August Burns Red guitarist JB Brubaker has taken Kill Your Stereo behind the scenes of making Death Below, sharing five facts about its process.
Pennsylvania metalcore legends August Burns Red have been around for 20 years, and if you ask me, they put out one of their best records this year.
Death Below, released on 24 March, was an emotional album to make, with guitarist JB Brubaker saying about the album upon its announcement a few months ago, "It's no secret that the past few years have been extremely dark and challenging.
“Death Below is here as a result of that time in each of our lives and the emotions that came with it. We were motivated by uncertainty, fear, outrage, and triumph. I feel this is the darkest, most personal album we've ever written, and I couldn't be more proud of what the five of us made together."
Along with vocalist Jake Luhrs and Brubaker, rhythm guitarist Brent Rambler, drummer Matt Greiner and bassist Dustin Davidson fire on all cylinders and prove why August Burns Red have found such longevity in the metalcore scene.
The new Sharptone Records signees featured numerous special guests on Death Below, including Killswitch Engage's Jesse Leach on the first single, the devastating Ancestry; vocalists JT Cavey (ERRA) on The Abyss and Spencer Chamberlain (Underoath) on album closer Reckoning, as well as Chelsea Grin and All That Remains guitarist Jason Richardson on Tightrope.
Death Below is a fascinating, dark album packed with cameos, and we couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn more about it. JB Brubaker has taken Kill Your Stereo behind the scenes of making Death Below, sharing five facts about its process.
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PANDEMIC WRITING, THEMATIC DEPARTURES & SILVER LININGS
The writing for Death Below took place during the lockdown and the pandemic, which was a bizarre time for everyone.
We were forced home from tour because of COVID-19, and we were kind of in a dark spot. I had a lot of extra time on my hands given the fact we couldn’t go anywhere or do much of anything. And I felt inspired to start writing, even though our previous album had just come out. Normally, we wouldn’t have been writing yet, but given our circumstances, we kind of dove right into the next record pretty quickly. And I think just given how bleak everything felt at the time, the music that came out was a little bit darker and focused on more of the straight-up metal side of things right out of the gates.
Typically, ABR has had this underlying message of hope and positivity, but Death Below doesn’t have that kind of thread going through it the way most of our albums have. And that is a departure for us, and it’s just a product of the circumstances during which it was written.
I think Death Below would’ve been very different if there wasn’t a pandemic, I really do. I don’t know what it would’ve sounded like, but I don’t think it would’ve come out remotely the way it did. In some ways, I think it’s cool, you look for the silver linings of what happened during the pandemic. And for a lot of artists and writers and people who do creative stuff as their job or for their hobby, I think a lot of really cool art and movies and books are going to come out as a result of the pandemic, or are already coming out and will continue to do so for the next few years.
FULL BLOWN COLLABORATIONS
We had most of the album written already when we started looking for features. We had been interested in having features in the past and we’d asked people, but it’s kind of difficult to get schedules to align. Getting a feature isn’t just snapping your fingers and being like: “Okay, here’s the feature!”.
Number one, you need the person to be available and interested. And then ideally you want them to have the time and creative energy to write their own part, not just to give them a blueprint of what to do. Historically, we haven’t really pulled together many features, but on Death Below, the stars just sort of aligned.
We put the feelers out to a bunch of different people and to our surprise - they came back and were all down, it was within like three days that we had four people agreeing to do features. And for most of them, they worked hard with us writing their own parts and collaborating, they were proper collaborations not just us saying: “Here’s what we want you to do, now execute it”. And that was really cool for us, we got Spencer [Chamberlain] from Underoath’s actual creative flair on a song. Not just his voice, but also his writing too.
The songs were already written and recorded instrumentally when we approached people, however, I do think that the features pushed the songs over the top. For instance, on the song Ancestry, it definitely would not have been the lead single if it wasn’t for Jesse [Leach] from Killswitch Engage’s guest vocal.
That song was pretty technical and kind of long to be a lead single. Then Jesse came in and put on this pretty cool singing chorus, which is very unusual for August Burns Red. We don’t do clean singing choruses very often, and it just really set that song apart and made it feel special. It made it feel like it could be a single versus just a cool album track.
LOCATION, LOCATION & RETURNING FRIENDS
We worked with Carson Slovak and Grant McFarland on Death Below, they are pals who have been working with us for many years. And one of the reasons we love working with them, aside from the fact that we gel with them and they’re our friends - but they just happen to also be located in the same town that we live in, which is really convenient for us.
As we get older and have families and more things going on at home, it’s nice to actually record an album at home and treat it like a 9-to-5 versus having to travel to Nashville or New York or LA and be there for two months, away from everything at home right after we were away from everything on the road. It used to be a lot to make an album outside of where we lived, and with Carson and Grant, we’ve really lucked out having them located locally for us. It’s very comfortable for us!
I do have a favourite on Death Below, and it’s actually two songs. The first song Premonition straight into the song The Cleansing; those were the first two songs I wrote for the album. They were written in the darkest part of the pandemic times for me. And they were initially written as one large song, it was like 10 minutes long. We decided it would be a little ambitious of us to start the album off with a single 10-minute track, so we cut the intro into a separate track to start the album.
But I’m really fond of that song, it’s a little bit different from what we’ve done in the past. We’ve never started an album in that sort of low-key, brooding kind of way. We’ve usually just been like a shot out of a cannon to start the record, so this was a big departure for us, which I really like as an artist. And I just think the song is this long journey, which is also cool to me.
I know it might be a bit long and a lot to process for some people, but that’s what I love about it personally. I feel very fortunate that we have people who are patient with us and give us a chance to try things that are a little different or outside the box for us. And also that people are still being open and receptive to what we’re trying to do.
One extra thing that was interesting about Death Below in the process of making it was that we recorded it across four different studios in four different sessions. It was just the way things worked out. When we were making it, our producers were in between studios, they were building a new studio that took longer than it was supposed to because of the pandemic. And the first studio that they started out in went under and just disappeared. They had to bounce around a lot and we bounced around with them as we did different sessions for this album. Typically we’ve been a band who would have our record written and go in and just plough through it for six or eight weeks, however long it takes to track it all.
But with Death Below, we sort of recorded it as we were writing it during these different pockets of time over a two-year span, which was different for us. And I think it probably ended up with us spending a lot more time in the studio working on it than we normally would have. But I also liked that because it allowed us to really spend time with the songs after we had recorded them before they were finalised, and be able to go back and make changes and tweaks to things that we might not have liked as much after sitting with them for a year. It gave us a lot of time to really analyse and critique everything.
August Burns Red's new album, Death Below, is out now. You can stream it here.