August Burns Red breaks the mold on metal stereotype
For the average person, the thought of metal music inevitably conjures up images of black leather clad musicians screaming into a microphone while fans throw up devil horns and violently ram into each other in the middle of circle mosh pit. With pioneering bands like Slipknot, Korn, Iron Maiden and Metallica receiving lion’s share of media attention, it comes as no surprise that metal has been stigmatized by the general public. Throw Ozzy Osborne and Marilyn Manson into the mix and it seems like “evil” is the name of the game when it comes to metal. For bands like Pennsylvania based August Burns Red, however, the metal stereotype is just that, a stereotype.
Wearing a gray hoodie over a plaid button up with jeans and flip-flops, JB Brubaker looked more guy next door than metalhead, as he helped set up the sound stage at Anchorage Community Works on Saturday. Although the wiry 33-year-old has been a guitarist with the highly successful metalcore band August Burns Red for 14 years, he bears none of the characteristics one might expect. His laid-back persona and jovial personality stand in sharp contrast to the heavy and loud music he plays. Not unaware of the perceptions that many people have of metal, Brubaker admits with a smile, that metal definitely is not for everyone.
“People who hear screaming immediately hear noise and I don’t really blame anyone for thinking [metal] is too abrasive,” chuckles Brubaker. “I mean we know it’s an acquired taste. I didn’t even like screaming when I was in high school but it just kind of clicked with me one day.”
The "click" Brubaker is referring to is his discovery of the American post-hardcore band Finch.
“It’s kind of like there are gateway bands that generally sing but they also throw in some screaming to supplement their sound,” Brubaker excitedly exclaims as he leans forward in his chair. “The band Finch, that was popular about 15 years ago did quite a bit of screaming and I really, really loved that band! Listening to Finch really got me into trying out other bands that screamed more – and now I’m 14 years into a band that screams almost exclusively.”
According to Brubaker, although the screaming vocals of metal can be hard to swallow, they are an intricate part of the puzzle that fills out August Burns Red’s signature sound.
“If we are playing a super heavy part, it just makes sense to scream over it. We don’t really sing a lot but we are singing a bit more now but you definitely won’t find pretty boy vocals on our tracks,” laughs Brubaker. “But, I mean there’s also a lot of emotion and passion behind screaming vocals and it makes everything seem a little bit more desperate or intense, depending on what you are talking about.”
What August Burns Red talks about is everything from life experiences to world issues and just about everything in between.
“When we sit down to write, it always starts with the instrumentation and then we build the lyrics from there,” explains Brubaker. “Anyone one who wants to contribute lyrics is encouraged to and then we kind of get together and democratically pick out the best material.”
Often the material contributed is heavy but offers a glimmer of hope through the darkness.
“Spirit Breaker” from the band’s 2013 album Rescue and Restore begins ominously: “Staring at the walls to pass the time/Pinch myself make sure I'm still alive/I'm not alright/It's become a disguise,” but by the end of the track the tune changes for the better. “I think of home often and of you even more/Yesterday I saw the sun shining/It appeared for a few minutes just after two/For a moment I found myself smiling.”
Although it isn’t hard to piece together a Christian slanted sub context for many of August Burns Red’s lyrics, the band asserts that they don’t go out of their way to push a Christian agenda.
"Lyrically, we always want to make it positive one way or the other so that people can relate," guitarist Brent Rambler said in a 2012 Charleston City Paper interview. "We don't want people to be super bummed or down. We try to make it upbeat, whether it's Christian-based or not.”
Regardless of how you interpret the band’s lyrics, there is little doubt that the words speak to the band’s fan base. A prime example was the band’s performance of “Composure” during their show at Anchorage Community Works. As the music crescendoed, lead singer Jaker Luhrs expertly wrapped his microphone cord around his neck and mock hanged himself while some members of the audience raised their hands in solidarity. Seconds later, Luhrs removed his mock noose to reach out to a female audience member who seemed particularly affected by his words. Holding her hand for no less than 30 seconds, Luhrs sang: “Life can be overwhelming/But don’t turn your back on the strongest crutch/You’ve ever had/They have always been there/To brace your fall.” In a room full of people, it was an intimate moment that highlighted the band’s ultimate messages of tolerance and hope.
“Metalcore kind of comes from the punk-rock background and it’s a very accepting community to begin with,” says Brubaker. “I don’t think there’s people who are like ‘I won’t listen to that band because they are singing about Christianity’ or ‘I won’t listen to that band because they are straight edge and I like drinking alcohol’ or things like that. It’s really just a community for music and there are a lot of thoughts and ideas people are pretty accepting of. For the most part that is.”
Of course tolerance isn’t an ideal shared by all. Nergal, the lead singer of world-renowned Polish metal band Behemoth, has been outspoken about his disdain for Christians in metal music.
In a 2012 LA Weekly interview with Jason Roche, Nergal asserted: “Everyone has their reasons for getting involved with metal music. To me, it was the rebellious spirit, attitude, and life philosophy of this music. Being Christian in this genre just seems against that. There are religious people in metal that we deal with. That's fucked up and crazy to me.”
Nergal isn’t the only one who asserts that there is no room for Christianity in metal music. There are a plethora of websites claiming that metal is both the work of the devil and corrupting pure Christians.
When asked how August Burns Red reconciles Christianity and metal, Brubaker is succinct.
“Music is not a religion and it never was! I mean, there can be satanic lyrics but to me, there is no such thing as satanic music. Like there is not a satanic sound – it’s something that has been environmentally taught. I mean honestly, you could have a pop singer singing satanic lyrics. To me, it is the lyrics where you would get the religious feeling from not the music. Seriously, music is music and lyrics are lyrics. That’s how I feel about that.”
When it comes to his own musical tastes, Brubaker says his interests lie with Philadelphia indie-rock bands but he admits he has a soft spot for U2.
“My wife and I are going to see U2 for the first time in a month which is going to be cool. I’m going to see them at the Lincoln Financial Center where the Eagles play. It’s going to be big” gushes Brubaker. “Yeah, like I’ve never actually been to a full-on stadium show and this is one of the rare times I got up early and was at my computer the second the tickets went on sale to make sure I could get them.”
After U2, Brubaker will join up with his bandmates and head over to Europe for the continuation of the Messengers 10th Anniversary tour with hopes of making it home before the birth of his first child.
“I was on tour through the whole morning sickness phase so that was pretty cool. It’s OK, my wife doesn’t read the Anchorage Press so I can get away with saying that,” Brubaker says with a huge smile. “But yeah, I’m pretty sure everything is going to change when my son is born and I’m looking forward to it.”
*Originally published in the Anchorage Press