Dark Horses: Why Unto Others have the strength to be heavy music’s next big thing

Faced with cancelled touring and a copyright lawsuit, Portland metallers Unto Others found themselves staring into the abyss for much of the last two years. With outstanding second album Strength, however, they’re turning deepest black into gothic gold…

Dark Horses: Why Unto Others have the strength to be heavy music’s next big thing
Sam Law
Peter Beste

“Big sunglasses, very important,” declared Darkthrone mainman Fenriz during his legendary 2005 living room interview with German publication RockHard. “Always, big sunglasses – cool band!” By that abstract measure, Portland collective Unto Others are surely the most exciting outfit in metal at the start of 2022. There’s a seductive timelessness about their trademark all-black attire, gleaming aviators and command of goth, death and classic metal motifs. Dig beneath the aesthetic, though, and there is an energy that could hardly feel more relevant in the here and now.

“We had a rough 2020,” sighs imposing frontman Gabriel Franco, blinking bare-eyed into the cold light of day. Although he’s conscious that particular 12 months was an annus horribilis for absolutely everyone other than PPE company stockholders and dedicated shut-ins, their personal shitshow didn’t so much stall as reshape the band.

A scheduled spring tour alongside rising Arizona death-metallers Gatecreeper and black metal legends Mayhem and Abbath was cancelled the day before it was due to start in Denver, Colorado, leaving them stranded 1,000 miles from home with a trailer full of gear and only the pent-up silence of lockdown to look forward to. A month later, they received news of a copyright claim, which would prohibited the use of then-name Idle Hands going forward. “It was tough,” Gabe winces, still sore. “It was a struggle. It was just like we were ready to go, then everything fell apart.”

Almost two years down the line, however, they haven’t just survived; they’ve thrived.

It’s hardly coincidental that the titles to Idle Hands / Unto Others’ first two albums – 2019’s Mana and 2021’s Strength – refer to essentially the same thing: energy; power; fortitude. Gabe smiles at our observation, initially deflecting with the admission that he’s inspired by videogame-centric geek-speak, but it’s undeniable that his music is a potent distillation of what it means to stare – perhaps even lean over – into the void, and to refuse to be consumed by it.

“Sitting at home, coming up with all this shit, it felt like I was writing in the dark a lot. ‘Okay, here’s the song. But when am I going to release it?’ Planning things a year out is just depressing. When people were saying ‘Okay, next fall…’ I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m not immortal!’ Next year isn’t how I operate. If there’s something I want to do, I do it as soon as prudently possible. I never really sat there saying, ‘I need some strength’ or, ‘I need some help’. That’s not necessarily what the album is about. It was accidental, or maybe subconscious. I don’t know if it was so much that we needed strength, but we ended up with it…”

Indeed, Gabe isn’t keen to dwell on the subtext.

Where their original moniker hinted at devilish playfulness, the words ‘Unto Others’ land with more biblical weight, and an unavoidable implication that scales must be balanced, and justice must be done. Where ‘Idle Hands’ was taken from 2019 track Blade And The Will (‘My idle hands hold on…’), Unto Others is lifted from those for No Children Laughing Now (‘And do unto others / As they have done to me…’). The singer refuses to be drawn on the matter, allowing the cultural and religious weight of the phrase speak for itself. “There’s no definitive message I’m trying to send. You could take it as the golden rule: ‘Do unto other as you would have them do unto you…’ or you could say it as vengeful ‘Do unto others as they have done do unto you.’ Really, it’s about that question of whether you’re going to help or hurt people with your power.”

Likewise, looking at Adam Burke’s striking album artwork – a black horse against a dark backdrop – there’s no clarification on whether the steed is a representation of Famine from the Book Of Revelation, or a nod to the band’s status as surging underdogs about to elevate themselves from the underground. “They’re just such majestic animals,” Gabe shrugs. “And there’s something interesting about how they’ve been domesticated to the Nth degree and effectively had their freedom taken away from them.”

That stubborn ambiguity doesn’t quite extend into the lyrical content of the songs themselves. Tracks like Double Negative, Heroin and the aforementioned No Children Laughing Now clearly envisage scenarios of suicide, addiction and even school shootings.

Refusing to dispute that his subject matter takes in darkness for darkness’ sake, the frontman confesses that a pitch-black sense of humour is at the heart of all he does, while making a compelling argument that his decision to tap into the emotional potency of life’s sadness, suffering and squalor doesn’t need to be dissected or justified. Dark-sided explorations of suicidal ideation, for instance, have become unjustifiably taboo in music. “It’s just another extreme of our reality,” he explains. “It deserves its place in music. It’s something that happens all the time in movies and plays going all the way back to Shakespeare. But when you throw that into a song it gets so much more critically analysed.”

So, this midnight music isn’t supposed to be dark and oppressive?

“I think that our music is inspiring, to be honest,” Gabe counters. “My number one goal is to try and get people to feel goosebumps. If that happens, then I’m doing my job. This music only seems miserable to those who can’t see beyond the surface. There’s a much deeper message there. If you can find it and connect with it, this music will inspire you, not make you sad. People think listening to music like ours is this dark thing where you’re just depressed all the time and you hate everything. That’s not why I listen to it. I listen to it because there’s somebody else out there who feels the same way I do. It’s about having the courage to acknowledge that bad things happen, but that’s okay. Our fans are generally intelligent enough to understand the deeper meaning behind this stuff. They’re not taking it at face value.”

A wry grin.

“Though I did come across one guy on Facebook who’d decided, ‘This is garbage music for lowlives!’”

Stripping back the black cotton and mirrored glass further still, there is a compellingly layered human being behind that ghoulishly cathartic philosophy.

Growing up in an “eclectic” household, Gabe was surrounded by five brothers and a sister. His mother’s mixed-European background meant that he had a clear perspective on the white American experience, though tales of his maternal grandmother – a cocaine trafficker who would sometimes feed her children dog food – ensured he never forgot how good he had it. His father was Mexican, but never really in the picture: a fact Gabe acknowledges has proven something of a chip on his shoulder over the years. His stepfather is of Vietnamese descent: a good man and a strong positive influence.

“Half-Mexican, half-American, raised Vietnamese,” the singer self-reflects on how that upbringing fostered an open-mindedness. “You get to see all these different cultures and styles and understand that there’s more to the world than that one life that you have.”

As a kid fascinated by all things nerdy (“Space. War. History. Books like Lord Of The Rings. Video games like Final Fantasy X!”), he was drawn to “the extremes of high fantasy – as far as you can take it”. Counterbalancing that, real life threw up plenty of street-level struggle. “As kids, we drank 40s and fucked shit up: riding our bikes, drinking in parks and getting ourselves into the classic trouble.” That spilled into eight years in speed-metal collective Spellcaster. “It was touring across the United States in a van with five bandmates. Sleeping in trash every day. Being at the bottom. Not having a dollar to your name…

“I have this very reality-meets-fantasy thing going on, with experience in both fields.”

When Spellcaster ran out of magic in 2017, having dropped a more-than-passable three albums and an EP during their time as a band, Gabe found himself at a crossroads. On one hand, he’d seen the borderline destitution and dead ends that life in a touring band can throw up. On the other, he’d tasted the dream. The time had come, realistically, to go all-in or walk away forever.

“I decided a couple of years before I started this band, that music is something I’m kinda stuck with,” he says. “When Spellcaster failed, I was lost and depressed, with no clue what I was doing with my life. But then I realised that it was only the beginning, not the end. I guess the difference between being conservative and progressive is that between the desire to maintain things and that to create new ones. I’m not a man who likes maintenance. Creation gives me purpose. So I said, ‘Alright’ and got to work. I’ve been hitting the grindstone ever since.”

If Gabe was going to keep making music, mind, he was going to make the music he wanted to. It’s easy to lump Unto Others into the shady goth-metal scene alongside the still-rising likes of Ghost and Tribulation, but there’s a singular quirkiness, combining high fantasy and backstreet squalor, neither fully miserabilist nor entirely tongue-in-cheek, that sets them apart. A track like Heroin might showcase a more severe metallic edge, but poppy hooks abound (“Even a song about addiction can make you crack a smile!”), while Strength takes real glee in giving Pat Benetar cover Hell Is For Children pride of place. Hell, Gabe even namedrops German techno legends Scooter amongst the artists he admires: “It’s heavy metal! The way H.P. Baxter sings. He’s commanding you to party. And they have no rules. They use the Iron Maiden 7-3-5 gallop. And they cover rock and metal songs like KISS’ I Was Made For Loving You! I love all of that shit!”

Ultimately, Gabe stresses, it’s about luxuriating in the darkness of gothic and death metal while acknowledging that there is life outside its black-and-white extremes. “I don’t want people to see us as these brooding, sad goth boys who’re like ‘Blegh! Everything is terrible…’ because that’s not what we are. We’re not flashing the pentagrams or wearing vampire fangs or some shit. We’re four dudes who love rock’n’roll and heavy metal and having a good time. The music does not define who I am as a person. It’s just an expression of where I am at a time. Sometimes you’re going to get a very happy song. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it’s a crazy wacko one like Dragon Why Do You Cry?”

As metal’s crusty gatekeepers and archaic rule makers continue to exert their influence over the “traditional” wing of the genre in which Unto Others happily reside, however, that refusal to live down to expectation increasingly makes them feel like some kind of revolutionary force. And with Gabe touting the indie and prog-rock inflections of the music he’s been writing recently, there’s no question of his dialling back on the off-kilter influence. Individuality is everything.

“The scene is dangerous,” Gabe says. “The scene can destroy you. It’s like a bunch of scared animals looking at each other asking, ‘Is this okay?’ when nobody knows what they’re doing. Rule number one for Unto Others is we’re not a part of the local music scene. We’re gonna be our own entity. No mingling. No ladder-climbing. We just want to do whatever the hell that we want.

“If you have a great idea or a great melody, put it in. I never understood the mentality that you should hold those things back. In Spellcaster, that would happen all the time. I’d be like, ‘Hey, we should harmonise the second half of that guitar part because it would kick ass,’ and I’d be told we couldn’t because there was already another harmony in another part of the song. I’d be thinking, ‘A song can’t have two harmonies? Can you fucking hear yourself right now?!’ It seems like there are so many of these brutal metal artists who’re constantly like ‘That’s not allowed!’ But guess what? Those are the bands that go fucking nowhere.

“This band has no limits. We do whatever we want. We sing about whatever we want. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a song. There’s always another one…”

Strength is out now on Roadrunner. Unto Others will tour the UK this month.

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