When Sevendust finished touring behind their second album, 1999's Home, in December, the band's nerves were frayed and threatening to completely unravel.
Several times during two years of steady touring the bandmembers had wanted to take a break to decompress, but management insisted Sevendust would lose momentum if they left the road, so they soldiered on against their better judgement.
In a perverse way, the experience paid off. Yeah, Sevendust fired their manager, returned from the road to empty bank accounts and nearly broke up, but they were able to funnel their bitterness and frustration into Animosity, their most musically diverse and accomplished offering to date.
"A lot of people are like, 'Man, this album's a little soft,' and I'm like, 'You know what, man, read the lyrics. They're heavy as hell," vocalist Lajon Witherspoon said via phone from a tour stop in Waco, Texas.
"We pride ourselves on the serious vocals that are going on, which makes the music melodic, but we're still a loud, heavy band," added guitarist Clint Lowery. "For me, the contrast [you get when you have] good melodies on top of heavy, grinding music is great."
At the moment, Witherspoon is nearly as excited about a DVD of Prince's "Purple Rain" he just received as he is about plugging the new Sevendust record. He's also a big fan of Earth, Wind & Fire and Marvin Gaye, artists that clearly influence his emotive, soulful vocal style. It's that open-mindedness that sets Animosity apart from most neo-metal releases.
Tracks like "T.O.A.B" and "Shine" provide a dynamic blend of soaring vocals and propulsive rhythms, while "Xmas Day" and a newly recorded version of "Angel's Son" offer a more R&B-inflected perspective.
It was the original recording of "Angel's Son," written by the band for the Lynn Strait tribute album Strait Up (2000), that helped Sevendust find its occasionally delicate niche. Strait, the vocalist for nü-metal band Snot, died in a December 1998 car accident.
"When we did 'Angel's Son,' it was to say goodbye to a friend, so it made sense to us to do an acoustic song," Lowery said. "It's something that we'd always wanted to do, but when Lynn passed away he gave us the opportunity to spread our wings a little bit. It helped us realize that we don't have to cave people's heads in all the time."
The first single on Animosity, "Praise," juxtaposes ripping guitar riffs with a "sing-along chorus." It's a perfect example of the band's new hook-and-hammer approach, and the lyrics encapsulate the struggles Sevendust have endured for several years.
"'Praise' is about someone always saying that you will never amount to anything and then me in the end saying, 'Look at what I've done,' " Witherspoon explained. "A lot of people we grew up with and people in the industry tried to hold us back and said it would never happen, but we stayed true to ourselves and our music. And to now be able to come out with our third album and have the respect — not only of our fans but of other musicians around the world — is really incredible."
A video for "Praise" was shot six weeks ago in Orlando, Florida, by Glen Bennett (Missy Elliott, Drowning Pool). The footage features Sevendust surging and bounding around the stage as they do almost every night.
"We didn't try to reinvent anything," Witherspoon said. "We didn't come down from outer space. We're not actors or anything. We're a live band that loves to do rock 'n' roll music and that's pretty much the setup for the video. We had all sorts of friends from Orlando join us, and [we] just partied all day long."
One of their friends, Staind frontman Aaron Lewis, appears on the Animosity power ballad "Follow." But unlike many such collaborations, which are carefully orchestrated to maximize audience interest, this one evolved spontaneously and may never be released as a single.
"This album was really close to us, so we weren't going to have anyone come in and help," Witherspoon said. "But Aaron and his drummer flew into town to play golf with [drummer] Morgan [Rose], and it started raining so we said, 'Come over to the studio.' And when he got there, I said, 'Man, I think you would sound really good on "Follow." ' I played him the song, and he started singing the melody with me on the second verse, and we said, 'That sounds good!' "
As Sevendust prepare to promote Animosity, they can't help but think about all the bands that once opened for them but have since catapulted to multiplatinum stardom, including Staind, Drowning Pool, Disturbed and Godsmack. But rather than retain the angst that nearly consumed them in the past, they're making the best of whatever fate hands them.
"No matter what happens," Witherspoon said, "I see us touring and having a beautiful following of people that realize that what we do is real and it's not a gimmick."