slayer, I think it’s a huge testament to them that they’ve done something right. I don’t like that there’s so many trends coming and going. I think people should focus on what good music is, and good bands are, and not care about the subgenres and the cool trends. Let’s just focus on what’s real and what’s good music.

SLUG: Subgenres have gotten quite out of control in metal, it seems.
PHIPPS: It’s cool to break barriers down to create different sounds, but I do hate when there’s that subgenre term. Back when you had Maiden and Priest and Metallica, it was all still called “metal”, and people loved metal. Now there’s so many subgenres people have lost focus on that family atmosphere of loving metal. We played Wacken in Germany three years ago and it was the coolest vibe ever, because everyone there just loved metal. Every band got a good response—it didn’t matter what subgenre the band was playing it, it was a metal concert, and it was such an amazing vibe. That is what I feel like all shows should be like. This is what I grew up with. I’m not old, but why is there so much dissention for certain subgenres? It’s all aggressive music; we all love the same thing.

SLUG: Is it a lot more work to be a part of a big festival tour, as opposed to smaller venues and a handful of acts? What do you prefer?
PHIPPS: I prefer the small clubs, if we headline especially, because it is our fans. You’ve heard bands say it for years: it is more intimate and personal, the fans are right there. Sometimes there’s no barricade, which is awesome. In a small, hot club, it’s just a better vibe in general. But I do love playing festivals too, because it’s thousands of people and a bunch of them might not have heard the band. And you definitely change your stage banter on a festival too, because you have to get the attention of people who are not 20 feet but 2,000 feet from you. You have to put your arms out, and look bigger than you are, and try to get everyone into it.

SLUG: How far back in the catalogue are you guys gonna play on your tour this year?
PHIPPS: Right now our set has this new record and our three records beforehand. We might play something off our first record. But with Justin filling in, we’ve given him 16 songs to learn. We have 30 minutes a day on the Mayhem Festival, so about seven songs, and we’ll probably be rotating songs all summer. We’ll probably play about six songs from the new record, and about two or three from each of the records beforehand.

SLUG: What’s the favorite meat of the legendary Unearth grill, which you claim mastery of?
PHIPPS: Right now it’s a turkey burger, but it’s not just turkey meat. I put a bunch of spices, chopped unions, cumin, garlic powder, jerk seasoning, black pepper, some nice Boar’s Head American cheese on a wheat bun, and it’s the best burger ever, really fucking good. Festival tours are great—you’re not trapped in a club, so you can actually bring the grill out and have a party each night.


Scale the Summit
The Collective
Prosthetic Records
Street: 3.1
Scale the Summit = Animals As Leaders + ISIS + Dream Theater - vocals
Instrumental metal is a beast all its own, and Scale The Summit has grabbed that beast by its seven horns and wrestled it into submission. Their second release The Collective may be less on the heavy side than was Carving Desert Canyons, but it is a mature, polished and intensely interesting display of musical prowess. Opener “Colossal” immediately draws you in with its slow, aching guitar, sounding like echoes of a forgotten language; from there the album pulls at the listener’s mind like quicksand. “Gallows” is dark and brooding, opening with intense drumming and thick riffs that speak of shadowy places. “Alpenglow” showcases soaring guitar work underlined by harmonic compliments from both bass and second guitar. “Black Hills”, the longest track, is an epic and redemptive climb with blissfully calm tandem melodies between avalanche-like drumscapes. Complex bass work throughout is a particularly nice surprise, but every instrument in this band is screaming with confidence. The album feels, indeed, like a collective of short stories with a mysterious and yet common theme, a sonic journey carefully plotted by a band who knows this road like the back of their hands. – Megan Kennedy

Darkness In The Light
Metal Blade Records
Street: 7.5
Unearth = early Killswitch Engage + As I Lay Dying + battle-hymn brutality
Many claim to live and die by metal, but with bands breaking up weekly or changing their sound to some unrecognizable experimental bullshit, it’s nice to know there are ones who actually do endure the flames and stick to their reliable foundations. Nothing is more true of the latest release from veterans Unearth, though Darkness In The Light is noticeably more extreme than The March, to the rejoicing of some. First single “Eyes of Black” is heavy and dark, with some riffs reaching an almost chugging southern sludge in their sound. Gorgeous track “Equinox” showcases the band’s major strength: lacing heaviness with unparalleled emotional melody. The opening of “Coming Of The Dark” has a fantastic building of anticipation before it slams into a wall of double-bass and harmonizing guitars (and we hear that nice gut-rumbling sludge mid-song again). Trevor Phipps’ screams are lit from within by some demonic fire, and Ken Susi’s clean vocals are nicely mixed, while both Ken and Buz McGrath are all over the frets with some of their most wicked shredding to date. And we can’t ignore the tight, vicious drumming of Killswitch Engage legend Justin Foley, who stepped in on this album and brought a new level of excellence with him. If you weren’t a fan of their sound before, this album probably won’t change your mind. But Unearth is one band that consistently knows where their strengths lie, and they aren’t afraid to smash your face in with them. –Megan Kennedy