Most bands will admit later in life that they took a couple albums to fully find their sound. Detroit death metal quintet As They Sleep, however, couldn’t be happier with their Solid State Records debut Dynasty serving as their introduction to the wider world.
Dynasty is far from the beginning, though. Following a lengthy writing and recording period, they released their first full-length, Blacken the Sun, through Luxor Records in 2008.
“We had the luxury of being able to write that album literally over the course of five years before we put it out,” vocalist Aaron Bridgewater says. “We went through a couple lineup changes way back and we sifted out the bad songs we didn’t like and started hanging on to the ones we liked, so you’re going to hear a lot of diversity on Blacken the Sun. There’s songs on there written five years prior and then there’s songs written the year of production, but they were all revisited, re-recorded and put together for the record.”
It is that variance in sound on their debut that Bridgewater says makes Dynasty a better 101 course into As They Sleep. “I think the reason we’re stoked about this album being the one that’s going to obviously get bigger much faster is because you can hear the maturity fluctuation on Blacken the Sun,” he says. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it – I’m still proud of it – but when you listen to Dynasty, which we were able to write and record consistently song-to-song in a year, year and a half’s time, you can literally hear the maturity in the music when listening to Dynasty compared to Blacken the Sun.
“Honestly, I didn’t really care which record got big first. I think people are really gonna be happy with the first record once they realize we have a first record. They’ll still hear the same band on both records, it’s just I think every band matures with every album they put out and we’re proud that Dynasty is gonna have that consistency in the maturity of the music throughout.”
Solid State picked them up following Blacken, though it was another soon-to-be labelmate, Gwen Stacy, that the label representative was there to see at a show in Lake Orion, MI. As They Sleep impressed, followed up with a press kit and happily signed a deal. Bridgewater extols the virtues of having a strong label backing over operating essentially DIY.
“It’s just night and day,” he says. “I got friends in California and Arizona calling me talking about how they just went and bought the album at their local record store. There’s ads for our new record in Revolver magazine and magazines we read as kids growing up. We just shot a music video, not to mention all the money they sank into us to produce this new record. It’s really helpful, because, let’s be honest, we’re artists and we don’t have enough money to pay for all that stuff.”
The resulting album started with a single concept and grew from there. “I came up with this idea to try and cover the fall of Rome,” Bridgewater says. “I figured we could spawn off of that into a handful of significant empires and dynasties throughout history and also intertwine the reasons for their collapse with modern-day situations because most of these ancient empires that fell, the economy is usually one of the first things to go, and everybody knows the economy sucks here now. [‘To the Republic’] revolves around present-day United States. We’re seeing a lot of similarities between what’s happening now with the USA and a lot of things that have happened in the past with other empires. Not to say that we’re on the brink of collapse, but people need to open up their eyes. We decided to throw some mythology in there because Greek mythology is pretty present in a lot of the ancient kingdoms.”
The music on Dynasty came from a long-standing love of death metal paired with a desire to fill a perceived hole in the market. “Cannibal Corpse and Suffocation were two of my favorite bands when I was a kid,” Bridgewater says. “The only thing that ever got to me when I listened to a lot of death metal was it just kind of seemed a little bit monotonous. It kind of seemed like I would listen to a death metal record front to back and almost every song on it sounded the same. So we wanted to make sure those things that bored us on other death metal albums – and I’m not specifying what albums, I’m just saying things that bored us on those records we want to make sure we don’t do that and that’s why we ended up going with a more melodic sound to the death metal. We tried to write an entire record with songs we’d personally enjoy.”
Their style of contrasting heavy riffs with bright, lyrical guitar solos comes from their process of crafting an album, which is aided by the fact guitarist Nick Morris has a degree in studio engineering. “Everything starts out with a riff,” Bridgewater says. “The guitar players collaborate and sketch out a little outline, then we add a kind of a skeletal drum beat to it and some skeleton guitars and then I’ll write lyrics and get the vocals going. That’s basically pre-production, then we go into the studio and re-record everything together. It’s a long, grueling process. Having a studio engineer in the band is definitely a great luxury to have and we have not had that from the beginning.”
If it’s difficult to glean a specific meaning from Bridgewater’s lyrics – other than because of his meandering, dynamic screaming and the lack of singing, which they considered including on one song but scrapped – it’s because he prefers to pen open-ended lyrics. “It’s pretty obvious what I’m talking about here and there, but there’s parts where I like to leave it vague,” he says. “If someone were to ask me ‘What does this lyric mean?’ I would say ‘Well, how do you interpret it?’ Then if they gave me an explanation I’d say ‘That’s great. That’s how I wanted it to be.’”
Dynasty’s cover art is just as cryptic as its lyrics, though they both tie into the overall concept. “The cover is kind of what you want to make of it,” Bridgewater says. “It’s about kings and dynasties and stuff like that, but there’s just a decrepit old man on the cover and he’s got a crown of sticks and it looks like he’s either a king of his own personal little empire or maybe he’s just some sort of a hoarder – there’s all sort of relics around him whether they’re significant to what he’s done or who he is, is just up for speculation. I think it’s a really sweet-looking cover that kind of shows the concept of the record and leaves it open for speculation. In the end, everyone has things and things are really insignificant in life if you look at it – maybe he’s a hoarder, you know what I mean?”
Another thing the band prefers to leave to interpretation is any potential classification based on their beliefs.
“We do get the ‘Are you a Christian band?’ question a lot, I think mainly because we’re on Solid State,” Bridgewater says. “I have Christian roots from my childhood and I carry it with me today and I’m sure some people that read the lyrics would say it kind of reflects in the music. As far as individual beliefs, some of us have more Christian roots than others of us. Faith does play a part in what we’re doing, but we’re still a death metal band and we want to deliver death metal the way it’s supposed to be. We don’t have anything satanic in our music. There’s no profanity in the music, either. We could go on tour with Deicide and get along with those guys just as much as we’d go on tour with Demon Hunter and get along with those guys. There’s really no reason why you shouldn’t get along just because your lyrical content or beliefs might be different than somebody else’s. If that was the case, 90 percent of death metal wouldn’t get along with anybody ‘cause there’s a lot of satanic stuff going on out there.
“I think people who have Christian faith can listen to us and take something from it. And I think people who are secular fans and take us as a secular band can take something from it. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. If people want to consider us a Christian band, that’s great. If they want to consider us secular, that’s great. I know what the lyrics say and I know what I believe so it really doesn’t matter to me.”
One thing that does matter to Bridgewater is what genre they’re lumped into. “The one thing I can’t stand when people call us is deathcore,” he says. “We might have one small breakdown on the new record that maybe somebody could call some sort of a ‘-core’ breakdown, but we are not deathcore. I’d call it melodic death if I had my pick because a lot of the guitar work in there tends to be a little more colorful and brighter. It’s accompanied by a lot of heavy guitar picking but everybody likes to hear a nice, sweet-sounding riff that is nothing but ear candy.”
Other than what to label them, As They Sleep don’t much care what critics have to say. “You can’t please everybody,” Bridgewater says. “We’ve been blessed with amazing reviews so far but you always get the little biased metal kid sitting behind their computer that tries to take a shot at you on some forum or thread. It’s so obnoxious. Those are the kids that live on Lambgoat and think if you’re not some grindcore band named, like, Face Mutilation you shouldn’t get any recognition.” (laughs)
Ultimately, it’s their view of themselves that drives As They Sleep, and they believe Dynasty is worthy of the publicity of being their first widely available release, even if they weren’t always sure about every decision in the recording process.
“We did have plans to have a little bit of clean-tone melodic singing vocals on one of the songs,” Bridgewater says. “I’ve never been a huge fan of that. I like it when other people do it sometimes and we do have a little bit of it on our first record and I’m not saying that even though I might not be a fan of it that other people wouldn’t be, so I guess one thing maybe we could have done was include those clean-tone vocals on the new record, which we did not, and maybe a little bit broader spectrum of people might have liked that. I guess if there was any sort of ‘We should have done this different’ that would have been it.
“As far as what I would consider the legacy of the album is, the drumming I think is really amazing. It’s nice, clean, on point, over the top. I’m really proud of the vocal work I did on it and I think the guitar work speaks for itself, too. We all came together and did something really tight and we’re happy with it and that would be the legacy of the record, so to speak.”
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