Having released six albums over a 14 year period and climbed to the top of what was respectfully termed the New Wave of American Metal hierarchy, Massachusetts-based quintet Shadows Fall made a deliberate decision. Instead of writing between tours and then quickly recording in order to make a tight deadline, as they’ve done in the past, the band chose to stay off the road for a full year and intently focus on their next album. Their reasons were simple; they wanted to create a full album that not only satisfied all of the band members artistically, but one that would capture Shadows Fall at their best in all their styles and forms… without compromise.
“I always want to step our game up, and that’s the hardest thing to do when you’ve been around for 10 years -- really pushing yourself and coming up with new ideas after so long,” says vocalist Brian Fair. “We didn’t want to keep it safe and stay in the comfort zone.”
“We wanted to write the best songs we could and weren’t concerned with keeping them down to a certain length to increase their chances of getting played on the radio,” adds guitarist Matt Bachand. “We put death metal vocals everywhere and double-bass all over the place. There’s a lot of melody as well because we love finding new ways to mix really heavy stuff with really melodic parts. Our only real goals were to have fun and make the record all of us wanted to hear.”
The approach paid off, and then some. Shadows Fall’s seventh full studio album, Fire From the Sky is a multifaceted gem – a razor-honed offering that ranges from dark and despairing to positive and euphoric, embracing numerous subgenres along the way, including thrash, Swedish death metal, hardcore, ‘80s commercial metal, neo-classical and classic rock. The songs are rhythmically complex and hardly predictable, but they’re still cohesive and always catchy. Even when Shadows Fall are grinding away, they always find the sweet spot, creating songs that are both brutal and instantly accessible.
From track to track, Fire From the Sky is incredibly diverse. “The Unknown,” starts the disc with guitar harmonies over a lunging beat, and evolves into a thundering thrash number driven by growled melodic vocals that peak with a crossover pre-chorus and a stunning chorus fueled by a steady beat, rapidly picked guitars and aching, hook-laden vocals. The title track is slower and more apocalyptic, blending trudging double-bass drums with layered minor-key guitar melodies, and overlapping voracious vocal screams atop a crushing, doom-laden riff. Then, at the half-way point, the track kicks into an angry caffeine high, doubling in speed and intensity before crashing back down to a mid-paced stomp again. “Save Your Soul,” arguably the catchiest track on the album, features a blend of clean, classic metal vocals and hardcore barking that accompanies a volley of fist-to-the-sky riffs and a shredding guitar solo. And “Nothing Remains” combines melodic thrash redolent of Testament with uplifting guitar arpeggios and a schizophrenic hybrid of sweet, soaring vocals and larynx-shredding roars.
We like to create a lot of contrasts within the song and from one track to another,” Bachand says. “We don’t want every song to be the same tempo. An album should have ups and downs, peaks and valleys. It should be an adventure like a rollercoaster, not a drive down a flat stretch of road in Kansas.”
“From a vocal standpoint, there was a lot of room to work within these songs right from the early demo stages,” adds Fair. “These guys don’t just write one or two riffs per song. There’s a lot of intricacy, so it gives you a lot of vibes to put into each tune.”
When the time came to find a producer to fine-tune their sound, there was only one choice – their good friend and Killswitch Engage guitarist Adam Dutkiewicz. Their history with Adam D dates back to the early ‘90s when he and Shadows Fall lead guitarist Jon Donais played together in the groundbreaking Massachusetts metalcore band Aftershock. At the time, Fair and Killswitch Engage bassist Mike D’Antonio were making the ground shake in the similarly-minded Overcast. Despite touring together and hanging out over the years, Shadows Fall were never able to secure Dutkiewicz to produce an album.
“We’ve always wanted to work with Adam but either Killswitch was on tour or he had someone else in the studio,” Bachand says. “This time we actually made a solid effort to make sure that it happened. After we made the demos, we spent a lot of time going over everything with Adam and trimming the fat. He’s really good with arrangements and getting songs to make sense. He didn’t write entire parts or riffs, but helped with adding layers.”
“Adam worked my ass off, but I’ve known him for so long and we’re such good friends that I knew that would happen going in,” adds Fair. “He’s going to push you to get the most out of yourself, to make the most for the songs and to make the record as good as it can be. And he’s not afraid to let you know when whatever you’re dong isn’t working. He’d say to me, ‘That’s not even bad, that’s just wrong.’ I’d go, ‘What do you mean wrong? It’s what I’m feeling.’ And he’d say, ‘Well, what you’re feeling is wrong.’ It’s good to have someone with great ears, and who isn’t as close to the music as you are put down the iron fist from time to time. He’s definitely not afraid to take that role.”
In addition to helping Fair find the best vocal style for each musical part, Dutkiewicz encouraged the singer to experiment with new techniques and employ styles he either hadn’t performed in years or didn’t know he could do. “He brought a lot of vocal characteristics out in me because he wouldn’t let me overthink what I was doing,” says Fair. “I even ended up singing in a little of the rock style I did in Overcast and for me, a lot of moments were influenced by early ‘90s melodic hardcore bands like Split Lip and Endpoint. I just threw everything against the wall and we used whatever stuck. We definitely infuse melody over heavy parts, like we’ve always done, but I wanted to have all these steps in between as well.”
Shadows Fall recorded drums for Fire From the Sky at Zing Studio in Westfield, Massachusetts, then they moved to Dutkiewicz’s home studio. In total, the tracking took six weeks. Since the band did so much of the legwork long before they entered the studio, they were able to work quickly and efficiently. Even so, they were pulling long hours and writing new parts right up until the last minute.
“We were working on the song ‘Divide and Conquer’ for a while but we just couldn’t get it right, so we put it on the backburner,” recalls Bachand. “At the end of the recording session, we were like, ‘Ah shit, don’t have enough stuff.’ We needed one more song and we needed it fast. I was working on it with a laptop in a side room at Zing, trying to pull this thing out of my head while Jason [Bittner] was already tracking the drums. I work best under pressure, so it was coming along and I had most of it down. Then Jason finished the drums, so we said, ‘Okay, let’s go in and try it.’ We jammed on it for about 20 minutes and couldn’t figure out what to do for the chorus. Then Jon comes into the door, listens for a second, grabs his guitar and goes, ‘I got your fuckin’ chorus,’ and plays this riff out of nowhere. And, boom, it’s done. In one hour, this song literally went from a couple riffs and barely an idea to being a complete track.”
Appropriately, the lyrics for “Divide and Conquer” are some of the most triumphant on the record. Fair penned them last year in reaction to the polarization that’s going on between opposing factions all over the world. “It’s kind of my posi-youth unity song,” he says. “The more people get divided, whether it’s bipartisan politics or social standings, the harder it’s going to be to regain control. This song is about getting together to fight for a better future instead of sitting around and complaining and watching everything pass you by.”
“Blind Faith,” another political song, addresses similar ideas of society giving up too much control to the ruling elite. Many tracks on Fire From the Sky deal with a darker reality. “The Unknown” is about the temptation to give in to depression instead of fighting it, the title track is about a star going supernova and devouring worlds and “Walk the Edge” and “Nothing Remains” are about opiate addiction. “We’ve lost some great people in the metal community way too early because they got caught up in the demons of addiction,” Fair says. “That story usually ends up the same way and we’ve heard it far too often recently. It’s not specifically about anyone, but [Slipknot bassist] Paul Gray and [Avenged Sevenfold drummer] The Rev are the people that were on my mind. I knew them very well and had great nights out and about with them. And I think about those good times, but it’s scary when you think that it can all be taken away in a second. As much of a good time as you want to have, you don’t ever want to lose that much control.”
As the music industry sinks deeper into a period of transition and new paradigms are being created to replace the old brick and mortar system of old, the metal scene needs more forward-thinking bands like Shadows Fall. Seventeen years in the business have taught them to follow their instincts and defy convention, perfecting their music in the studio when everyone else is touring, writing from the heart instead of aiming for the radio and relying on their strong work ethic and their love for playing music to ride out the sometimes oppressive wave.
“It’s safe to say that the state of the business we’re in contributed to apocalyptic vibe of the record,” Fair says. “We wanted to reflect that as a microcosm for the whole world being in a state of chaos, whether its political strife or climate change. The end of the Mayan calendar is creeping up on us and there are all these ideas about the end of days. But for all the darkness, there’s also light. When you get pushed into the corner you realize you have to either fight your way out or give up and give in to the darkness. I think we’ve proven repeatedly that we’re fighters.”