The debut album from Saint John metal act Red Usurper is a mighty listen indeed.
The thing I find interesting about metal music is the simple fact that even the worst bands out there can usually make at least someone in the room bang their head. And yes, I know that’s a pretty stereotypical thing to say when discussing metal music but in my experience it’s also an indisputable fact. Maybe it has something to do with how welcoming and kind 96.345% of metal fans are when it comes to supporting their scene. Perhaps a little head movement is their way of showing they care? Maybe so, but I think it has more to do with how the music is structured and delivered. Heavy distorted chords and big loud beats can incite the body to move with the same uncontrollable tic that causes an entire room to tap their toe when a fiddler rattles off a blast of intricate jigs or reels. Maybe that’s just an East Coast thing. Either way, when it happens it’s not something you actually think about. It just happens.
If head nodding is more or less a natural reaction, we can’t truly use it as a gauge to qualify how good a band really is. But what if a band’s music sparks other involuntary reactions like spuratuc air guitar solos and drum fills? Are these symptoms of a greater energy that exists within the music or are they simply highlighting the listener’s obvious weakness for metal’s almighty authority? Whatever the case may be, this is exactly what happened to me during my first listen to The Sphere Of Time, the upcoming debut album from Saint John’s Red Usurper.
Formed in 2015, Red Usurper have been playing around the Maritimes for the past few years, slowly chipping away at their debut recording. After experiencing at least one minor setback during the recording process, the album is now complete and is scheduled for release on September 7.
“We had actually started recording this record in the spring of 2017, but our drummer at the time left the band so when our new drummer Tyler [Murray] joined, we took the opportunity to rework the arrangements to his style of playing before hitting the studio again,” said guitarist Mike Foster.
As far as impressive debut albums go, The Sphere Of Time is one of the best I’ve heard in awhile. Bringing together many of the genre’s defining elements – everything from wailing guitar solos to clever shifts in tempo and tone – Red Usurper’s debut showcases the band’s admirable mix of musicality and songwriting chops.
As Foster explains, the band’s sound has a lot to do with its democratic approach to songwriting and arranging, a method that leaves room for each member to contribute ideas and suggestions as new songs take shape.
“Our writing process is fairly democratic in that we all want to have a say in the writing and arrangement of the songs so we agreed at the outset that songwriting would always be a group effort,” said Foster. “The band is open to any ideas that a member brings to the table.
“I tend to have a lot of ideas and riffs so what typically happens is that I will come up with a riff or collection of riffs that work together and bring them to the group, at which point we all come up with complimentary pieces and arrangements based on the seed of those original ideas,” said Foster. “The final product is usually much different than what I had originally envisioned, but having five unique creative voices really pushes the songs into places that they probably wouldn’t have gone were we limited to one or two primary songwriters.”
Recorded over a handful of weekend sessions back in February and March of this year, Foster estimates the group put in a total of somewhere around one full week of in-studio time with engineer Adam Lanteigne to make this record happen.
“Adam also recorded some demo songs for us back in 2016,” said Foster. “He’s a big proponent of capturing a band raw and unpolished and we felt that that approach would work well for our music. Together we decided on a plan where we would record each instrument in as few takes as possible. The idea being that if what ends up on a song is a single take from start to finish, any nuances or small mistakes in playing would remain on the record to give it a more live feel. We didn’t want to overdub and polish the individual performance.”
The guitar sounds on The Sphere Of Time easily constitute some of the album’s defining traits, but that doesn’t mean Red Usurper are a one trick pony, a guitar band or simply a tribute to the decades of metal that have already passed. Guided by vocalist Scott Nicol’s admirable range – at times shifting between Dickinson-esque, near operatic delivery to full-on screaming with apparent ease – bassist Matt Vail and drummer Tyler Murray hold each song firmly in place while Foster and Steve English explore melody through an all-encompassing spectrum of tonal and dynamic range.
“In metal, it’s common for guitars to get double or quadruple tracked which can give the performance a sterile feeling,” said Foster. ‘That was something we wanted to avoid. To give the guitars some added depth though Adam opted to stick four microphones in front of the speaker cabinet so he had a ton of options when sculpting the guitar tone during mixing. He used a similar approach for the vocals as well. The intention was to get a true performance from each of us, flaws and all.”
Despite what Foster or the other members of Red Usurper may consider flaws or performances errors in some of the album’s tracks, all eight tracks on The Sphere Of Time move effortlessly forward as if the band have been doing this for years. The arrangements, musicianship and songwriting are all top shelf.
I expect to see The Sphere Of Time riding high on several Best of 2018 lists as the year unfolds.
Red Usurper are currently booking fall performances to celebrate the release of their debut album. There is only one date confirmed so far and that’s the band’s hometown release show which will happen October 6 at Taco Pica in Saint John. Follow the links below for more show announcements and seek out a copy of this album when it comes out while you’re at it.
The Sphere Of Time will officially be released September 7.