Album review: Beartooth – The Surface
The journey to self-love allows metalcore giants Beartooth to dig deeper than ever before on career-high fifth LP, The Surface.
TThe last time Caleb Shomo stepped onstage was unlike anything the young frontman had experienced before. Oshkosh, Wisconsin – a town of 66,000, located some 80 miles north-west of Milwaukee, its inky night skies stretching out over Lake Winnebago – is an unusual tour stop at the best of times. On October 9, 2020, however, ascending a makeshift platform in the parking lot of Menominee Nation Arena, Beartooth found themselves a few degrees further removed from normality, greeted not by the usual throng of fans hurling themselves at the barricade, but by a sea of socially-distanced sedans, SUVs and pick-up trucks honking their horns.
“It was a wild opportunity that came out of nowhere,” Caleb shrugs of Beartooth’s first-ever drive-in show, “so we took it.”
One of the only truly heavy bands to test the format, the decision to travel 500-plus miles from their Columbus, Ohio hometown, along I-70 and up I-65, to play a single show that would struggle to break even says much about the band’s appetite for performance and connection with their fans. But was there any truth, we wonder, in last year’s most popular metal meme, with its photo of a multi-vehicle pile-up tagged to the caption ‘MOSH PIT – 2020’...
Caleb allows himself a hearty laugh. “I actually thought we should try to play a Demolition Derby! But there was no car-crashing that night. Everybody was safe. Everybody was good. It was so cool to see that people still cared that much about music, that even when the regular live experience – which means a lot, especially at a Beartooth show – is gone, they can still have a great time.”
Fender-bending aggro or not, the band broke convention that evening to debut a new song: heads-down banger Fed Up. ‘I’m so fed up, I’ve had it,’ Caleb raged from the stage. ‘Fed up with you, fed up with my friends, fed up with seeing hell in my head, fed up with life, fed up with the sun, fed up with myself telling everyone…’
The summer of silence, evidently, had not had a soothing effect.
Five months on, the Beartooth machine is beginning to growl once more, with new album Below (out June 25 via Red Bull Records) packing just as much caustic vitriol and burning self-loathing as those lyrics teased. Sitting in the home basement studio where he recorded, Caleb can only chuckle wryly as we state the obvious: this is not a happy record.
The trademark bandana is missing this afternoon, but black-painted fingernails and an ever-so-slightly-faded AC/DC shirt ensure a lingering aura of rock-star cool as the multi-instrumental mainman mindfully dissects his work for this world-exclusive first interview of the album cycle. His attitude, as always, is frank and unpretentious; his personality, a combination of the cutting intellect you could imagine dominating a record label boardroom, and the easy conviviality of someone with whom you could comfortably swing a golf club or sip a beer.
As Fed Up’s furious lyrics imply, Caleb is conscious about the potential diminishing returns of another record fixated on his faltering mental health. Still, the conversation can never quite escape that subject’s gravitational pull. Modestly, he accepts that this fourth LP might be his penultimate stop on the road to recovery.
Though that title – Below – came to Caleb spontaneously, from the aether, it suddenly solidified a roadmap in his head. Beartooth’s main releases to date – 2013’s Sick EP, 2014’s Disgusting, 2016’s Aggressive, 2018’s Disease – have become a “run-on sentence”, chronicling his battle with depression so far. The title for his next record – a secret, understandably – has already been finalised, and will finish the phrase to hopefully draw a line under this difficult first act of his life.
“This whole six-record thing has kinda defined my 20s,” Caleb reckons. “All of the albums are incredibly dark and internal, about me trying to tackle things I’ve been going through, honestly, since I was a kid. I’m hoping after this album and the next, Beartooth’s music might turn a corner towards being more optimistic…”
If it’s darkest before the dawn, then that grand plan is well on track. Caleb focuses on the fire rather than the fuel as he skirts around the “tough shit” at the end of the Disease cycle, and various coronacoaster-related ups-and-downs that impacted his latest depression, but he makes no apologies for spilling the bile from his guts.
“It’s what I told myself Beartooth was gonna be from day one – that I’m never gonna stray away from the real shit that I’m feeling. If it’s complete and utter despair and darkness, I’m gonna write about it. If there’s optimism, I’m gonna write about it. I would venture to say that this is going to be the darkest album that we will ever put out.
“I hope it is.”
Caleb Shomo, of course, is not alone on the road out of darkness. The staggered arrival of bassist Oshie Bichar in 2014, drummer Connor Denis in 2016, and guitarists Zach Huston and Will Deely in 2018 and 2019 respectively has consolidated the transformation from bedroom (well, basement) project to full-formed band. Convening as a quintet for the first time in months to shoot this K! Cover – their first as a unit – the warmth and good-natured bullshitting of brotherhood flows freely. The Jekyll/Hyde divide between in-studio and onstage identity, however, remains a pivotal talking point.
“When it comes down to brass tacks, there are two starkly different sides to Beartooth,” the frontman explains, frankly. “There are the albums: me writing and playing. Then there is our live show, which is a completely different animal.”
Flattering comparisons to mastermind musical architects like Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor or Dave Grohl’s early Foo Fighters endure, but the bandleader insists the arrangement is as much about opportunity as ownership. “I love playing, but I hardly ever get to do it,” he smiles. “I consider myself to be a drummer and guitarist before I consider myself a singer, but I only get to do those things meaningfully once every two years.”
Having rubbed shoulders with enough outfits where primary creatives have served, unacknowledged, Caleb was committed in laying the ground rules out of the gate. There would be no friction and no in-fighting. All players would be free to scratch their own creative itches elsewhere. And once songs were at home in the live setlist, they were there for his bandmates to make their own as they got on with the good business of life in a hard touring gang. Early tracks, Caleb admits, often sound unrecognisable nowadays, while even 2019’s acoustic EP The Blackbird Sessions saw his players given largely free rein.
Joining the conversation from his own subterranean space, Star Wars figurines stacked ceiling-high behind him, Oshie enthusiastically agrees. “Caleb is maybe the most humble person in the world. By no means has he ever been a dictator in this band. He wants to write stuff that we’re excited about. When we’re vibing together, the moments we’re all into are the ones he remembers.”
“I’m the dude who writes all the songs,” Caleb concludes, “but they are Beartooth.”
The shifting distance between frontman and band would come to define the composition of Below.
Caleb’s decision, for the first time, to bring a laptop recording rig on the road was a game-changer. “I realised that I loved it,” he remembers of tracking high-energy instrumentals in the echo of the live arena. “Musically it was huge tool for me to play a show, take in all that energy, then the next morning go into my little studio room and turn all this stuff into riffs.”
Working throughout October and November 2019’s Degenerates U.S. tour with A Day To Remember, a January 2020 co-headliner alongside Motionless In White and February’s European headline run, the opportunity for instant feedback and to “impress” esteemed tourmates excited Caleb. By the end of four months on the road, albeit with swaggering pop-metal nugget The Past Is Dead banked beforehand, an instrumental outline for the LP was complete.
“There was so much optimism and I felt so inspired,” he recalls of the countless Green Room listening sessions. “The band is like the second pair of ears. I’d ask, ‘Does this feel good? Does this feel cool? Is this reaching too far?’ and they’d say, ‘Fuck yeah!’ or, ‘This is a little out there; maybe you should dial it back…’ It was such a positive dynamic.”
March 6, 2020’s tour finale in Leipzig, Germany was always supposed to be the band’s last for a while. Relentless touring and a mystery illness (Oshie retrospectively suspects COVID) had left them burnt-out. A break was due. With everyone but Nashville resident Connor living in the greater Columbus area, regular catch-ups were expected to be par for the course. Yet as 2020 shut society down, they couldn’t even get into each other’s houses.
“I kinda imploded,” Caleb remembers of the sudden disconnect. “It made me second-guess everything. There was no inspiration. I couldn’t write a single thing that would make me feel anything. I couldn’t even get the guys into the room to hang out and listen. I’d send ideas on Dropbox then get a text back to say, ‘That’s good.’ It’s not the same energy.”
In a sense, the process evoked the flying-solo energy of Beartooth first starting out.
“There’s no co-writing on this record,” Caleb says. “There are no other producers. I wrote and recorded it. I mixed it. I mastered it. This was a wholly in-house album – literally, in this room. It [became] a depiction of 2020 as a year. We start off with optimism and the sense that it’s time to move forward and conquer these things. Then I’m witnessing my mind completely deteriorate. By the end, it was like, 'Holy shit.'”
More like unholy shit. Fans might need to wait to throw the horns to Below’s hellraising title-track (‘I feel the rage / Something’s starting to grow / Six hundred sixty six feet in my hell below…’) but right from their first glimpse of its gnarly artwork they’ll know it’s a record unlike any Beartooth have dropped before.
Skulls. Celtic crosses. Cemetery earth cracked open and a skeletal, reaper-hooded figure surging out of the underworld on his snake-wreathed motorcycle. Above it all, the Beartooth name streaks from the distance in classic heavy metal font. Gone is the modernist, photographically-oriented imagery of past releases. In its place, a graphic that owes a little to Meat Loaf’s iconic Bat Out Of Hell sleeve, and a lot to the demonic imagery, bold logos, and purple-and-black hues of metal legends like Motörhead and Black Sabbath, at whose altars Caleb has long worshipped.
“It was a conscious decision,” the frontman enthuses of this latest collaboration with Columbus-based graphic specialists TNSN DVSN. “We didn’t want to hold anything back or worry about how other people would perceive it or be offended. People need to know what they’re going into with this record. It is not sunshine and daisies. It is really evil stuff.”
Sonically, the 12 tracks measure up. Of course, Below remains an instantly-recognisable Beartooth release: the tactile blend of melody and munch, punchy verses and pop choruses – for which, Oshie believes Caleb’s talent is unrivalled – all present and correct. Poured on, though, there is a sludginess, a swagger, and a metallic edge that wasn’t there before.
“The majority of metalcore bands say their next album will be the heaviest yet,” Caleb says bluntly. “[Often], that’s literally a lie coming out of their mouths. It’s an attempt at a radio album: the guy who only ever screams starts singing; the riffs get lighter and lighter; the choruses become the focus. Obviously Beartooth are a radio-friendly band. But I just wanted this record to be the real deal. When I said to people this is going to be our heaviest shit yet, I wanted to actually deliver. This is the time I’m at in my life. This is where I’m at, mentally. I’m just fucking angry and violent and depressed and evil.”
The burning urgency and lurching grooves of that title-track, for instance, come on like Cancer Bats at their most raucous. Dominate is a force five hurricane of sound. Closing instrumental The Last Riff – the very nature and sequencing of which recalling early Metallica – dares to wield equal parts concussive stoner-metal and atmospheric post-rock. Even the polished melodies of songs like Skin (mega-chorus: ‘I’m so uncomfortable with this skin I’m in / The mirror’s telling me that I’ll never win…’) and I Won’t Give It Up are punctuated by moments of cutting angularity.
“My views on ‘heavy’ have advanced over time,” Caleb explains, rationalising that he now prefers a “thrash-meets-hardcore-meets-doom” sound that draws on everyone from Black Sabbath, Metallica and Trivium to Power Trip, Pantera, Sleep and Bongripper.
“I still love rock‘n’roll and AC/DC,” Caleb stresses, tugging his lightning-bolt-branded threads, “but I got super into metal here. As a guitarist, my music reflects that. Rather than throwing the guitar around and playing one chord, I’m trying to play faster, downpick faster, getting into those triplet picking techniques. I started experimenting with guitar tones, too. Different amps. Different pedals. Different guitars. Different tunings…”
So, is there an element to this more heavyweight sound and aesthetic, of breaking out of Beartooth’s existing niche and onto bigger stages?
“We’re not secretive about wanting to push ourselves to the next level at all times,” Oshie gestures. “But we want to do that with the most sincerity humanly possible. If you look at the biggest artists in the world, the ones who are the most sincere end up being the most successful. Regardless of the music that you’re playing, the music fan can smell bullshit from a mile away.”
The bassist, who, tellingly, is also in charge of band merchandise, outlines a desire to add extra dimensions of theatricality to Beartooth’s appeal, citing Slipknot and Ghost as lofty influences while stressing the need to not bury the earthier personality that got them here in the first place.
“It’s about making the Beartooth experience more of an event, giving people that larger-than-life rock show feeling without getting to the point where we’re playing characters. Regardless of how dark the songs can be, we just like to headbang and rock out. This is fun for us. We want everyone else to have fun, too.”
Caleb drops the blood-red cherry on top, teasing that that chopper-riding reaper might even become a recurring Beartooth mascot in the vein of Megadeth’s Vic Rattlesnake or Iron Maiden’s Eddie The Head. “I can’t tell you his name just yet,” the frontman grins, refusing to spoil a surprise. “I guess he’s the overlord of the darkness within myself.”
That tired old cliché springs to mind: ‘They don’t make rock stars like they used to.’ Much as Beartooth are indebted to heroes of the past, however, their mission is to forge a new future for heavy music. Like it or not, the rock gods of old are going extinct for a reason.
“The thing that’s changed has been the transparency,” Oshie reckons. “In those earlier days, guys like Ozzy and Lemmy were legendary because you only knew about them what was posted in the press. It’s almost a requirement to be on social media now. I saw Elton John write something recently about how [Canadian R&B superstar] The Weeknd is a little more reclusive and not so open on social media, which adds to his allure. He brings that kind of magic back by only ever really showing up [in character]. But that’s easier to do if you’re a millionaire like he is…”
Modern fans, Oshie continues, are increasingly okay with the “polarity” between musicians’ OTT onstage presentation and their more life-size personas off it. Drawing a comparison with the world of pro-wrestling, he notes that where it was difficult to see past the oversized personalities of Hulk Hogan or Stone Cold Steve Austin back in the day, 2021’s faces and heels feel no less valiant or villainous for their charity work and online interaction away from the squared-circle. Likewise, it’s no less thrilling when Tobias Forge daubs on the facepaint, or Corey Taylor pulls on the mask.
Ultimately, Caleb explains, the purpose of Below – indeed, that of Beartooth in 2021 – is to turn that rock star transparency into a positive for fans. “On paper, it seems like I shouldn’t have anything to feel bad about, ever,” he says. “I have a great job. I have a great wife. I get to live my dream, and I love every second of it. But that doesn’t mean that mental health isn’t still an issue and that COVID didn’t bring that to the forefront.”
That he chooses not to unpick the specific stories behind Below’s songs here should not be seen as any sudden wish for privacy, but as an invitation for fans to look into those deep, dark lyrics and reflect on themselves.
It’s easy to do so on a track like Devastation, where the cries of ‘Cathartic / Lethargic / I’m sealed inside these walls…’ capture the mania and misery of being stuck at home for months on end, or to look into The Answer’s declaration that ‘I’ve been staring in the eyes of my future self / Conversations in the mirror with somebody else…’ and see a potent distillation of falling into an uncertain future. As Caleb sings, ‘When I disappear, no-one will care about a single word I’ve ever put in the air, 'cause I know saying that I’m hurting’s getting old…’ on No Return he’s reflecting on how “batshit”, how “unrealistic” his thought process last year had become. Even Fed Up’s seemingly defiant declaration, ‘I never want peace, I thrive in the panic,’ he admits is the sound of “lying” to himself in the interest of going on.
“It was just this word-vomit of pain,” he reflects “To sugarcoat it would have been a disservice.”
With Ohio state governor Mike DeWine’s announcement hours before we speak, of the widespread rollout of COVID vaccines in his area, Caleb allows himself to look forward to the “FUUUUCK!” moment when band and fans are able to scream their catharsis and breathe a sigh of relief in sweaty communion. "‘This was insane,’" he imagines speaking words from a stage. "‘We all felt this. But let’s sing together and remember that this was just a moment in time and we can move on.’"
Before going forward, though, we need to come to terms with what we’ve come through thus far. That’s the thought Caleb leaves off on as we press our final question: What message, exactly, should fans take from this set of songs?
“I wish I had a good answer for that, but, honestly, I don’t,” he sighs, bloodied but unbowed from a battle that’s more relevant now than ever. “What I want people to know is that they weren’t the only ones thinking these outrageous thoughts that were going through their heads. Below is about capturing that feeling, and this moment in time. It’s about facing the reality. It’s about people knowing that they weren’t alone. This is the dark shit that everybody’s been bottling up and hiding from the world.
“If you didn’t want to say it, then hopefully I’m saying it for you.”
Below is released on June 25 via Red Bull Records. Pre-order/pre-save your copy now.
Bearooth tour the UK in February 2022 with Motionless In White and Stray From The Path. Tickets go on sale Friday at 9am BST.
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The journey to self-love allows metalcore giants Beartooth to dig deeper than ever before on career-high fifth LP, The Surface.
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The Cover Story
Ten years in the making, Beartooth’s fifth album finds Caleb Shomo coming face-to-face with something that’s eluded him all this time: self-love. Having always used music as an outlet for his pain and depression, today we find a man at peace with himself, having finally escaped the depths and ready to breach the surface…
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