Album review: I Prevail – True Power
Fast-rising Michigan metal crew I Prevail rise above their collective trauma on third album…
They say a broken heart fuels personal growth. Just ask Brian Burkheiser, co-vocalist of I Prevail, whose experiences on the evening of May 1, 2013 support that statement.
Back then, the 20-year-old Brian went on what he thought was a date. He doesn’t recall what happened earlier in the day, though it’s possible it involved Detroit-style pizza – the city’s deeper, chewier style of pie served in rectangular slices that Brian considers to be the best in America. What he knows for sure, though, is that he took a young lady to The Fillmore, the legendary venue that opened in 1925 as the State Theatre, for an evening’s entertainment provided by Pierce The Veil, Mayday Parade and You Me At Six.
“I was trying to impress her,” Brian says of the woman he was out with. So much so, in fact, that at some point during Pierce The Veil’s headline set, he decided to share his dream with her. “I said, ‘One day I want to do this,’” referring to both the 2,900-capacity room they were standing in at the time and the act of enthralling a live audience.
But while Brian firmly believed in what he was saying, it’s safe to say the object of his affection was less sure about his claim. “She chuckled and looked at me in a way that suggested she thought it was never, ever going to happen.” Insult was subsequently added to injured ego the moment the show finished and Brian was ditched in favour of a meet-up with some friends. Or so he was told. “I found out she actually went to see another dude.”
Crestfallen but undeterred, Brian began formulating his future on the journey home alone. “I remember telling myself that what had happened was a motivator, another thing for my list of why I need to push so hard and show people that I could do it and that dreams are achievable.”
If you need evidence of the veracity of wish fulfilment, look no further than what’s happened to Brian and his band I Prevail in the nine-and-a-half years since that fateful night: an EP, two GRAMMY nominations, three full-length albums, and one of the sharpest career trajectories in modern metal. And that’s not all.
“It’s funny that it’s come so full-circle,” 29-year-old Brian reflects now, a little over a week since headlining not one but two nights at The Fillmore, the hometown climax of a mammoth two-leg tour of North America in support of the band’s third album, True Power – on which they were joined by none other than Pierce The Veil. And while it’s not the first time they’d shared a stage with Vic Fuentes and co. – that accolade came in 2016 – on this occasion it was I Prevail that were closing.
“The fact that I’m able to share a stage with people I looked up to so much is something I always feel I need to pinch myself about,” explains Brian, evidently more interested in taking part than winning. “It makes me think, ‘Damn, I was actually able to go out and do stuff that a lot of people doubted I could do.’”
I Prevail – completed by co-vocalist Eric Vanlerberghe, guitarists Steve Menoian and Dylan Bowman, and drummer Gabe Helguera – are currently on a lengthy break between tours. They don’t have an engagement in their diary until March 7, when they play in the Swiss city of Zürich, though that’s not necessarily a good thing.
“I’m about a week away from getting that itch that I want to be back on the road,” suggests Brian from the couch, keeping an eye on the closed door separating him from a boisterous menagerie of pets that includes a savannah cat, a cross between wild and domestic breeds that’s prone to feral tendencies. Brian also lives with Caylin, his wife of two years, who he met a couple of months after the date that turned out not to be a date.
And what became of the woman who jilted him? “She used to like to text me every time we’d put out a record,” Brian reveals with a smile. “Since I got married, I haven’t had any more messages.”
Brian is a mixture of unsure and cocksure that it’s impossible not to like. He’s the first to admit that graduating in a class of 40 from a “super small” high school – Landmark Academy in southeastern Michigan – wasn’t exactly conducive to rock stardom. Or that he wasn’t aware he was talented until he was singing an Escape The Fate song in the car and a buddy remarked on the strength of his voice. And while his parents were supportive of his aspirations, friends and family members considered them at best unrealistic and at worst crazy, which only served to intensify the pressure he piled upon himself.
As a result, Brian forensically studied the world he wanted to be a part of – from songs and lighting, to artwork and behind the scenes machinations. He did so thanks to having the mind of a marketer as much as a musician, “hyper-analysing” the efforts of schoolmates in bands to identify the factors that might hold them back from future success, such as a bad name or a lack of promotional materials.
It’s this latter factor that’s made his band the savvy operators they are today, mindful of every detail in what they do and the role it plays in their overall game plan. “As much as music is the root of us, we’re all businessmen,” explains Brian, in a statement that’s sure to make the blood of the band’s detractors run cold. Brian doesn’t mind, though. This isn’t some opportunistic cash grab; I Prevail are in this for the long haul and he simply wants to future-proof their enterprise. “You have to develop and grow up,” is how he puts it. “You can’t take it easy – you have to make connections and learn as much as possible. Thirty years from now when we’re all 60, we want to still be doing this for a living.”
What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Unless you’re Eric Vanlerberghe, who’ll tell you everything. There are no tales of high stakes gambling, though, because the only game being played this time around was Magic: The Gathering.
When K! catches up with Eric later, he’s decked out in a hoodie commemorating this year’s Magic 30, a Las Vegas event celebrating three decades of the collectible card phenomena. Eric has long been a fan, playing it with his friends as a way of decompressing after returning home from tour, and finding it a useful crutch during the lockdowns that prevented him from being on the road for so long.
Now he’s back on it, this sweet, bear-like 31-year-old finds solace in camping trips with his girlfriend and their dog. Given Eric’s appreciation for the tangible – he has an Instagram account dedicated to his vinyl collection – the imminent physical release of True Power represents its true arrival. “When a piece of art I worked on arrives in my hand, that's special,” he eulogises. “Someone will have that record in their collection, and their friends or kids will thumb through that collection in years to come and discover something we made.”
Eric is romantic about the old-school methods of consuming media, but has love for the insights that streaming brings too, particularly at this time of year when artists and fans share their Spotify Wrapped stats. Similarly, while he's interested to know that I Prevail have received 246.9 million streams in 182 countries in 2022, the micro details touch his heart just as much – perhaps even more so. The band's Twitter account recently retweeted a fan who'd spent 7,766 minutes – the equivalent of more than five days – listening to I Prevail in 2022, putting that person in the top 0.05 per cent of their fans in the world.
“To see how someone’s dedicated so much of their life to your music is… insane,” says Eric, struggling for a word to reflect his gratitude, before deciding upon a rock star staple. “It makes me wish I could go back and see how much of my life I spent listening to [2009's] Homesick by A Day To Remember or The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance.”
Eric has a Black Parade tattoo on his leg, having “burned out” his CD copy through overplaying it. He’d never seen the album’s creators until a couple of months ago, when I Prevail played at this year’s When We Were Young festival, which was headlined by MCR. Anyone surprised that Eric, the man responsible for his band’s more guttural utterances, is a fan of emo may also wish to know he’s had varied tastes since day one; two of the first gigs he ever went to were Fall Out Boy quickly followed by Californian deathcore outfit Carnifex.
It’s unclear whether sharing festival bills with formative influences was on I Prevail’s to-do list, as they tend to play their cards close to the chest in that regard. We do know, however, that Eric’s original dreams for his band were exceeded at least seven years ago. Back when I Prevail was readying their debut EP, 2014’s Heart vs. Mind, he was the one who hesitated at the suggestion their first order should be 1,000 copies. “And here we are,” he laughs now, having since recalibrated his goals to make them “lofty”, so there’s always something to chase.
As with his vocal counterpart Brian, Eric’s template for success comes courtesy of Linkin Park. It was the nu-metal legends that made their name marrying riffery with pop hooks before shapeshifting into differing forms, all while maintaining stratospheric success and performing a vital role as the door through which fans discover a love for heavy music.
Given the slings and arrows I Prevail were subjected to early on for doing a cover of a Taylor Swift song, is Eric offended by some people considering them a gateway band?
“Absolutely not,” he hoots. “When I read a comment where someone is calling us an entry-level band, I laugh because they mean it as an insult, but we’re out there bringing people into metal, so that those kids playing music in their garages have the chance to one day be heard. And you always hold the band that brought you in close for years to come. Metallica was the first band that showed me what metal was. And from there it was Slipknot and Underøath and System Of A Down, then within two years I was listening to death metal and grindcore and all that stuff. I had an insatiable hunger for it. And I still love all those bands and their albums to this day, so I take that description as a huge compliment!”
Eric’s not done with the haters quite yet, though he doesn’t allow himself to get worked up. When I Prevail completed 2019’s Trauma, a second album that nakedly dealt with themes of mental health and loss, they knew they couldn’t have put any more into it. That knowledge provided the band with a degree of protection from the trolls when they inevitably weighed in. (It also didn’t hurt that Trauma earned GRAMMY nominations for Best Rock Album and Best Metal Performance.)
Thankfully, at this stage Eric is immune to naysayers because he’s acutely aware of where their words come from. “People are jealous it didn’t work out for them,” he reasons. “These kids had dreams and either didn’t have the opportunities or put the effort in, so now all they have is their words. It’s laughable. There will be people who hate me for how long my hair is or how I pronounce a word on a song, the stupidest things, so I’ve got to let that shit roll off my back.”
If you’re a friend of Eric’s, it’s just a matter of time before he’ll discuss his love for Christopher Nolan and Interstellar’s place as his favourite film from the director’s oeuvre. Starring Matthew McConaughey, it’s the increasingly prescient sci-fi classic about an astronaut trying to find a new home for the human race as Earth becomes uninhabitable. Putting it in I Prevail terms, Interstellar’s thematic density, emotional rawness and feast for the senses make it the equivalent of Trauma. By that rationale, then, time travel thriller Tenet, another Eric favourite, is akin to True Power. While the stakes and anticipation levels were higher, and the desired scale and spectacle delivered upon, it didn’t necessarily arrive with any easy answers.
“Trauma was a record on which we explored being broken, so we agreed to be completely open and honest and write about what we were feeling, but we’re more veiled on the specifics of the songs on True Power,” says Eric of themes that appear to be as much about the life of the band as the emotional life of its members. “True Power is the beginning of a new chapter for us. In the past, outside influences have tried to tell us what success looks like and how to reach it you have to live by certain rules. We fought against it but now we have complete confidence and people now know better than to question the decisions we’re making.”
When Brian Burkheiser looks out at an I Prevail crowd from the stage, he’s able to identify the many subsets of fans who are there to see them. There are the high schoolers looking to cut loose, who usually come in groups of six to eight. And the 30-35-year-old bros, reliving their years of going to see bands like Linkin Park and Avenged Sevenfold. There’s even the cool parents keeping a hand in going to shows, who bring along their kids, which, let’s be honest, makes it unlikely they’ll have much they can rebel against in future.
“We’ve always wanted to be a band that anyone could listen to,” explains Brian, who’s proud of the way I Prevail continue to incorporate a broad spectrum of outside influences into what they do, whether it’s collaborating with rapper Joyner Lucas on a version of their track DOA, or working with EDM luminaries Illenium and Excision on the single Feel Something. “The one thing we always want to be is the band that can be listened to by someone of any age, any race, any genre and find inspiration.”
Brian evidently wants to be for everyone not for the continued success of I Prevail, but to ensure that heavy music sits at the same table as music’s other big hitters, because it doesn’t always these days. When I Prevail attended the GRAMMYs back in 2020, they did so in the afternoon, as the rock categories weren't aired during the ceremony.
“Bring Me The Horizon and us were looking at each other, as our categories were called out randomly in between all these other weird genres,” recalls Brian. “I could tell we were all thinking the same thing: that we need to work out what we can do to elevate things, so that 10 years from now we can all come back to the GRAMMYs and rock will be so big and accepted again that it’ll be aired on live TV like it used to be.”
It’s a challenge I Prevail are more than equal to, thanks to their creativity, passion and sheer force of will. Not to mention a fanbase of believers who don’t waste an opportunity to tell their heroes the life-changing difference their music has made to them. A fan approached Brian at a meet and greet recently and explained how a serious accident had left him with numerous broken bones and holed up in hospital. Listening to True Power, he said, gave him the strength to push through the lowest moments and excruciating pain. “That is success,” Brian says, proudly.
So, too, is the dynamic between Brian and Eric that provides the central axis of I Prevail, a union that’s weathered everything life has thrown at them, individually and collectively, over the years.
“We stumbled upon each other,” smiles Brian. “And I’m lucky that the rock gods or the metal gods, or whatever you want to call them, decided to pair us up together because I don’t think this band would be the same without both of us in it – and I think he would say the same.”
He does. “As cheesy as it is, we’re like brothers – and that’s true of the whole band,” explains Eric. “That brothership means we have each other’s best interests at heart. There have been times, especially early on, when having two vocalists was a challenge that outside influences tried to steer us away from.”
One thing Eric wants to be steered towards is pubs, which he’ll get the chance to in the spring when I Prevail hit the UK and Ireland. He diligently jots down the names of K!’s recommendations and their corresponding cities, taking particular interest in the Trinity Arms, a cosy local on a quiet square a few minutes from the O2 Academy Brixton, where their 10-date jaunt concludes on March 29.
In the midst of the chaos that can be life on tour, Eric likes nothing more than taking a moment to sit and appreciate a pint with four buddies who, like members of a team, represent something bigger and more important than themselves. “We wouldn’t be who we are or where we are if it wasn’t for trusting each other and doing things our way,” says Eric, as if delivering a locker room pep talk. “We’re individuals, sure, but we want I Prevail to be the name that people remember.”
So far, they're doing a pretty good job.
True Power is out now via Fearless Records on CD and streaming services. Vinyl variants are released on December 16 – available to pre-order now. They tour the UK and Ireland from March 18, 2023.
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