It's tough being a metalcore band these days. The term has almost become an insult, a way of dismissing a group as more interested in roiling the mosh pit than musically evolving. Unearth vocalist Trevor Phipps understands where that dismissiveness comes from.
"When a certain subgenre kinda takes over as the main influence of all the younger bands, it gets oversaturated … so people get burned out on it," he says, phoning from his Massachusetts home.
Still, the fan in him doesn't like it.
"I think people put too much emphasis on what genre of metal a band might be. I think there's only so many fans of aggressive music out there, so to actually put down bands for being in a certain genre is kinda stupid. Back in the day you had bands like Maiden, Metallica and Slayer, and it was all metal, even though it all sounded very, very different."
"All metal" is a good way to describe The March, Unearth's fourth studio album. The disc's 10 tracks demonstrate consolidation and advancement at once. While the hardcore-derived riffs and moshpit-ready rhythms of its first three albums remain, the salient feature of songs like "My Will Be Done," "Hail the Shrine" and "Grave of Opportunity" is the presence of screaming guitar leads.
"There's a lot more solos, and there's a lot more guitar harmonies on there - just better guitar playing overall," says Phipps. "That was definitely a conscious effort because Buz [McGrath] or Ken [Susi] are great guitar players and they really wanted to add more to our sound. Also, I think it was a lot easier for them to play with Derek Kerswill on the drums."
Kerswill is the newest of a string of people who've served as Unearth's drummer. While the rest of the band's lineup has remained mostly steady over the band's decade of existence, the drum kit has changed hands several times.
"It's like Spinal Tap shit at this point," laughs Phipps. "I think it's 'cause drummers are all fuckin' weird. They're all just a little bit different. It's just bad luck."
Original drummer Mike Rudberg, who played on two EPs and the group's debut album, quit after suffering some kind of meltdown at the 2003 South by Southwest music festival. He was replaced temporarily by Sworn Enemy's Paulie Antignai; eventually, Mike Justian of the Red Chord joined. Justian lasted until mid-2007, but by the time the touring cycle in support of Eyes of Fire was underway, his bandmates were ready to move on.
"We didn't really take the time to get to know him as a dude, and we had most of [The Oncoming Storm] written already," says Phipps. "So it wasn't until we were on tour with him for a long period of time that we realized that our personalities kinda clashed, and for the writing of In The Eyes Of Fire, our writing styles kinda clashed. We had to fire him right in the middle of a tour because things got so bad between us."
There's a bright side, though: "We're actually better friends now that he's out of the band. I actually got drunk with him the other weekend." After some shows with the man-mountain of metal, Gene Hoglan (Dark Angel/Strapping Young Lad), filling in, Kerswill's been the man in back since the 2007 Download Festival last June. Interestingly, he's someone with whom the band has history. "We wrote a song off The Oncoming Storm called 'The Great Dividers' with him," says Phipps. "Mike had just joined the band, but he was on tour, and we had a session drummer come in, and that was Derek.
"He did all the touring for the past year, he wrote, played on the record, he's signed on to do this whole touring cycle, and we're hoping we can announce him as a full time member soon, but I'm thinking that both sides don't want to get too far ahead of themselves just yet. But I'm thinking that pretty soon he's gonna be the drummer of Unearth for real."
The band worked again with Killswitch Engage's Adam Dutkiewicz, who produced their first two studio albums as well as their The Endless EP. (Terry Date produced 2006's III: In the Eyes of Fire). "He's a friend of ours, he knows our band inside and out, and he's actually played as a fill-in on drums for us back in 2003, before we got Mike Justian in the band," explains Phipps. "So he's like an extra member of the band. Working with Terry was a great experience, but Terry's not that extra member of our band, and Terry's not a musician, which is something Adam can add to our sound as well. He's a great guitar player, so he might hear one harmony a bit different than Buz or Ken are, and he'll make or at least suggest a slight change, and that can make a big difference."
The members of Unearth feel a tight bond with Dutkiewicz and the other members of Killswitch because they all rose up together in the New England hardcore and metal scenes, creating metalcore before that term was a pejorative. "Back in the late '90s, it was difficult to get good metal shows," recalls Phipps. "Kids just weren't going to metal shows anymore, so we had to play with heavy hardcore bands. That's where the metalcore scene came from - bands like us, Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage playing with hardcore bands."
But can they break out of that scene to mainstream success? Can any of the young bands of today, even ones with a decade in the game like Unearth, become the next Judas Priest or Iron Maiden? Phipps isn't even sure such a thing is possible. "I think it's tough to get to that point again, 'cause there's not many bands signing to major labels," he says. "They're all on independent labels, and I think the biggest band within our scene is Killswitch Engage, but they've only sold 500,000 records for their biggest release. That's not a couple million. That's a big difference.
"I don't know what it's gonna take," he concludes. "But I think people are gonna have to realize that metal is metal. You shouldn't dislike it because it's a subgenre and be a snobby, ultra-picky metalhead. If it's heavy and you feel like going to a show and having a good time, go to the fuckin' show. Don't be like, 'I don't like that part' or 'I hate solos' or 'I hate breakdowns.' There's too much elitism within the scene that I think has to disappear."