A full decade since their formation, Orange County, California’s Atreyu are just as subversive, unrelenting and unpredictable as they were when they first started. Congregation Of The Damned, their fifth album, is a testament to the inexhaustible power of heavy music and the unquenchable flame of five musicians determined to build a distinct sonic landscape entirely on their own terms. As vocalist Alex Varkatzas spits in “Bleeding Is A Luxury:” ‘It’s taken 10 fucking years for them to see I don't need their approval’.
“This album is us stepping forward to new territory but taking with us the best of where we’ve been,” explains drummer and vocalist Brandon Saller. “It really is the culmination of a ten year career.”
Often, artists will release their fastest, heaviest material at the beginning of their career and, as they mature, they become more melodic or commercial. That seemed to be the case when Atreyu recorded their Top 10 disc Lead Sails Paper Anchor in 2007 – but that perception was deceptive. The album was rife with sing-along choruses, radio-ready rhythms and pristine production, yet it was still undeniably heavy, as appealing to diehard headbangers and to anyone who appreciates solid, dynamic songwriting.
But with their new album, Congregation of the Damned, Atreyu blows all preconceptions out of the water, commanding us yet again to expect the unexpected. Not only is the record more like a well-crafted continuation of the minefield-strewn path they were on when they recorded 2006’s A Death-Grip on Yesterday, it’s filled with some of the band’s darkest, most political material to date. Not only have Atreyu been fueled by their passion, they’ve been motivated by their determination to point out the ugliness they’ve witnessed all around them. Hence, the album title.
"Our leaders have screwed us," explains Varkatzas. "We've started wars, we're in a recession and we're trying to fistfuck other countries into oblivion. America's getting by on doing a lot of things in the name of God. George Bush got away with a lot of shit by throwing Jesus into the mix: 'God wants me to do this'. So instead of being a beautiful church congregation, we're a congregation of the damned. We're in such a scary place right now, I've never felt this sense of tension before - and that's in the music."
Atreyu started writing Congregation of the Damned in January 2009 and almost immediately the excitement of being back in a collaborative, unified mindset sparked the musician’s creativity. "It felt like when you first start a band," explains Saller. "We were just so excited to hang out in a room and write songs just because we wanted to. And the writing process was more group oriented than previously.”
Within months, Atreyu had composed 25 songs that ranged from plangent and heartbreaking to brutally fast and cathartic. Later that year, they entered the studio with producer Bob Marlette (Ozzy Osbourne, Seether). Since they were working near their homes in California they didn’t feel confined the way they sometimes had in the past, and they were able to enjoy the recording sessions like never before.
Uninformed listeners could be forgiven for not realizing what a blast the guys had making Congregation of the Damned. Songs like “Ravenous” and “You Were the King Now You’re Unconscious” are furious and frightening, the sonic din of young adults coming to terms with the idea that they might have sold themselves short while their generation was foundering in a universal identity crisis. Whether or not that was the case, Atreyu are now determined to prove themselves more than ever.
“In the past I'd had my head up my ass," Varkatzas admits. “But with Congregation of the Damned I’ve focused myself and driven harder for what I want. We’ve brought back a bit of the old Atreyu: shredding, screaming and breakdowns.”
Varkatzas is being modest. True, the trenchant elements of old are back, but they’re combined with stronger songwriting and flourishes that keep Atreyu sounding utterly captivating. “The first single, Storm to Pass” builds from an acoustic intro into a steadily chug of buzzing guitars that climax in a triumphant chorus. “Insatiable” is powered by a harmony-filled refrain that reflects guitarist Dan Jacobs’ penchant for powerhouse ‘80s metal bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motley Crue. “Black Days Begin” features a southern groove-chug informed by the guys’ love for Pantera, and “Wait For You” is a piano and strings-laden love ballad that reveals an entirely new side of the band.
“On Lead Sails Paper Anchor we had a slide guitar ballad, and that’s not my favorite song in the world, so this was kind of our chance for rock ballad redemption,” Varkatzas says. “Big Dan [Jacobs] had this idea kicking around forever and we had never written a full-on love song. So we went, “Dude, we’re writing a ballad. We don’t give a shit. This is what we want to do. And if you don’t like this one, you don’t have a heart.”
Lyrically, Congregation of the Damned pulls no punches from start to finish. Album opener, for example, “Stop! Before It’s Too Late And We’ve Destroyed It All” is based on a Joe Rogan comedy sketch in which he sees humans as a plague on the earth. Varkatzas empathizes with Rogan’s plight.
“When you fly into LA it’s all green and beautiful but when you hit the city the air is putrid. It’s a big black spot and it doesn’t fit into the natural geography,” Varkatzas says. “Lyrically, it’s as if we’re this predatory organism talking over and killing everything. Mother nature would be better off without humans walking the earth.
The contagious first single from Congregation of the Damned “Storm the Pass," is simultaneously about Varkatzas’ psychological turmoil and the volatile state of the world on the brink of annihilation. “I wrote it from two angles at once so it would impact different people in different ways,” the vocalist explains. “I have a tendency to get either super depressed or super pissed off. I can see it coming and I can feel it building and it’s like watching clouds or thunder heads rolling off the beach onto an island and just destroying the island. And at the same time it’s about how you can see wars or conflicts forming, like Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, what’s going on in North Korea or what could be going on in Pakistan or Iran. You feel this tension building, this storm, this malice, and it’s like a never-ending cycle and it can destroy us all.”
Some of the songs aren’t political at all. “Gallows” -- which features the line, “Like the loser I am / I can’t help but to see / That success scares the living shit out of me” – is about personal insecurity and self-doubt, and having the tenacity to break through the fear.
“I’m honestly not sure what scares me more," Varkatzas admits. "That's a lot for people to grasp. Am I not giving it my all? Have I pulled back in the past because I feared failing on my own? Or am I just not good enough? But we're all human and that's how we learn: it builds heart and character. Tenacity has got me where I am, not talent. Whether that alienates people or makes me look stupid... I can't help it."
Atreyu formed in 1998 in Orange County, California, and grew out of the scene that blossomed around them. On one level, they were happy that the spotlight was on their city, on another they realized they had to do something special and unique to stand out from the pack. "Sure, we came from the OC hardcore scene," says Varkatzas. "But we never wanted to just be that. Musical ambiguity has always been our goal."
The band’s 2002 debut album Suicide Notes And Butterfly Kisses featured the underground hits “Lipgloss And Black” and “Ain't Love Grand,” which helped the group establish a strong reputation outside of the insular California club scene. Atreyu toured the album for years then followed with the scathing album, The Curse, which reached #1 on The Billboard Top Independent Albums Chart, a crushing offering that combined Atreyu’s loves for blistering hardcore and punishing thrash metal. Two more years of exhaustive touring followed before the band returned to the studio to record their commercial breakthrough, A Death-Grip on Yesterday, which reached #9 on The Billboard 200 Albums Chart, #1 on The Billboard Top Independent Albums Chart and included the single “Ex’s and Oh’s.” Atreyu supported the album with major tours, including Ozzfest.
With Death-Grip, Atreyu fulfilled their contract with indie label Victory and signed a major label deal with Hollywood Records, granting the band more promotional power than ever. Inspired by the change, Atreyu returned to the studio and wrote Lead Sails Paper Anchor, which came out exactly 17 months after A Death-Grip on Yesterday. Filled with a strong balance of tunefulness and grit, the record brought Atreyu to new audience and achieved for he band a new level of acclaim, debuting at #8 on The Billboard 200 Albums Chart, and racking up an impressive string of #1s: #1 on The Billboard Top Rock Albums Chart, #1 on The Billboard Top Hard Rock Albums Chart and #1 on The Billboard Top Alternative Albums Charts. Two hit singles from the album, “Falling Down” (#3 at Modern Rock, #4 at Active Rock and a Top 5 hit at Mainstream Rock) and “‘Becoming The Bull” (a Top 5 hit at Mainstream and Active Rock) each sold over 200,000 digital copies with total digital track sales for the album over 665,000. Atreyu supported the album with more high-profile tours, including Linkin Park’s Projekt Revolution and Taste of Chaos, which also featured Avenged Sevenfold and Bullet For My Valentine and The Family Values tour with Korn.
“Doing well with that album gave us confidence to stick to our guns,” says Saller.
In other words, it was the perfect springboard to Congregation of the Damned, an album that amalgamates all of Atreyu’s strengths into one explosive artistic and musical statement. There’s the earnest spit of “So Wrong,” with its ballad-gone-hardcore heaviness and Miguel and Jacobs euphoric guitar lines, the ‘70s metal bounce and uber-chorus of “Black Days,” and the clarion call intro, haunting guitar harmonies and vocal exorcisms of “Congregation of The Damned.”
If you thought you had Atreyu pegged, just shake the EtchaSketch in your mind and start drawing a bigger picture.