Originally written by Patrick Rennick.
About ten minutes away from the sprawling campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is the seemingly cozy neighborhood of Grantwood Drive. Tidy lawns greet all who venture in. As the street winds, the trees gather, until they almost completely block out all sunlight. At the armpit of the road, like a festering sore, one house stares back at passersby in ugly defiance. Weathered wood and rotting shingles paint a picture of neglect. Ancient computer monitors and rusted tools lie like relics among the remains of withered gardens. A moldy stuffed animal is crucified to a snarled tree. Sloppily tacked to another, a self-portrait of Van Gogh looks down upon an even more preposterous pair of foam breasts. Lying in the dirt, several misshapen tiles offer the only shred of logic to this scene of chaos, a pathway to the door of what was once known as the Metal Mansion.
Owned and maintained by the eccentric 80-something-year-old enigma known only as “E,” the house had at one time been a residence for the man’s family. Through some indescribable process, E took it upon himself to construct a separate abode in the backyard out of what he claims was discarded furniture from the surrounding universities. After moving into this self-made shanty he began renting his old house out to students sometime in the 1980s.
Aspiring Amherst-based death/thrash outfit Deathamphetamine moved into this fabled house in the summer of 2004. The band was drawn to the spacious basement, which they quickly set to renovating as a jam-space. After hours of cleaning, the installation of makeshift soundproofing materials, and the finishing touch of an Iron Maiden cloth poster, the cluttered storage space had been transformed. This dank room would become one of Amherst’s only metal venues, with a maximum capacity of about 25-35 people. The shows that went on there in the following years would serve as a decaying middle finger to the banality of the college town’s tired bar scene, which was even then well on its way to trading living breathing music for soulless jukeboxes.
Three years later in the summer of 2007, the Metal Mansion hosted its largest and final musical gathering. Five bands were billed on the self-made flyers. From Western Massachusetts: the aforementioned Deathamphetamine and the regrettably defunct hardcore band Wasteland. From Boston: farmer-themed thrashers Aggroculture (now known as Razormaze), thrashy grinders Ramming Speed, and rising wunderkinds, Revocation.
Gatherings at the Metal Mansion were always an oddity that exceeded the absurd location. The number of attendees somehow always ran up to the hundreds, suffocating the tight split-level. Hipsters far outnumbered the few actual metal enthusiasts that showed up and yet everyone was always extremely supportive of the music. Bands would rage on in the crowded basement amongst various moldy tomes while the crowd upstairs continued to stumble around saturating every room, the deck, and the front and back lawn. It was not uncommon to see E himself decked out in a kilt, hobbling and groping around or trying to get a load of laundry done in the performance space during a concert. The night of the final show was no different. With record numbers making their way out, bands playing well into the early hours of the morning, and no police in sight, it was a fitting send-off.
While every band played their asses off in a maelstrom of blood, cake, straw hats, and crowd-surfing scarecrows, Revocation stood out as an impossibly tight and jaw-dropping band to behold. The talents of bassist Anthony Buda, drummer Phil Dubois, and rhythm/lead guitarist Dave Davidson were known from their earlier incarnation as Cryptic Warning. However, watching this three-piece perform as the newly christened Revocation, with their tightened riffs and devastating delivery, was a revelation. After relentless touring and a self-produced, pristinely executed full-length, Empire of the Obscene, it was no surprise that this determined young band was finally signed to Relapse Records in 2009. Davidson recalls how it all came together.
“Well, at the New England Metal & Hardcore Fest a few years ago,” he begins. “I think it was 2008, me and Phil [Dubois], the drummer, went to it with a stack of Empire of the Obscene CD-R’s and that was our self-released first CD. So it hadn’t gotten pressed yet and we just had the final mix that hadn’t even been mastered. I just had a stack and gave ‘em out to all the different people and vendors, just people from, like, Prosthetic Records and Relapse. I figured nothing would come of it. But I gave it to this one guy who worked in the Relapse mail order, apparently, and it worked its way all the way up the chain of command to the main dude who’s in charge of signing bands. Then they got in touch with us. We happened to be touring near Relapse headquarters, so they came out to check us out and liked what they saw. Soon after that they made us an offer and the rest is history I guess.”
AT THE HEART OF WINTER
Less than a year after being signed, Revocation’s second full-length, Existence is Futile, was pressed and unleashed. Featuring their signature blend of tasteful technicality, thrashing riffs, and songwriting prowess, the second album expanded upon their first release, exploring new areas and paying homage to a slew of metal genres along the way. The opening riff of “Leviathan Awaits,” for example, takes the listener down to the aquatic resting place of the ancient ones, a topic well-loved across the metal spectrum.
“Yeah, ‘Leviathan,’ that’s probably one of our most “death metal” songs on the record,” says Davidson, “And yeah, you know, it has that kind of Lovecraft kind of Cthulhu feel to it. I wrote that song and we had the music but there weren’t any lyrics for it. I was listening to the intro riff and this and that and it just kind of conjured up images of underwater sea beasts. So I just started writing and it just started flowing and fitting with the song, and I was like, ‘alright cool, I guess this one’s about a giant sea monster.’”
The instrumental “Across Forests and Fjords” gallops along expressing a hint of black metal phrasing while conjuring up images of a winter wasteland.
“Yeah with that one, one of the riffs in there is total Immortal worship like Sons of Northern Darkness kind of style,” says Davidson. “So it was definitely influenced by black metal but there are also some techy riffs in there that wouldn’t seem typical in a black metal song and the Arch Enemy-esque solo that happens towards the end of the song. You know it’s kind of two different influences in one but it definitely has that Norwegian kind of trudging through the forests and whatnot vibe.”
Other tracks on the album see the band really pushing their creative limits. “Dismantle the Dictator” attacks with a technical pummeling that is at first quite difficult to unravel.
“That one we always kind of joke around about; in my opinion it’s later-period Gorguts played in a more thrashy style,” says Davidson. “It’s got those kinds of dissonant riffs and odd time signatures and then the ending. Speaking of incorporating different influences, the ending is almost like straight up fusion thing in 7/8. So, you know, you could play just that clip for somebody and if you were to tell them that this is an extreme metal band, they might look at you like, ‘what are you talking about?’ I think that section took the song to a different place, for sure. But it also worked within the context of the song. It was already kind of a techy, kind of out-there song with techy riffs and this and that, and we felt that the ending added a ‘next level’ to the song. A part like that definitely wouldn’t work for “Anthem for the Betrayed,” for instance. The whole aesthetic with “Anthem” is a traditional heavy metal vibe–like a Megadeth-y kind of vibe in some places–so putting that fusion thing out there wouldn’t fit. We try to be conscious of things like that.”
Despite a fondness for incorporating a variety of genres into their sound, Revocation take great pains to do this in tasteful and effective ways, as Davidson explains.
“Our songs stand up to each other and are individual to themselves. We may have a lot of influences but at the same time we’re not trying to cram everything in like, ‘oh, let’s be zany and throw everything in there.’ We think that each song should have its own aesthetic feel and the riffs should occur in a certain way as well as the content of the lyrics.
“I think that certain bands maybe just want to stick to a certain thing. We just want to make sure that we do what we’re doing well, and I do think we do it pretty good. Because some bands will try that [cramming influences], like the new progressive metal band of the day. And on their MySpace it will say you know, oh, metal and jazz! And I’ll be listening to it and I’m like, ‘how is this influenced by jazz?’ It’s may be atonal and maybe they’re playing some jazz chords, but it’s done in a really pedestrian way, you know what I mean? It’s just not really coming together. You know the influences are there but they’re like, oh we’re influenced by jazz because we play like this random series of jazz chords and one random quick breakdown. It just seems very forced like, this is our jazz part. I guess what we strive to do with any influence that we incorporate is to do it in a way that is organic and actually adds something to the song. In that respect, I think we do that well and I don’t think we’re afraid to incorporate other styles or experiment with other styles because we all are actually true fans of other styles. So it’s coming from kind of a pure place. You know, when I listen to black metal I’ll throw on Immortal, or listen to something like one of The Legion albums. We have a real appreciation for that style and the riffs. And the same thing goes for old-school thrash and things like that. All of these influences are really heavily ingrained in us and I would hope that it comes through in the music as an organic, not forced, sound.”
Don’t be fooled by his serious ruminations over song construction. Davidson and his band mates are three guys who have a hell of a lot of fun playing music together. This is apparent on their recordings and especially in the live setting where they are likely to be seen shirtless, taking time between songs to joke about serious topics such as Davidson’s body hair.
“Yeah totally that’s a huge thing. Part of that comes from us growing up together,” says Davidson. “When we started our first band Cryptic Warning, we were all in high school and we’ve really grown together. Those guys are like my brothers and we just goof off all the time and just have a blast. I think that fun element creeps into our music, and it’s awesome when people say that it does. I’m a huge fan of technical death metal, but sometimes that’s just all out brutal. And without being, like, a party thrash band, we’re just trying to make extreme metal fun, and maybe put a smile on some of the grimmer dudes’ faces.”
A prominent example of this loose humor comes across on the track “ReaniManiac,” a thrashy romp that abruptly shifts gears into surf-rock.
“Yeah “ReaniManiac,” Davidson recalls. “I kind of threw that one in there. That actually happened right in the studio. We had that song pretty much written already, ready to roll and it was a few weeks before we were going to go into the studio. Generally, the closer we are getting to going in, the creative juices tend to get kicked up a notch, because you’re really analyzing the songs and playing them every day. So that idea just kind of popped into my head. The song already had this kind of an Impaled, Ghoul-esque feel in the subject matter so we were kind of just like, fuck it, let’s throw an evil surf rock part into it. And we all were just looking at each other cracking up, like, this is awesome! We should definitely put this on the record.”
Proving further their commitment to and talent for metal music, Revocation is also wholly capable of sucker punching listeners with interludes that could evoke emotion in even the most hardened listeners. The progressive heft of album closer “Tragedy of Modern Ages” provides a fitting example.
“I probably sound like a schizophrenic,” says Davidson. “Because there are so many facets to our music. But on the one hand, we want to have fun and this and that and we’re playing this really technical music and having fun doing it. At the same time, too, we want to evoke real emotion in people as well. Some of our tracks have a real heavy weight to them. where you get that hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling. So we want to try and evoke that–if we can–in some of our listeners. That’s a real honor when someone really gets something out of it on that kind of higher aesthetic level.”
THE ART OF SHREDDING
Like a bloody cherry on top of the mountain of corpses carved out by the artillery of Dubois and the rich bass playing of Buda, one can’t deny the exquisite garnish of Davidson’s superb guitar solos. It is a true rarity in today’s metal scene for a player to combine such technical ferocity, melody, and genuine feeling. These facemelters are tightly written affairs that are at once crushing, precise, and memorable.
“Yeah I was really happy with the way the solos came out on Existence,” says Davidson. “I mean I was on Empires, too, but you always want to one-up yourself a little bit. I mean, at a certain point, you can only play so fast. But I was also focused on writing good, memorable solos as well, not just having it be an all-out shredfest. So, I feel I achieved that pretty well on this one. I think that some of the solo sections themselves lent themselves to that. I mean with “Dismantle,” that was a hard kind of thing to solo over. I tried some different chromatic and jazz techniques and atonal stuff in there a little bit to make it sound like a more legit fusiony type of rock solo. It definitely pushed me, but it also inspired me to push myself. The same thing goes for the last track, “Tragedy of Modern Ages,” where its got that outro solo. That’s the longest I’ve ever soloed for on a record straight through. It’s a pretty long solo, and that helped me with trying to spread my ideas out so it wasn’t just like a climax right at the beginning. I tried to build it up and add some technicality here and there while also really focusing on good melodies.
“I just record a shitty version of the riffs using whatever distortions are available in GarageBand, and then I just go in and take some runs through improvising. Then I go back and look at my different improvisations, look at what I did here and there, and then I try to embellish them out. So I definitely wrote most of my solos or most parts of the solos before going into the studio. But then, certain kinds of faster runs and more kind of legato things I left for the studio. That was kind of how the process went. Most of it was written, but some of the connective lines were done in the studio.”
Davidson’s education at the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston certainly accounts for some of the wizardry flowing through his fingers. Initially coming from a jazz background, Davidson found himself in an occasionally odd juxtaposition as a budding metalhead at the prestigious independent college.
“I got to study with a lot of really awesome jazz and fusion guitarists at Berklee,” he recalls. “That was kind of my main focus when I went there. I also studied a little bit with Joe Stump who is like a shred master, great guy. But I wanted to kind of branch out, work with other guitarists who were already masters of their own craft in a different genre, so that kind of helped me to learn about chromatic approaches to jazz, for example. And jazz is really cool actually, it’s not just ballads obviously or standards. A lot of the heavier players are just crazy dissonant atonal monsters with their playing and their lines and stuff so I think that kind of lends itself well to that sort of dissonant harmony inherent in metal music. So that definitely helped me with my soloing and compositions riff-wise. And also just the basic theory classes I took were helpful in terms of knowing how different chords work and the more advanced kind of harmony and theory classes I took.
“Well, you know jazz guys are kind of set in their ways. The people there kind of have their own niche or whatever and they are interested in doing that. So I come in and I’d be wearing an S.O.D. shirt or something like that showing up for my first private lesson with a new jazz teacher. And I’d pull out my BC Rich Warlock, all beat up, and plug in to a Fender. And I would definitely get some looks like, ‘are you sure you came to the right lesson here?’ I’d try to bring stuff in sometimes in my earlier days when I was more into technical stuff and I’d try to show the jazz teachers and impress them you know. The amount of aesthetic value they got out of it was basically, ‘oh, they can play really fast.’ But none of them were really like, ‘yeah this fuckin’ rips!’ It was more like, ‘huh, that’s interesting, let’s get back to this jazz course here.’ But that’s fine, you know. I don’t expect everyone to like that kind of genre. It was more or less just me trying to get opinions from different players on different stuff.”
Davidson’s introduction to metal was a gradual one. His growing enthusiasm and excitement as he discovered and experienced the genre for the first time mirrors the birth of many a metalhead.
“For me it was a really sort of progressive slow climb. I started kind of with hard rock with Aerosmith and then gradually moved on to Guns N’ Roses–parts of their stuff I consider to have a metal vibe to it, but it’s really hard rock. Then from there it was pretty much a little bit of Metallica and they were cool but what really did it for me, my main gateway band was Pantera. I heard Vulgar Display of Power and was pretty floored by it, and I was like, ‘this is awesome!’ And I wanted to show my other bandmates.
“From there you know I remember Anthony [Buda], the bass player coming in one day and being like, ‘oh I heard this band In Flamescheck ‘em out!’ So that was like an introduction to real, real like melodic death metal and it really blew my mind the first time I heard it and I was like, oh, man this is weird! Because it was really weird for me to hear screaming over something so melodic and I was like, bands can do this? What the hell? But it was cool. And then we discovered Exhorder’s The Law after I had ordered it in the mail. I had heard some random track over..it was Napster, Soulseek or one of those early file-sharing things. And it had said it was Pantera, you know with the whole Pantera/Exhorder controversy, but it was in the Pantera file of a download. So I checked that out and it was one of the tracks off of The Law and I was like holy fucking shit! This is amazing! And it was a shitty mp3, too, but I ordered The Law in the mail and brought it in to band practice and I remember I put it in the CD player and I was like, ‘dude, you have to fucking check this out!’ I put it in the CD player and we listened to the whole record back to front and then we listened to it again. And we were like this is the shit right here! We want to write some shit like this. So you know we all got into our own offshoots and different bands. Anthony would be into Dark Angel, and I’d be all about Exhorder and stuff like that.”
THE SOUND OF PERSEVERANCE
I’m simply in awe as Revocation wraps up another set at Club Hell in Rhode Island in 2009. Their playing has clearly won over a few more fans who at first seemed skeptical, not to mention they are now opening for the likes of Vital Remains and Destroyer 666. Talking with them briefly after the show, I learn from Phil that although label backing guarantees the band a set amount of money for each show they play, it can still be a challenge booking gigs especially given the country’s economic situation. Yet, as their MySpace can attest, Revocation have been touring just as frequently as ever, playing the Metal as Art tour hosted in part by this very site at the beginning of the year and shortly after jumping onto their first European tour alongside the likes of Dying Fetus, Beneath the Massacre, and Origin. To date, the band is booked across the US through June. Impossibly, somehow all three members of the band still attempt to hold jobs amidst it all.
“Yeah, this isn’t paying the bills so we all have our jobs,” says Davidson. “I personally work at a hospital. And the other guys do their own jobs and whatnot… I mean even some of the bigger bands, they are out on the road a lot but even like huge bands, they would probably make more money if they had a job that paid like $15/hr full-time. But then you don’t get the experience of going out on the road and this and that. The dudes in Cannibal Corpse are pretty much set but I don’t think they live in mansions and drive around in Maseratis either.”
One would be hard-pressed to find a more dedicated music scene, and Revocation have certainly proved that they are one of the harder working bands within it. With four grueling years under their belts, not to mention six prior as Cryptic Warning, this trio continues to slug it out, their best years hopefully still to come. Davidson’s goals and aspirations for the group remain undaunted and true.
“Well, musically we always want to push ourselves. Not in the way…I get so tired of reading press releases from bands that are like, ‘this new album is more extreme, more brutal!’ We’re kind of over the more extreme, more brutal part. We just want to write great records and have them be unique and diverse with something to say. Musically, we always want to push ourselves and continue to write. But as far as success-wise, hey, it would be great to be playing bigger shows and go out with bigger bands for sure. I don’t know what the future holds, but it would be fun to give it a shot.”