Dissentience – All About Heavy

Thursday, 24th February 2022

Continuing to push elements of death, thrash, groove, and melody in their style of metal, Dissentience aims for a sound that goes where their creativity wants to take them – naturally encompassing and embracing a platform that’s heavy, yet wide reaching to ardent followers of the genre. Empire Anatomy as the group’s latest album refines their full-force attack – implementing tighter transitions, hooks, and catchy arrangements that take from a host of influences past and present to make things as original as possible.

We reached out to guitarist/vocalist Connor Valentin to talk about the work behind the album, the importance of outside producers to shape the material, plus lots of honest talk about handling things DIY, the need to think next level, out of the box to bring rock/metal back to prominence, and future plans for output.

Dead Rhetoric: Empire Anatomy is the latest Dissentience record – the follow-up to 2018’s Mask of Pretense EP. Where do you see the major differences in terms of the seasoning, songwriting, and performances for this new album versus your last EP?

Connor Valentin: I think a lot of the difference comes down to how we approached the songwriting going into this. Going into the pre-production for the EP one of the biggest things that we noticed was a lot of the fat that got trimmed was sort of riff salad type of stuff. Some of the riffs were good, but they didn’t fit the song. We came to the realization that was a revelation for us – not just putting things in because they sound cool, now it’s about serving the song. Now during the writing process for the album, we were more focused on writing and developing good songs. During the EP writing process, I was doing a lot of the writing on the computer using Cubase, a lot of copy/paste to throw things in.

For the new album Empire Anatomy, we were more focused on the writing process getting in the room and jamming things out. That way there were no surprise transitions to sit down and play these parts. Nick and I, he has a little electric drum kit in his bedroom, and I would take a little tiny amp and guitar there, jam to the songs until we thought they were done. When we went into the pre-production process, there was a lot less structural changes happening, just more refinement of what we already had going into it.

Dead Rhetoric: Were there any specific songs that took on a great transformation from the initial writing demo stage to the final output?

Valentin: Not necessarily from the new album, but I know on the EP “Synapse Corruption”, being the shortest song on the EP under three minutes, going in it was over seven minutes long. Almost a “Master of Puppets” type of song with a clean intro, riff salad. Every twenty seconds it was a new part. Again, it was one of the things that Corey (Pierce) from God Forbid who we have been working with as a producer for a while, he hammered this into our heads about does this service the song. So much got cut out of the song – not that I think they were bad riffs, but I think that song works better as an in-your-face thrash song as opposed to what we had before, which was a mess of things (laughs).

Dead Rhetoric: You worked with Matt Menafro and Corey Pierce as producers this time around – what do you think they brought to the table to strengthen the output of Dissentience? Were there key things or moments that you can pinpoint as helpful and unique that maybe you didn’t place as much emphasis on before?

Valentin: Yeah. Corey – in the best of ways, he beats the hell out of us. He gets the best performances out of us. He also understands what we are doing as a band. A lot of people hear the word producer and think terrible things. That he may be sitting in there trying to get us to write radio hits. It’s nothing like that. When we first started talking to Corey, the first thing he sent us was an email. He didn’t know where we were at, but here’s a list of five albums that I think you would dig if we already didn’t dig them already, the sort of sound I hear you going towards. Symbolic- Death, City – Strapping Young Lad. Things like that. There was no intent on softening up the sound. It was about getting heavier. Matt as well. He runs the studio that we recorded at, Peach Pie Sound. We did pre-production as well there for the album. Having both of them was great.

Ultimately, I can’t pinpoint a key moment, there were so many moments through the whole process of the album. Even refining one of the new tracks off the album “Reckoning Day”, that was from our demo back in high school in 2014. Even the little bits and pieces we shaved off of that in that song, it was a combination of us wanting to take an old fan favorite and refine it to show how our songwriting has evolved. They helped us get the most out of this. Corey hammers on Nick as far as his drumming goes. Not that Nick is bad by any means as his performances are always tight, but Corey is more of a groove-focused drummer, and Nick is more technical. So, they both approach things from different angles. He wants groovier fills. Sometimes Nick wants to go 100 miles an hour, and Corey will ask him to pump the brakes. It helps us expand the horizons. A song like “Darkness Perennial”, it’s the slowest and grooviest song on the album. It’s one of my favorites – and I didn’t think that would be the case going in. That song hits so hard. Matt hammered me especially with my vocals. He comes from a pretty trained background as far as sound engineering goes. Getting as tight as performances as possible. He wasn’t afraid to ask me to do it again. He wanted to get the best performances that we could. Try to be as raw and as tight as possible. He ripped me apart on the vocals.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you guys look at the solo work between yourself and Jimmy Vitale – are there strengths you each have that makes the decisions easier for who handles what?

Valentin: Our playing styles, just how they’ve developed, Jimmy inherently enjoys playing in a more melodic way. His background, one of his favorite guitar players is Slash. He tends to go to more melodic things – even in songwriting. Listens to a lot more things with melody in it, clean vocals and stuff like that. I am much more into weird stuff – the guitar players that make you shake your head. Marty Friedman for instance – nobody approaches solos like that. I want to capture the same type of feel, I want to do something that makes people’s heads turn a little bit. Both of us, when we divvy up the solos, where the vocals come in have something to do with that as well. The solo in “The End (And All Between)”, sort of has a moody, brooding part but there’s a lot of space for melody on top of it. Jimmy killed it on that solo, not that I couldn’t have done something as well.

Dead Rhetoric: The video for “War of Belief” is shot at the Red River Saloon – tell us about the shoot that captures the energy and ferocity of the band performing, and how do you feel about the visual medium and its importance for promotion of Dissentience through social media outlets versus the 80’s/90’s where MTV and video channels ruled the airwaves?

Valentin: The shoot was awesome. John Kennedy was the one who did the video. The shoot went great, it was super smooth. We had a great icebreaker in the beginning. That must have been one of the coldest days in December, and that saloon had no heat. We were all sitting there freezing. We set everything up, and the first note I broke a string on my white Jackson V. I got out the Charvel from there. It was our first music video. Not that we were super nervous, but we went in with the same attitude we have at shows – go in, thrown down, have a good time, and hopefully get some good footage out of it.

As far as how we approach the visual side of things. I think it’s extremely important. Some of the most memorable bands, most memorable albums, are because the visual aspect sticks in your head as much as the music. I can remember the first time I was going through my dad’s record collection, and I saw Iron Maiden- Killers. That cover with Eddie on it, always stuck with me. Having a different approach than other bands when it comes to visuals is a big thing as well. Because of our album art, our t-shirt art, stuff like that – I think a lot of metal bands are apt to go with throwing some skulls on things, or generic zombie/ horror movie stuff. For me I am throwing a lot of stuff from 70’s Heavy Metal magazines, weird old comic artists. People seem to respond to it, and for metal it’s something that hasn’t been done a lot. I love bands like Voivod for instance. Away does all the artwork, the handwriting in the lyric sheets, it kept a consistent look that is distinctly Voivod their entire career. I think a lot of other bands can’t say the same.

I want that same thing for us. It’s not just a skull t-shirt. Not to knock on a band because Pantera is one of my favorites of all-time, but I haven’t seen a single memorable Pantera t-shirt. Musically they have stood the test of time, but I think the visual component is just as important to obtaining longevity.

Dead Rhetoric: Can you discuss the idea behind the cover art – who designed this, and was this a back-and-forth collaboration between the band and artist or did you trust the vision set forth?

Valentin: I guess the idea – I pulled some of the inspiration from the old Heavy Metal magazines. I really love the sense of scale that artists like Moebius (Jean Giraud) and Philippe Druillet, the artists from the 70’s had. I pulled a couple of pieces from that, and the artist we worked with Nick Flook had also worked with us on the Mask of Pretense EP. I found him surfing Reddit or Instagram one day, he doesn’t really do a lot of metal album covers. I thought he had an interesting style, I liked that it was hand painted, super old school. He loved our sound, and he wanted to do more metal-oriented stuff.

I sent him a couple of references. He was on some retreat out in the woods for a couple of weeks, he came back to us with this amazing painting. That seems to be the way it goes for us – be it t-shirt designs, the album covers, I’m pretty picky about finding people that do the ideas justice. It was pretty simple, explaining what we want, and they take off. There is a combination of explaining the references, but generally I like to let these artists go loose. It’s always exciting to me when they are excited about what we send them. What he came back with was amazing. Lyrically I take a lot of influence from Philip K. Dick and other sci-fi writers, Blade Runner being a big attraction. Trying to go for a sense of scale and scope that you get from the first five minutes of the movie – going through the city, it looks massive.

Dead Rhetoric: You’ve been enjoying a mix of bands as of late to keep skills sharp – including Trivium, Megadeth, Sylosis, and Meshuggah among others. Do you find yourself working on specific aspects each time you practice – and also using the work of other artists to push and enhance different weaknesses to better yourself as a guitarist and songwriter?

Valentin: I guess when I practice, I’ve always been terrible at practicing solos. I will learn a lick here and there. I do a lot more practicing on the rhythm end, figuring out song structures. One of the things that my guitar teacher taught me early on was to build up my ear. Go through songs without as much tabs or any sort of notation as possible. A lot of my style has developed because of that, picking apart songs and frankly playing them wrong (laughs). You learn a riff one way, some of those mistakes end up being really cool stuff. It may be something I can use for our stuff.

We don’t focus too much on sounding like someone else when we write our songs. I don’t think we are like ‘let’s put a Sylosis part here – or a Testament thing there’. It’s really more about capturing a mood, capturing a feeling. Even something as simple as… when we were writing the song “Cabal”, we wanted to round out the track listing. We needed a heavy song, and that’s the attitude we went into with that. Sean and I were the ones who initial wrote “Clinical Psychosis” at the demo stages. We had an idea going into it about lyrically discussing MK-Ultra. This government testing in the 60’s and 70’s where they were using various drugs for mind control purposes, but they would dose their own agents. How crazy would it be if you were working your nine to five office job, and all of a sudden get hit with a massive dose of acid? The song had to be some kind of trip. While we were writing it, that was in our minds, the riffs had to flow a little bit more. Even the way they are structured, the riffs there is more chromatic stuff going on than in other songs. Make the song seem like one seamless, up and down rollercoaster trip. That’s one of the more progressive songs as far as the riffs and how the transitions build into each other.

Dead Rhetoric: How have you handled this extended downtime away from live concerts due to the pandemic? Where do you see the state of the live entertainment going from this point forward, do you believe people will treasure it more after missing this aspect of life for almost two years?

Valentin: It’s been weird for sure, as a fan as well as a performer. When we put the EP out, we tried to play every weekend if we could, play as much as possible. This time around, even if we wanted to, places aren’t booking as many shows. Even for professional bands, I’ve had tickets for shows that got cancelled or postponed numerous times during this. For us as a band, we are as hungry as possible to get back on stage. It will be a little different. As a fan, I’ve been to a few shows since, and as you talk about, it’s been a more treasured experience. It’s more of a rare morsel at this point.

The way we will approach it coming out of this, we will put it on the line at every show. Whether it’s five people or five hundred people, we will throw down. The crowd aspect will be interesting to see unfold. Especially in metal, hardcore, such a big part of the show is the synergy between the band on stage and the energy of the crowd. We did one streaming show last year with our friends in Cruel Bomb. It was a lot of fun, but super weird. I’m used to seeing headbanging, and doing that live stream show, I’m staring at a camera. The whole shtick you say between songs, the vibe is different. It’s one thing if you are a coffee show, singer / songwriter act. The heavier genres require that energy between the fans and bands on stage. The crazier the crowd gets, the harder the band goes on stage, and the crowd has to go harder. People in the crowd may be more timid now. Especially at local shows.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you consider some of the next challenges for the band to conquer, and are there specific goals or benchmarks you would like to achieve over the next couple of years?

Valentin: Frankly, the biggest challenge is just getting this album out. We’ve been sitting on it for a while. It was mastered sometime last year. We waited to decide when it would be the best time to put it out. We wanted to make sure we would at the very least be able to play some album release shows, try to get a couple in here and there. That’s been a huge challenge so far. To figure out how to promote this, what’s the right time. It’s not like before where you could drop the album, play a bunch of shows, rinse, wash, repeat. It’s weird as promo cycles, album cycles, even for big bands. Everyone is sort of growing through.

One of the biggest challenges we’ve had has been social media. Which I think we’ve been overcoming as of late. None of us use it on a personal end. It’s the game you have to play at this point. Between that, Spotify numbers, trying to figure out the state of the music industry and how we fit in it. We look to a lot of non-metal sources for inspiration in that regard. One of our biggest influences on a business level is the rap group Flatbush Zombies. They did it all themselves, came out of nowhere, put out a couple of mixtapes and blew up. They are not signed to a label, even their albums, a lot of bands these days fall into a genre trap. We are brutal death metal, we are old school thrash, we are xyz. For us, we have taken the opposite approach. How can we branch out as much as possible, while sounding like us. Bands like Flatbush Zombies, their last album Vacation in Hell, has everything from a grimy banger of a song and then the next track is a borderline radio song. They do what they want, they don’t have anyone telling them what to do or how to do it, and I think we are at that point where… you look at other genres, and they don’t have the restrictive business end that people in rock or metal seem to have. If you aren’t on a label, both the critics and the fans think you haven’t made it, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

My biggest influence on that, look at old D.C. Punk and Dischord Records. They did their own thing, made their own scene, and thirty-forty years later, they are still doing it. In the same breath, they have the same artistic integrity that they did it themselves, for themselves, that’s the challenge we are trying to overcome. How do we bring that same mentality into the rock and metal community? And break into the metal and rock with that attitude? I was talking to a friend of mine about this the other day. Nonpoint – on their band page they posted something about enjoying not being signed to a label. One of the first comments from a fan was like ‘obviously you aren’t on a label, because you guys got dropped.’ Or you guys got canned. If he took two seconds to read the interview, (the band) wanted to do it. It was about artistic freedom.

As far as the visual aspect, we’ve had people tell us our music is great – but why are the album covers like 70’s progressive rock covers? Since we’ve released the Empire Anatomy cover, a lot of the comments we get about it, is (that it’s) so old school and different. That’s how people will remember us, as long as they are remembering us in some way. Dealing with labels, you get watered down in that regard. We’ve made it a decade essentially and we haven’t put a single skull on a t-shirt. That’s wild to think for a metal band. When you have other hands in the pot, you get stuff that’s watered down.

Dead Rhetoric: Discuss your love for the anime series Akira – how do you view the books in comparison to the movie?

Valentin: I’ve watched the movie countless times. Love the movie. I just recently picked up the manga volumes – there’s this awesome hardcover series. It’s the most faithful series that came out to the original. One of the things that blew me away about Akira – much like the Heavy Metal magazine series – is the sense of scale. I don’t see a lot of stuff like that in the anime world. It’s so different. As far as the manga versus anime – the process is interesting from an artistic point. The anime was made in the middle of the run of the manga. Katsuhiro Otomo worked on the series – he took the bits and pieces he didn’t like at the beginning of the manga and changed/updated them for the anime. Same thing with the manga – the anime was the first draft of the end of the manga. It’s an interesting process you never get to see too much of.

The creative influence – it’s like one mind making that whole thing. The manga is like so many pages – it’s an incredible body of work. Truly, a huge influence to see that one creative vision coming to life, without an editorial influence. I’m sure he had proofreading, and some artists help as far as the background goes – compare that to American comics where you have one editorial system. They put the teams together, doing the editing, especially with Marvel and DC, you deal with continuity, does this fit. It’s tough for a creator to do what they want in those platforms.

Dead Rhetoric: If you had the opportunity to teach a class in high school or college, outside of your frame of reference and skills as a musician – what subject or course would you like to teach and develop?

Valentin: That’s tough. It would have to be something creative as well. I would love to do something with film, or even comics. Something with a visual medium. A lot of what’s put out today in either field is glanced over. There is a lot of crap. The movies that stick with me, there’s more to them than the story put on the screen. It’s looking into the cinematography behind it all, how things are shot. When I was super little, I read biographies on bands. The bass player that played with my dad, he brought over a Black Sabbath biography. It inspired me to get the first Black Sabbath album. Delving deep into the back story, same thing with films. I love diving into the production side of things. Especially in today’s day and age, we have so much content thrown at us, it’s a needle in a haystack to see something truly great coming out.

Dead Rhetoric: What’s on the agenda for Dissentience over the next year or so? Will the musicians be involved in any other session work, guest appearances, side projects, etc.?

Valentin: Just try to play as many shows as we possibly can. Creative independence is something that we strive for, so doing it ourselves as much as possible. Getting out there with social media, that will be a huge push for us. Getting a lot more interaction. Hopefully get some touring under our belts, even if it’s just regionally, short little stints. Good for the band on a personal level, and as far as getting our name out there.

As far as session work goes. Nick was helping our buddies in Cruel Bomb for a while because their drummer went away. I don’t know how much that will continue. They are going between second guitar players, so I help them out for a couple of shows. Ultimately, I think with the lack of availability playing out as much, I want to buckle down and start writing for the next EP or album. I want to focus getting that out sooner rather than later. Maybe have a more consistent and regular release schedule. Look at the acts that are big now – it’s hip hop and pop stuff, but these acts are putting out new singles or mixtapes, multiple times a year. That’s an attitude that’s never really pervaded the rock and metal world too much. As a whole community everyone seems to be stuck in the two-year cycle with write/record/tour, repeat. A lot of my favorite bands have survived off that, but if we want to compete with those other genres and have metal in the limelight again, the output needs to be upped from various groups. We will try to increase our output. Even if it’s writing a single, dropping the single, staying consistent with EP’s.

We have talked about the creative freedom of concept albums. Maybe we will write a concept EP and just throw it out there. Anything we really want to. The defining parts of our sound, we can do what we want. What has made metal good to me is, in jazz you can’t throw distortion on a guitar, but you can throw jazz stuff on a distorted guitar and its metal. There isn’t room to wiggle in blues, but you can throw blues stuff in metal. Or even hip-hop. It’s inspiring that metal is a wide genre. If we want to have a doomy, slow song we can do that. If we want a thrash song, we can do that. If we want a death metal song, we can do that.

Finding that unique sound of your band, is something that a lot of bands aren’t doing as much these days. Trivium is an influence because song to song, album to album, they were always a little different. No two songs sounded alike. It was always cool to us, as opposed to bands that shoehorn themselves into a specific genre. Writing a lot is going to be on our horizon. Pushing the Dissentience sound is going to be a big factor in the next couple of years.

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