10 of the best independent American metal records of the 21st century
In celebration of the United States’ Independence Day this weekend, we revisit 10 of the greatest heavy records dropped outside the major label system this century…
Southampton Guildhall. February 7, 2012. There’s a frisson of anticipation about the second date of the year’s Kerrang! Tour. It’s late afternoon, and in the venue’s production office security personnel are busily listening to the briefing for that evening’s show. Particular attention is being paid to a band on the bill already making people more than a little nervous.
“Apparently their singer is unpredictable and likes to move around a lot,” the man in charge tells his colleagues. “Keep an eye out for that.”
A few hours later and those words have been made to look like a gross understatement and an insufficient warning. Having already been treated to the brutal bloodletting of newcomers While She Sleeps, but yet to experience the pogo-ing fun of The Blackout (a late replacement for Sum 41, who’d pulled out due to Deryck Whibley being injured) and headliners New Found Glory, the 1,700-odd fans in attendance are receiving the letlive. treatment. Minutes into their set, the Los Angeles band’s hyperactive frontman, Jason Aalon Butler, swings his microphone cord as if trying to free himself from a barbed lasso, resulting in the flailing mic smashing through the skin of New Found Glory drummer Cyrus Bolooki’s snare, covered at the back of the stage, to the horror of onlooking crew. Jason, however, hasn’t noticed the damage done, as he’s already disappeared. When he resurfaces seconds later, he’s on the venue’s balcony, stepping out on to the rail in front of seated fans whose expressions turn to shock as the singer runs precariously across it like a tightrope.
Given his destructive and death-defying acts, there are several displeased people looking for him afterwards. This K! writer, whose job it is to grab a post-show interview with him, eventually finds him in a room backstage. He’s crouching wide-eyed in the corner, with a mischievous smile on his face and eyes like saucers of fire.
What was going through your head during those moments?
“I… don’t… remember,” he pants.
“I do remember that,” Jason laughs today, minutes after delivering a similarly headline-grabbing performance – once again under the banner of this magazine. “That was some OG shit back then – and I’m still here doing it!”
It’s November 28, 2018, and Jason is somehow still standing and fighting the good fight, but it’s with a different band, FEVER 333, who are on the verge of releasing their genre-splicing 4K-rated debut album, STRENGTH IN NUMB333RS. We’re at Blondies, the East London bar and venue that plays host to our weekly live series, The K! Pit. It’s about a hundred times smaller than the arenas the FEVER 333 will play later in the week supporting Bring Me The Horizon, but tonight it feels like the trio – completed by guitarist Stephen Harrison and drummer Aric Improta – deliver a more concentrated dose of mania. And while these K! gigs are supposed to be intense affairs, it would be hard to imagine anything trumping Jason singing while hanging upside down from a pole that looks set to snap at any moment, as Stephen unleashes combustible riffs from atop the bar.
(It’s perhaps worth remembering at this point that less than a month from tonight, this band will be nominated for a GRAMMY.)
An hour later, we’re sat in a restaurant a couple of doors down from the venue. Jason is wearing black dungarees over a black hoodie, giving him the appearance of a trawlerman returning from a lengthy stint at sea. That job wouldn’t suit the 33-year-old, however, given his personal beliefs, represented by the sizeable vegan doner kebab in front of him – his progress with it slowed by how much he has to say. Fiercely intelligent and dizzyingly articulate, Jason remains one of the most fascinating people you could ever wish to speak to. Despite his recent exertions, his face is an oasis of calm amidst hair that’s slicked back yet fanning out behind his ears.
Almost seven years on from slaying Southampton, Jason may be in a different band, but there’s no depletion in his onstage intensity, and it’s still the same fuel powering his engine.
“There’s only one way I know how to do it,” he says, his speech gathering pace. “I’ve been speaking to a therapist to find out why I have this reckless abandon onstage, because it’s concerning sometimes to people who care about me.”
Not that he ever thinks about it.
“And I think that’s an issue, to put it lightly,” he elaborates. “I’m trying to figure out what it is and why, and understand not how I can quell that thing, but figure out how I can utilise it in just as exciting a way, but without putting myself at risk.
“I want to eliminate the idea of it being a spectacle for people. I want it to be engaging and captivating, and I think that communication and transmittance of energy can happen without it being a spectacle.”
So does that mean Jason doesn’t want the main takeaways from the show to be, say, the image of him performing in a motorcycle helmet he’s borrowed, as was the case earlier?
“One hundred per cent,” he mumbles, having chanced a mouthful of food. “As I get older, I get a true sense of the artist I’d like to be. I’ve always wanted to be someone who speaks to the people, and while my representation, physically, is certainly a component of my message, I don’t want it to overshadow the message. I want it to be an integral part, or equal parts, but a sense of empowerment is what people should take away. Mental and emotional empowerment are more effective as tools for people than me abandoning all ideas of my self-care.”
But what of the expectation that’s been seeded by incredible live shows such as the one we’ve witnessed tonight?
“The only person who expects anything is me – and therein lays the problem,” he laughs. “I don’t feel pressure from any other external force other than my own mind. [My therapist has] helped equip me with tools and methods to better understand what I’m doing and why it may be worrisome to others, and helped me find ways I can get the same sensation and satisfaction from other actions, but they haven’t actually told me to stop.”
While listening to STRENGTH IN NUMB333RS, it’s impossible to think the man fronting it could cease even if he wanted to. There is, however, a greater depth to the album’s messages, informed by the pain of Jason’s past, the personal satisfaction of his present, and a sense of hope for future generations that suggest the words and music are enduring enough in their own right. It’s something Jason thinks about a lot, because of his own more personal contribution to the next generation…
If you go to Jason’s Twitter page, you’ll see a tweet pinned from December 9. The singer was in Sicily at the time, but found a picturesque piazza and took time out to film a message to his followers in light of some extraordinary news – that FEVER 333 had been nominated for a GRAMMY in the Best Rock Act category for their song Made An America, the title-track of last year’s debut EP.
“All y’all are family and all y’all are the reason that I get to say I got nominated for a GRAMMY,” beams Jason in the video, clearly as stunned as the rest of us. In the accompanying tweet, he proclaims himself “the odd skater kid from Inglewood who tried to get people to believe soul and punk music together was a good idea,” and while that’s a fascinating success story, it undersells the significance of a song about those exploited in the name of power in America’s history, made by a band that was little more than an idea two years ago, and now being recognised by the establishment.
In March of last year, when FEVER 333 made their first appearance on the cover of K!, Jason insisted, “Change is not easy. Revolution doesn’t pay.” And while events since this interview suggest they may do on some level, back in the midst of his vegan doner, Jason is still inclined to agree with his appraisal.
“Sounds like I had remarkable foresight,” he says with a smile that falls away as he suggests the challenges the world is facing are already even worse less than a year later. “In recent months it’s become even more real, which brings a new sense of anxiety when it comes to moving forward. But those feelings are necessary to motivate us into action. It’s best not to be afraid of the truth.”
While we’re discussing truths, though in March Jason told K! that while letlive. were “Soul Punx”, FEVER 333 “is a movement”, today he wants to make clear that statement is not accurate.
“We’re only here because there’s a movement that precedes us,” he says. “We can try our best to be a mouthpiece, an amplifier, a soundtrack, but we are not the movement.
“When we do a festival or something similar, we don’t even arrive on the same platform as the rest of the festival – not in an arrogant way, but whatever quality we bring to that festival is so separate from everything and everyone else. We’re literally just a board to bounce ideas, feelings, emotions, frustrations and desires off of. We’re speaking with the people, not for them.”
Over the course of its 10 explosive tracks, STRENGTH IN NUMB333RS certainly voices the struggles of those who go unheard, because FEVER 333 aren’t about to be ignored – or let anyone else be, either. They’ve done it too via some of the catchiest, most accessible music Jason has ever produced. Burn It, which the band explosively opened with earlier tonight, featuring the lyric, ‘I’ve got a mouth like Malcolm and hands just like Ali’, is a key example. Jason, who directed its video alongside his friend Djay Brawner, suggests the promo embodies the track’s core message.
“The key thing to notice is the running,” he explains. “I’m running from the police, the police are running from a rebel group, and I’m running towards another rebel group. We’re all just trying to get somewhere, though we all believe different things.
“The image that everyone is talking about is the car on fire. But I don’t think enough people are paying attention to the fact that I’m in the car. That was supposed to represent my willingness to go as far as I can, because I know I’m not kicking the can down the road this time – I’m making the effort to remove what I feel to be large, problematic and damaging elements in my environment.”
These elements include the demonisation of the working class, an issue on both sides of the Atlantic, and which the band seeks to change the perception of with the hulking Animal.
“The way that we’ve been presented to the world is another socially engineered plan to keep us where we are as animals,” he says in reference to lyrics like, ‘Take it all / Leaving nothing for the cannibals’. “We’re treated like we’re not human from the jump. Animal is trying to disrupt this absurdly skewed view.”
For those as yet unfamiliar with such frank pronouncements, the track Inglewood/3 is on hand to provide a crash course on Jason Aalon Butler’s life. It is, to use a phrase from Jason’s titular hometown, “Letting them see [his] receipts” – ie. providing a road map for people to better understand where he’s been, thereby giving greater context to why he is the way he is, and has the beliefs he does. Beginning with his fear of going nowhere.
“The opening lyric [‘Imagine being born in a hospital whose doors open up right into a cemetery / How’s that for metaphor?’] is about being born and dying in the same place, but it’s quite literal; Centinela Hospital is actually across the street from Inglewood Cemetery.”
As if proof of how far Jason has come since then were necessary, seconds later his wife, a New Zealander, calls from across the Atlantic, as he sits in a restaurant in London having played a triumphant show.
Family is incredibly important to Jason. The reason he was so late to the party when it came to the news of the GRAMMY nomination was because at the moment his phone started “blowing up” with congratulatory calls and texts, he was driving his wife and their one-year-old son through the Sicilian countryside.
“I’m not a negligent father and husband,” he explained in his Twitter video.
Even to overhear the briefest phone interaction between Jason and his wife is to witness a man deeply dedicated – “I’m in love with her in a whole other way now,” he says of her becoming a mother – though despite describing her as ‘wild and free’ on the track Prey For Me/3, they’ve made for level-headed parents (“We’re much more orthodox than people would think.”)
Jason is a hopeless romantic, but now romantic about hope thanks to the birth of his son. He describes having a child as nothing less than “the tangible demonstration and example of what it actually means in the future of this world,” and admits to regularly crying in his bunk at the thought of his love for him.
“Seeing my son, and understanding that every single move that I make, for better or worse, will affect him, is a powerful thing.”
Jason’s own upbringing certainly had a marked impact on him, as anyone who’s ever listened to the music he makes can attest. He was born and raised in Inglewood, the city southwest of downtown Los Angeles synonymous with a high crime rate. He’s vehemently opposed to the glamourising of gang violence, which he was regularly exposed to growing up with parents who weren’t a consistent presence. His father spent long periods away from home pursuing his career as a singer with soul band Aalon; his mother was suffering from leukaemia. One day when she chastised a local group for attacking her neighbour, they shot out the windows of their house in retaliation. Despite having an older half-brother, it fell to Jason to help raise his sister at the point he was making his way into manhood. That combination of a lack of domestic stability, a combustible atmosphere in which people he knew were killed by the police, and the limited prospects during these formative years means Jason is keen for his son to have a very different life. “He’s the future,” the proud father says. “He’s unbridled potential; he’s the hope I have.”
When Jason says: “I would die a thousand of the most painful deaths for my son,” you believe him, though when he says “there is a debt to be paid and it will lie upon my son’s shoulders,” you realise he’s speaking about the generation his son will be a part of, and that’s what’s truly fuelling Jason’s tank now. He, understandably, doesn’t want his son to grow up in a world in which people of colour are persecuted; where men think they’re entitled to women’s bodies, and police shoot innocent people.
“The system is broken,” he spits. “The system that made them feel they need a gun to have power; the system that didn’t really check on their backgrounds to see if their mental or emotional aptitude was high enough to carry a lethal weapon. The system is broken, and no-one can tell me otherwise.”
Despite this belief, Jason has his eyes open for signs of positive change. Take this evening, for example, which saw Jason reflect mid-set on the strong female presence in the room.
“When the scale is quantifiably tipped in favour of women in the room, what better time for us as men to recognise that, and their strength,” he says now.
While Jason is unfazed by big challenges, coolly facing down arena shows with Bring Me The Horizon with the words, “I’ve been equipped for this for a long time,” some things intimidate him. Given how much the world deteriorated between FEVER 333’s first K! cover and this one, for example, does he not worry the wheels are moving too fast to be stopped? Thankfully, the relentless pace seems to empower Jason rather than quash him.
“Since things are moving so quickly, I’m giving an even quicker view of what it means to try to remain authentic in your activism, while operating in a world trying to monetise you.
“It’s not my job to worry about what people are thinking or what they’re thinking about us; it’s my job to illustrate the truth and a perspective that could be helpful to the greater conversation.”
These conversations are so huge that many of them will take decades to see fundamental shifts. Jason is therefore resigned to the fact that he may not be around to see the seeds of change bear fruit – “History has taught us that most revolutionary figures don’t get to see what they’ve done come to fruition, and I’m still very aware of that” – but that doesn’t deter him from this most passionate of passion projects.
“There’s only so far you can take this without becoming a threat, or seemingly weaponised, as a mind or a force,” he says suddenly. “My greatest fear would be dying before I could tell my son what this all means. Success, once I pass, whenever that may be and for whatever reason that may be, would be for him to understand that his father did this for him.”
FEVER 333 tour the UK in November. Get your tickets now.
FEVER 333 UK tour 2019
01 Bristol SWX
02 Birmingham O2 Institute 2
03 Manchester O2 Academy 2
05 Glasgow SWG3
06 Leeds Stylus
07 London O2 Kentish Town Forum
In celebration of the United States’ Independence Day this weekend, we revisit 10 of the greatest heavy records dropped outside the major label system this century…
From the Washington DIY scene of the ’80s to Sweden’s new noise to the basements of Bridgend, this is the (still ongoing) evolution of post-hardcore…
From Avenged Sevenfold and My Chemical Romance to letlive. and Deftones, we rank the best albums released in 2010
letlive. have announced a vinyl edition of their 10 Years Of Fake History demos release.
letlive. have released the recordings to mark Fake History's 10th anniversary...
Because as the saying goes, if you're not feeling angry, you're not paying attention!
With the Kerrang! Tour just around the corner, we take a look back at some highlights from past years...