When Atreyu began writing songs for their fifth album, they weren't thinking specifically in terms of their earlier work for Victory Records (2002's Suicide Notes and Butterfly Kisses, 2004's The Curse, 2006's A Death-Grip on Yesterday) or their major-label debut for Hollywood (2007's Lead Sails Paper Anchor). They were just energized by the prospect of getting back to work after a year on the road.
"We all felt refocused, and we had a clear direction of what we wanted to do with this record," says frontman Alex Varkatzas. "We wanted to take from our roots but still look toward the future."
One element that Atreyu (Varkatzas, guitarists Big Dan Jacobs and Travis Miguel, bassist Marc McKnight, and drummer Brandon Saller) wanted to address with the new songs was a return to the dark, thrashing density of their early days while building on the melodic power of Lead Sails.
"The other guys wanted to write heavier, more aggressive songs," says Varkatzas. "For me, I wanted to have a decent bit more screaming on there, vocals that I could be more comfortable with, stuff that I could passionately get behind."
After coming up with more than two dozen new songs in a few months, Atreyu hit the studio with veteran producer Bob Marlette and emerged with Congregation of the Damned, perhaps their brutally best album.
"From those 25 songs, we narrowed it down to 16 with the help of Bob Marlette," says Varkatzas. "We got rid of the bad Journey riffs and picked 16 good songs. Out of those, only 10 were supposed to go on the record, and we were going to have six B-sides. But everybody got real strong feelings about the songs as the record went on, so it turned into 13."
Marlette was a great fit for Atreyu, as evidenced by the polished yet visceral sound of Congregation. The band clearly benefited from the producer's broad experience and well-honed sonic intuition.
"He's just got a lot of old-school wisdom that I think we needed, having worked with Ozzy and Sabbath and Skynyrd," says Varkatzas. "Plus he's just a real good bullshit detector. If something sucked or didn't sound right, he was like, 'Ah, that sucks, guys. You can do better than that.'"
Although response to Lead Sails was mixed, Varkatzas insists that reviews had no bearing on the band as it approached Congregation.
"For a band like us, no matter what we do, we're going to get mixed reviews," he says. "We polarize people. And after you've been around for a bit, people form opinions about you, and those preconceived notions taint how they feel about records. If you look at the press for this record, it's just as split as it was for Lead Sails, and this is a way better record. It is what it is. It's cool to hear people's opinions, but not when it sucks."
Regardless of critical opinion, Varkatzas is pleased with Atreyu's growth and maturation, which he sees as a direct result of their tight creative bond.
"Everybody in our band worked together to create something that we're all really into, and we're all on the same page," says Varkatzas. "For a band that's been together for awhile and has a couple of full-lengths, that's a hard thing to do. I'm just proud of the cohesion of our band and the whole creation of this record. It's a lot more serious in a way. We still have a lot of fun, but a lot more thought goes into everything because it has to. It's our livelihood; there's more on the line now. We've got wives and mortgages and shit."
The breakneck shredding on Congregation of the Damned is matched in intensity by Varkatzas' lyrical perspective, a condemnation of the policies that brought the world to the brink of economic collapse, resulting in the most politically charged album in Atreyu's catalog.
"For me, lyrically, it was what's going on politically and socially in our country, and the way human beings interact with each other and how political parties are full of shit about a lot of stuff," says Varkatzas. "Most of our country is good, hard-working people, and we just got screwed over by our leaders, and that's also a reflection of the title. 'Ravenous' is about how the U.S.'s idea of manifest destiny never went away, and we still run around under the guise of saving the day, but I think we're saving the day for our own means. The first line is 'All hail the tip of the spear/The misdirected unyielding force.' I think we have good intentions, but a gun in the wrong hands can do a lot of damage. And the U.S.A. is the biggest gun out there. Besides China."