Substratum – Wielding Mighty Swords

Saturday, 25th March 2017

In the old business model of underground music, you had to scour local record stores, attend shows, or get into the tape trading network to find out about unsigned bands if you didn’t have access to great in print fanzines or magazines. Nowadays, you can be a few keystrokes away from hearing the newest demo recording uploaded on social media – making the playing field quite deep to unearth the diamonds from coal. Usually quality rises to the top through active community engagement – which is where this Seattle, Washington heavy metal band Substratum comes into the picture.

Together for a little over three years, the quintet has made a huge impression beyond their Northwestern confines, venturing out into the world of US festival action since releasing a debut demo and self-titled full-length follow up. Vintage riffing, attitude-filled melodies, steady tempos, and call-to-arms choruses bring that classic 80’s style to mind, when artists like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and the early Metal Massacre compilation of groups ruled the airwaves. Feeling the need to learn more behind these musicians, we received a wonderful exchange between vocalist Amy Lee Carlson (AC), guitarist Jonny Haynes (JH), guitarist Max Nazaryan (MN), bassist Lane Stori (LS), and drummer Eric Smith (ES) plus former guitarist Alex Gerde (AG) – and be prepared to hear the follow up full-length sooner rather than later, as the fire burns bright for the five-piece at an exciting time in the metal ranks.

Dead Rhetoric: Substratum began in November 2013 – tell us about the beginning formation days, and did you know right away the type of direction you wanted to go in as far as the traditional forms of heavy metal?

JH: It started with a night of drinking in our apartment- myself, Gerde, Bison, and Eric Smith. We didn’t even consider asking Lane at the time because we assumed he was already in like 8 bands (He was in Phalgeron, The Godbeast, and Void Wrath at the time).

AG: That was the formation. We got the jam space shortly after (Gravity Studios). We really just wrote what we wanted to play.

JH: We wanted to write catchy riffs that were fun to play.

AG: There was a guy at the Benbow Room- guy in the alley comes up to us, told us he was walking by, heard the music, came in, told us he came in because he thought we sounded familiar enough but with enough changes and dynamics to keep him hooked. We didn’t even have demos at the time. Nothing to sell. Nothing. We just wanted to sound like Dave Mustaine and Mercyful Fate.

Dead Rhetoric: In 2015 there were a couple of significant member changes, with guitarist Max Nazaryan replacing Alex Gerde and singer Amy Lee Carlson taking over for Bison Longshot (who is in Weaponlord). What exactly happened to cause these lineup changes, and how do you believe Max and Amy elevate Substratum as far as their personal strengths and abilities?

JH: Bison left in September of 2014 and we went about two months without a singer. We had already recorded the instrumentals for the first album at this point. We jammed with another singer, but it didn’t work out and I ended up recording the vocals out of necessity.

AG: I had other interests at the time so I left. The band dynamic was pretty fucked.

JH: We asked Amy to join the end of February 2015 and Max joined in April.

LS: Our first show with Amy was without Max at El Corazon, we close our set with “Squealer” by AC/DC and the only person that knew it was the sound guy (Thanks, Jules).

AC: Our first show with Max (and Max’s first show ever) was at the Kraken with Skelator and Space Vacation. There was even a cloud in the sky shaped like a battle axe (I can’t even make that up, it was an Omen). I really feel that by Max and I joining, we reinvigorated this band. Between my vocals and Max’s guitars, our band dynamic as a unit has really become something that will go as far as we want to push it. Lane actually called me up while I was still on the road, very enthusiastically at about two in the morning. He asked me to join, I asked him how drunk he was, he said he wasn’t, I said yes, and then I joined them at the next available practice I could make, long story short.

Dead Rhetoric: Your first release as a band was a three-song demo – put out on tape by Swords & Chains Records. Tell us about the recording sessions – and how did you get involved with Swords & Chains? Any specific challenges, surprises, or obstacles to get through?

AG: We recorded most of the album live…

JH: Live with guitars and drums, and then we re-recorded the rhythm guitar tracks, followed by leads, vocals, and bass on top of them, which made for a messy mixing process.

AC: The previous lineup changes had put everything on the backburner until I was asked to join, the instrumentals had been laid, Jonny had recorded vocals that we later used as scratch tracks so I could learn the melodies, and it didn’t take us long after that to wrap those sessions- I think…two days? Blitzed right through it on a ridiculous schedule. Bison and Alex wrote all of the lyrics. I wasn’t even sure at the time what I was getting into. The pressure was on, but at the same time it wasn’t. I had just returned from a two-month tour with another project and figured, sure I’ll do this, so I did it.

AG: We were originally going to record just a demo, and ended up recording everything we had.

JH: It turned into a really long album.

AG: Jason Conde-Houston from Skelator had initially put me in contact with Michael Mendyk of Swords & Chains.

AC: Max and I resumed contact with S/C after joining the band and introduced ourselves in person while we attended Ragnarokkr Metal Apocalypse in May 2016. He had his distro set up in the upper mezzanine at Reggie’s in Chicago. Really personable guy.

LS: Probably the smoothest recording session I had ever been a part of. We just wanted to record them, and we blitzed through it. Because we didn’t have a deadline or a specific direction, we weren’t in a rush. Things just came together that way.

JH: We had started recording with our friend Chris Craven (drummer of Weaponlord) who referred us to Cody J. Brumlow (guitars in Arsenal and Weaponlord) – who we’ve continued to work with. We had wrapped the recording of the album by December 2014.

AC: The decision to release a three song-demo came about after Max and I joined the band. We had burned CD’s that we’d sell at shows, and we were kinds just hoping to see who would bite. Mendyk showed interest after Max had initially emailed him the tracks and eventually offered to release it as a cassette, in a run limited to 100. Things pretty much took off after this, and we owe it to him for the buzz that’s been generated around us now.

Dead Rhetoric: You recently released your self-titled full-length album. Where do you see the differences in this release compared to your demo, and what were some of the more difficult songs to pull together either from a songwriting or recording perspective?

LS: The whole album was already recorded by the time we decided to release the demo, so it’s hard to compare because the only difference was that it was mixed by Robbie Houston (Skelator) and mastered by Chris Mannino (Evangelist).

AC: Everything had been put on hold until Max and I had gotten up to speed and learned everything. We jumped in with gusto, and when I said earlier that by our joining the band we reinvigorated this project, I mean I was intent on booking and playing as many major bills as we could, opening for the bigger acts as soon as we were confident enough to do so. It didn’t take long, we all have our ties to the local scene here, and we know what we want. We’ve accomplished a lot for such a young band, and I’m really proud of what we’ve been doing. I think this question can be better answered when we release the second album, because we’ve had this whole year and a half to write new material as a cohesive unit, drawing from each of our individual influences.

Dead Rhetoric: What can you tell us about the “Curse of the Soothsayer” trilogy of songs that concludes the record? There seem to be a wide variety of supplemental, dynamic nuances to these tracks from acoustic guitar work to male narrative parts amidst the normal twin guitar harmonies and strong riffing/melodies…

AG: The third “Soothsayer” was written first, around 2009. The music definitely came before the lyrics.

JH: The music is several years old, from a previous project, and the lyrics were conceived on the spot.

AG: We wanted a numerous part story.

JH: A concept story, a big Iced Earth/ Symphony X type thing.

AC: Jonny and Alex had played together for years, and the evolution of the Soothsayer Trilogy came from projects prior to Substratum, finally coming together long before I joined the band.

Dead Rhetoric: The Seattle area has a significant rich music history, beyond the alternative/grunge explosion that took over the mainstream during the 1990’s. What have been some of the more significant bands or albums/demos that have captured your attention from the Northwest, and have you been able to forge any special bonds/friendships with musicians from those bands?

LS: Thy Infernal from Portland and Inquisition from Everett are two of the best US black metal bands in history.

AC: As far as local releases are concerned, Sanctuary’s Refuge Denied and Metal Church’s The Dark stick out as my two favorites, with Heir Apparent’s Graceful Inheritance a close runner up. Although I would have to say Invader’s self-titled release from 1992 tops those, as far as musicianship and concept- but that’s more of a progressive power metal album than a thrash or traditional heavy metal endeavor. The four are very different in concept and approach, and I would point anyone non-familiar with PNW metal to check out NW Metalworx for a more in-depth study of hat our region has to offer. I would also suggest the Northwest Metalfest Compilation from 1984 for some great tracks from Seattle/ Tacoma bands like Mace, Overlord, Lipstick, and Strike.

MN: As far as contemporary releases go, we often times play with (and are inevitably influenced by) Skelator, Weaponlord, and an as yet little known band called Nasty Bits (members of Nox Velum and Blood of Kings). These guys are all longtime friends of our band, so we’d probably hang out with them even if they were in lousy bands! Thankfully for everyone, they’re doing some really special things. Skelator, originally from San Diego, has been around for about 15 years and the quality of their last release, King of Fear, was stellar. Weaponlord just released a demo. Thought they’ve subsequently changed singers, they’ve got an album in the works. Nasty Bits are a pretty active live band but we’ve been poking and prodding them to release something. They have a great Motörhead type of vibe but more focused on the guitar work. We also had a blast playing with Bewitcher in Portland. Nice people and arguably the best black thrash Venom ‘n’ roll (whatever) band out there.

We have a split 10” with Skelator that is finally set to be out by the end of March, but we’ve talked about doing a split with some of the other bands mentioned about but it’s more a matter of scheduling them anything else. A joint release through Swords & Chains and Unholy Anarchy Records.

We also seem to be seeing a renewed interest in reviving and reissuing some of the work that came out of the area in the 80’s. Thor just played a gig in Portland with a few local guys in Portland as his backing band. NW Metalworx has reissued albums from Heir Apparent and is planning to do the same for Overlord’s classic Broken Toys EP, with a couple of bonus track if I’m not mistaken. Rail played recently. Queensrÿche seems to have found new life. Mike Howe has rejoined Metal Church. The timing just seems right for what we’re doing, so we’re excited to get our next demo out there, with the second full-length shortly to follow.

We’ve actually briefly floated the idea of even doing a cover EP with a focus on some classic Seattle bands. That’s something that could happen in the future.

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