From its inception, WITHERED has been an outlier, a perplexing charge of extremity which the metal scene has never been able to put its finger on.
“We want to compound new elements into every album,” posits guitarist/vocalist Mike Thompson, “and we’re definitely a band for metal nerds. Our audience seems to be the old-schoolers who are absorbed by this stuff every day and jaded folks of a certain age. Industry types and peers tend to get it, but that’s about it.”
Thompson’s self deprecating assessment of his creative output might be part gentlemanly humility talking or a harshly realistic take on WITHERED’s cult status, or somewhere in between, but with an impressive body of work fanned out over the course of 18 years and five albums which have weathered as many trends, the Atlanta quartet continues to confound and refuses to compromise. New album, Verloren is the band’s most daring and iconoclastic work yet, one that spits in the eye of complacency and exists as a contrarian masterstroke.
Originally formed by Thompson and ex-guitarist/vocalist Chris Freeman in 2003 following a spell in local grind institution Social Infestation (alongside Mastodon’s Troy Sanders), WITHERED’s initial goal was to re-write black, doom and death metal modes and mores. To that end, the band has achieved that goal as their sound and aesthetic refuses to clearly state which subgenre they call home. Over the course of its history, WITHERED has generated more questions than answers about who they are and what they do. They’ve toured with the varied likes of Mastodon, High on Fire, Dismember, Grave, Vital Remains, Possessed, Watain, Mayhem, 1349, Krallice, Skeletonwitch and Danzig. Their live show provides an air of never-know-what-you’re-gonna-get mystery. See them on one occasion and it’s a DIY kick in the gut with stripped down, rehearsal room bareness appropriately complementing the lunacy. The next time they get in the van they’ll do so accompanied by rigged up columns of light cloaking the stage in bloody reds and searing whites. And with Verloren, the band’s forthcoming fifth album, Thompson and his band mates – drummer Beau Brandon, bassist Rafay Nabeel and fellow guitarist/vocalist Dan Caycedo – continue to nudge both thematic and sonic goalposts by providing relatable food for thought while retaining the adversarial fire that has powered the engine since the start.
“There’s a philosophical introspective approach to the subject matter that informs our writing style. We’re trying to create an atmosphere that complements the themes and that’s something we’re trying to circle back around to on Verloren.”
WITHERED’s first album, 2005’s Memento Mori, generally speaking, tackled the subject of mortality and the grieving process that follows significant loss, trauma and tragedy. Album number two, 2008’s Folie Circulaire was, as Thompson describes, “more existentialist, nihilistic and Nietzsche-ian” while 2010’s Dualities was an exploration of Jungian psychology and the shadow self. As alluded to in the title, 2016’s Grief Relic started into the U-turn back towards the exploration of the role and impact of grief as the men of WITHERED themselves entered that stage of life in which older family members, friends and childhood heroes were passing away, expectedly and otherwise. Five years on, Verloren rounds out the turn with a sinister sound and an area of study more akin to a deep therapy/counseling session instead of the usual gore and lore that often emboldens extreme music.
“Rafay wanted to use the theme of ‘missing’,” explains Thompson, “which was broad and abstract, so I dialed it down to be more about this outlook I’ve developed over the years about how each of us have a ‘Love Well.’ Every bit of love you get from your parents, your upbringing and your learning how to receive and experience love in relationships and through experiences contributes to the well. Your traumas counterbalance that and take away from it, especially when foundational core elements take a hit, like the untimely loss of a parent. That’s one of life’s unique puzzle pieces and when that piece is removed it’s never going to be replaced.
“We’re equipped with a certain capacity – our wells are filled to a certain level – and when you start getting smacked with traumas, whatever you have in that well – your defense mechanisms – can get worn down pretty quickly, especially for someone who has never really known love because of a broken home, difficult relationships or whatever. Each one of us in WITHERED carry unique traumas that we’ve focused this new record on. For me, most of my significant losses are from older wounds that I’ve dealt with through WITHERED from the very beginning, but with this being the first album with Dan and Rafay, it’s like a new exercise for them to really focus on the things they’ve been carrying around.”
Verloren translates to “missing” from German and relates not just to the friends, family and pieces of the member’s lives and hearts that have, and will go, missing as the time ticks on unfettered, but also, in the face of the global pandemic, just how much the activity of being in a band has been missed by everyone who took the write/record/tour cycle for granted. Verloren demonstrates a topical uniqueness; one that discusses the stuff everyone from the steeliest of black metal cape wearers to the gore-obsessed death metal crushers and everyone playing in a band or not has had to – or will have to – confront at some point. By leveling the elitist playing field so often found in extreme metal underground attitudes, Verloren offers a more holistic experience, elevating WITHERED by being unafraid to discuss topics that fly in the face of what most would connect to the sounds they make.
“About two years before I started WITHERED,” Thompson recalls, “I went through a series of traumas where I was forced to take stock of and define my foundational ‘puzzle pieces’ that could be taken away and what the trauma and grief is going to look like when I lose close family and/or friends I truly care about. Ironically, one I didn’t face until recently was WITHERED. No one ever thought that not being able to play shows or tour because of a pandemic was even feasible. I processed the idea of losing WITHERED and playing music and touring and everything else around the time of Grief Relic when two guys quit the band and I lost a lot of steam and inspiration. Luckily, Beau was there to kick my ass and shake me out of it. When it comes to this album, there was an initial suffering of anxiety because of the uncertainty in the world and the fear of losing this album because we put a lot into it, are super proud of it and it is the best WITHERED album yet. It’s important for my inspiration and motivation to go forward. It takes so much effort for us to create a record, the thought of it for it to all be for naught or potentially be wasted just destroys me.
“Surprisingly, we haven’t had a lot of push back on these themes, though I would love to take on that conflict!” he laughs. “For most people, metal is purely aesthetic, a grandstanding ‘f-you!’ to society and an adolescent rebellion kind of thing. But at the same time, we do get positive feedback from the people who have looked a bit deeper and done some research. We just want to be honest. We used to make the joke when we go out on tour, especially in the early days when deathcore was all the rage and we’d be on these weird package bills, that ‘Hey, we’re WITHERED and we’re here to bum you out.’ We’re not a party band or a shock band so you don’t get the fun aspect from us when going to a show. I’ve always been frustrated that we’ve never been able to communicate our super-realism and the different perspectives of life. If I want to sing about how much gratitude I have for my mother in a roundabout way, then whatever, we’ll do it!”
As WITHERED enters its third decade, they’ve drawn a more insular and conclusive line in the sand. The band has forged further forward with the process of eschewing typicality, including not utilizing any of the usual producer suspects to help sculpt Verloren. Instead, they flew the flag of independence by again going down the route of self-production with Thompson himself taking the bull by its horns.
“We get a little bit more deliberate every time around and starting with Grief Relic we decided not to hire anyone to help produce and filter it through a particular lens. We started self-producing and I kind of took the reins on that last time and more so this time and also when it came to selecting who was going to engineer [Raheen Amlani at Orange Peel Recordings], then mix [Greg Wilkinson at Earhammer Studios] and master it [Jarrett Pritchard]. The trick is to find someone who loves Times of Grace as much as they love Clandestine and His Hero is Gone, Napalm Death and all the way out to later Enslaved and can balance all those things. If it’s truly honest and truly communicating the intention of a song, then it’ll be powerful, heavy and generate emotion.”
Verloren also revisits WITHERED’s traditional methodological step of sitting down and looking at the present state of metal before consciously lashing out against what’s taking up most of the broader public’s attention.
“We’re constantly looking for something new to do. We love genre bending and putting D-beats next to funereal riffs next to black metal blasts and heavy doom riffs and figuring out how to make it all work and make sense with whatever vibe we’re trying to nail down. For this one, I wanted to lean back into the funereal doom world. I got burnt out when doom – especially southern doom, being a southern band – was the word of the day around the time of our first two records. We basically ran in the other direction and got away from doing any full-on doom parts for a while. I wanted to come back around to that, so we went back to bigger stuff like My Dying Bride for the couple of eight minute epics on the album
. Also, for the first time in my life and against my better judgment, I decided to write clean vocals and I’m singing on two songs. They’re kind of buried in the mix a little bit because I’m still self-conscious about them, but they were the only things that made sense for the parts we wrote. I tried to fight it, but nothing extreme was accomplishing the goal. On top of that, we go the other way where three of the songs have some super crusty and grind elements. Part of why I asked Dan to join the band was because I knew he would get the sludgy, crusty side of things and help me cultivate that better in WITHERED
. On the album, ‘The Predation,’ ‘Dissolve’ and ‘Casting in Wait’ are his. Those would be the twists on this album because we’re always trying to write what we think is missing and what we want to hear in heavy music after sitting down and looking at the landscape of what’s out there.”
And despite being deliberate oppositional in the subject matter they choose to explore and express, how much of their hearts and souls they choose to strip bare for fickle crowds and grind against whatever current musical grain the rest are cruising along, the determination, seriousness and importance of WITHERED in each member’s lives hasn’t ebbed. In fact, it’s only been magnified with time and circumstance. Having been forced into a year off from normal band life has made it clear how vital WITHERED is for everything from creative expression, social networking, wanderlust, overall personal sanity and moving forward.
“Personally, I’m very, very fortunate with regards to my family and others being supportive and taking what I do seriously. Looking back, I could be really selfish and headstrong about music. My family got so used to it that they would volunteer to schedule dinners and family events around rehearsals and practice because they were able to glean how important this was to me and how seriously I took it. Even moving out into the real world with the professional realm of things and the jobs that we have had in order to keep this going, I’d say it’s taken more seriously now than ever. We’re constantly challenging ourselves to progress and carve our own path. WITHERED
is a permanent part of my life, it’s what I expect to be there. I’ve built so much on it and I’ve somehow been able to weave it into my life to where it’s a defining part of me as well. This isn’t rock star fantasy camp, although the other weekend I was bored, missing travelling and sitting around so I took the band van out and just drove out for three hours, turned around and came home!”
Beau Brandon – Drums
Dan Caycedo – Vocals, Guitars
Rafay Nabeel – Bass Guitar
Mike Thompson – Vocals, Guitar
Ethan McCarthy (Primitive Man) on “Passing through…” which is a noise track done under his “Many Blessings” nomenclature using field recordings Mike Thompson made at a family funeral.
Recording Studio: Orange Peel Recordings in Kennesaw, GA (USA)
Producer: Mike Thompson
Recording Engineer: Raheem Amlani
Mixing studio and engineer: Greg Wilkinson @ Earhammer Studios in Oakland, CA (USA)
Mastering studio and engineer: Jarett Pritchard
Cover art: Paul Romano
Biography: Kevin Stewart-Panko
Vinyl in various colours