Shadows Fall – Enlightened By the Bold

Sunday, 31st March 2013

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Quite surprised Shadows Fall is still slogging it out, considering they’re on their third record company in as many albums, are no longer at headliner status, and have seen a steady decline in sales since 2004’s War Within. Lesser bands would have packed it in, especially after a stint in the majors for 2007’s lukewarm Threads of Life, but SF has added even more bite to successive albums like 2009’s Retribution and this year’s Fire From the Sky (Razor & Tie). The Massachusetts metallers refuses to sacrifice their well-worn American metal angle for something more commercial…what you hear now is probably what you’re always going to get.

Indeed Far From the Sky is a lot like Retribution, and even War Within. As singer and dreadlock-extraordinaire Brian Fair would go onto tell Blistering, doing a massive overhaul of the band’s sound just isn’t going to happen and one can hear it on future live staples “The Unknown,” “Divide and Conquer” (check out the Killswitch Engage riff in the verse) and the death metal-inspired title track. Most of all, the album plays to the band’s strengths, most notably the vastly-underrated guitar tandem Jon Donais and Matt Bachand, who continue to weave masterful thrash riffs with angular melodies and crunchiness.

Currently hitting the boards in North America with Fear Factory, we phoned Fair while he was relaxing in a hotel room on a rare day off. The always-affable frontman and Blistering waxed on the obvious topics before segueing into a pity-party regarding Fair’s Boston Red Sox and this scribe’s Cleveland sports teams, but we don’t want to bog our readers down with tales of sports sadness from the banks of Lake Erie now do we? Thought so… You’re on Razor & Tie now, so what’s it like hooking up with another new label?

Brian Fair: With the last one, we teamed up with Warner Brothers and the Independent Label Group and did the indie thing, but we realized that having a full-time staff in this day in age would be really helpful. They’ve had success with All That Remains, and bands like that, and financially, they’re doing well because they have the Kidz Bop series. We’re down with cutting some Kidz Bopchecks [laughs]. But, they came with the best deal and they’re track record was really strong with similar bands, so it was a no-brainer. It also helps that you’re established, so there’s not as much legwork for them upfront.

Fair: That’s the thing. We’re lucky we have some history and we’re building what we have. I feel bad for younger bands because it’s really difficult for a label to put financial faith in you because they don’t know what the return will be. Luckily, they had the faith that even as record sales drop across the board, we have a solid fanbase. Younger bands don’t have the chance to do these kind of things…they end up giving away their music upfront or finding other ways to get noticed. That makes me think of Century Media street team days. Do you remember that?

Fair: [laughs] Oh yeah, totally. The street teamer days…it’s more online now, just like the bands are. I’m sure it’s cool for fans to get everyday updates, but it’s a way to communicate that wasn’t there before. Hopefully those fans will want to buy the physical product to help us keep doing what we’re doing. I think it’s starting to hit home that when bands don’t sell records, labels can’t get the money to fund records. Then, you’ll have to do what you can do with your records, but cut corners. You did tons of records with [producer] Zeuss [aka Chris Harris], but you went with Adam Dutkiewicz (Killswitch Engage) this time. Was it more of a matter of being too comfortable with him, or simply wanting to try something different with Adam?

Fair: It was about bringing in something new. Zeuss had been involved with all of our records in some form, so after this point, it was more about us stepping out of our comfort zone. Also, we’ve wanted to work with Adam D. for a while and schedules always got in the way. Matt [Bachand] was playing bass for Times of Grace at the time and got him involved right in the beginning. They were working on demos and listening to songs right from the early stage, so it was cool to have him involved right from the beginning. We got things honed-up so we could head into the studio, and it was also cool that we were able to record close to home. It makes it more convenient and took some stress out. He does such amazing work not only sonically, but performance-wise. He understands what it takes since he’s been on both sides of the fence. He’s a like-minded individual, definitely. What kind of things did he bring out in the band during recording?

Fair: He’s the guy that can take your idea and take one tiny twist and turn, and have it go from a good idea, to a perfect idea. He’s such a great songwriter on his own that he can hear stuff and tell us if we’re on the right track. Those were the little things we needed. It’s harder when you’re writing your own stuff to take a step back and hear someone else’s perspective. He’s great at finding little subtleties, like layers or guitar harmonies that can go over top that makes a part totally pop and jump out at you. You did a pretty fair amount of touring after Retribution, so how long did it take for the band to jump back into songwriting?

Fair: It was over a while…we decided to take some time. After the last album, we did a crazy tour cycle where we didn’t take any time off. Once we got back, we decided to take some time off, but Matt and Jon were putting riffs and raw ideas together. Then, Paul [Romanko, bass] and I got married, so we took some more time off. We regrouped and started really chipping away and doing demos. We’ve been working these songs over a year, then hit the studio. It’s funny – “Divide and Conquer” was written the last day of drum tracking, in a few hours. A song like “The Unknown,” we’ve been working on for a year, but “Divide and Conquer” didn’t exist until like, the last three hours of drum tracking [laughs]. “Divide and Conquer” is one of the songs that seems to make the most impact. It has a little bit of a Killswitch flavor to it, but with your own twist.

Fair: That one fell out of the sky. Matt had been working on the main verse and the intro parts, but he didn’t know where it was going. He had it set up on his laptop in the studio lobby, and we needed a chorus, and Jon walks into the room, plugs in, and plays this amazing riff and goes, “There’s your fucking chorus!” and walks out of the room. We were like “Alright!” You can hear the energy on that one…Jason [Bittner, drums] didn’t have a lot of time to overt-think his parts. The album plays really well to your strengths – it has everything you do well, like the thrash riffs, melodic vocals, and crunchy riffs. At this stage in your career, is it essential to just stick with what you do right?

Fair: Totally. With this record, we wanted to take the bedrock of our sound, which will always be there. We don’t want to be a band that takes a 180-turn and confuses people, but we also didn’t want it to be just a re-tread of what we’ve already done. We wanted to take the best elements of our sound and push them even further. I think a song like “Nothing Remains” shows us pushing our rock sound further, which is as far as we’ve ever gone. A song like the title track goes back to our death metal roots. There’s no reason to give it a rock vibe – if it’s going to be a death metal song, it needs to be as brutal as possible. It was cool to take those influences and ideas and focus them, while coming up with a cohesive manner in which each song stands on its own. This might stem from the cover art, but Fire From the Skyappears to be your darkest album. You’ve never really been a “dark” band, but I think this takes it in that department.

Fair: Possibly [laughs]. Retribution had some moments like that as well. It’s always a reflection of the current state of the world. These are dark times, with the looming Mayan prophecies hanging over your heard, but with the music, the first tune we wrote was “The Unknown” and that has a dark, sinister vibe. That set the table, so it would have been weird to throw something over a riff like that, lyrics that were positive, like “Things are okay!” That wouldn’t have made sense [laughs]. While we do focus on darker things, there’s usually a light at the end of the tunnel. You always want to ask why things are this way as opposed to accepting things the way they are. We’re never going to conquer demons with our lyrics, but [this album] definitely is on the darker side of the spectrum. Switching gears, with the exception of Jason joining in 2001, you’ve been able to keep the same lineup. Considering the massive amounts of touring you’ve done and everything the band has been through, how have you been able to keep it together?

Fair: He’s the still the new guy [laughs]. The way we’ve always worked has been democratic, which is huge. We’re also split financially and everyone signs off on everything. But also the little stuff, like travelling…we don’t let things fester and build. We blow it up right there. Those are always the problems with certain bands – they let things build and start talking shit behind each other’s back and it usually boils over and causes problems. We’ll just talk shit right to each other’s face [laughs]. If someone is not happy, you don’t not know it for long. We also have common goals. This is our career and we’ve been fortunate enough to do it for over a decade and we want to continue that. I think that common goal makes you put aside things and sacrifice for the greater good. When did you have the moment where you knew this lineup would stick?

Fair: It was never one particular moment, but it always felt that way. Everyone seemed to come together and everyone’s role was well-defined and if it was taken away, it would change the dynamic, and that became pretty obvious once Jason joined. Things happened really quickly after that. BeforeThe Art of Balance we were doing well for being on a small indie label in a growing scene, then it was like, “Wow, we might do this for a living.” We never thought we’d still be going on, not without all of the success we’ve had, and not in 2012 [laughs]. September is going to mark the 10-year anniversary ofThe Art of Balance. Can you reflect at all on that particular point in time?

Fair: We felt like it was the time to decide if we were going to go all-in and get in the van and go for it, or not. It was the tipping point – we had the opportunity that a lot of bands don’t get, so we needed to know if we were “All for one, one for all.” Then with Ozzfest (in 2003), we saw that if this music gets in front of a large audience, people will respond. That summer, it was us, Killswitch, Chimaira, and Sworn Enemy, along with a bunch of major label bands and we were drawing great crowds and were getting a great response…that’s when I knew it was for real.

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