DESPISED ICON - "Beast Brings Out The Very Best Of All Eras"
July 30, 2016, a year ago
Black Sabbath. Metallica. Death. Despised Icon. Without getting too granular, the preceding names are a proposed tetrad of metal bands that have changed the very landscape of metal - the harbingers of their respective sub-genres. Of course, the average metalhead might look at this list and be completely dumbfounded by the inclusion of longtime Montreal extremists Despised Icon. For those in the know, the boys in the mighty Icon have been destroying ear canals - and stages - the world over since around '02. With two decades under their various team-emblazoned ball caps, the Despised guys are widely considered to be the pioneers of the entire sub-genre called deathcore. Being the humble Canucks that they are, the guys reject this accolade. No matter, Alex Erian and crew have done what bands such as the legendary Death have done - taking the fundamentals of what came before them and expanding upon it to create something wholly unique and genre-defining. At the root of it all, make no mistake, Despised Icon are no different than Sabbath, Metallica, and Death. So, why would a band at the very height of their storied career decide to pull the proverbial plug?
"Simply put, we were burnt," begins vocalist Alex Erian. "If you told me back then that six years later we would be reuniting and putting a record out on Nuclear Blast, I would've been like 'get the fuck out of town!'. I would not have believed you. That was the mindset back then. We were all pushing thirty and constantly on the road. Granted, we were fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to travel and see the world playing the music we love for very loyal fans. That said, the music started becoming work, and we sort of lost sight of why we were doing it in the first place. Many of us wanted to experience other things in life - stuff that had nothing to do with music. A lot of my boys had kids on the way, and others had some interesting career opportunities they wanted to pursue. It was at that point that we decided to let go and call it a day."
Not one to rest on his laurels, Alex wasted zero time forming another successful band, Montreal hardcore/metal outfit, Obey The Brave. Why the decision to bring back Icon, especially at a time when OTB seems to be hitting their peak?
"Yeah, I stayed in music. Honestly, I didn't want to end things, but I had to respect the decisions of the other guys," clarifies the frontman. "We started this band together and we ended it together. I didn't want this to be Alex And The Despised Icons, or having it become a cover band, so I had to step back. As you mentioned, I kept busy, starting Obey The Brave. The rest of the Despised guys did their thing. One thing lead to another, and four years later we ended up getting together for some reunion shows. A lot of us started missing it, and we all realized how important the band and the music is to our lives and how it plays a big roll. I mean, we experienced a lot of life through Despised Icon. With a few extra years under our belts - managing life outside of the band a little better - we allowed ourselves to bring it back. We played those reunion shows in 2014 and 2015, which proved to us that the diehards were still there... they came out of the woodwork. There were also a bunch of fresh faces, fans who got into Icon toward the end or after we broke up. We try to make it a point to meet people at the shows to hear their stories - how far they travelled, etc. Hearing those stories sort of gave us the confidence and boost we needed to bring this band back to life."
Alex's mention of 'back to life' is an understatement. Their return from the dead, entitled Beast, is just that - a motherfucking beast. This thing literally crawls its way out of the afterlife, dripping and oozing a primal fucking sludge that few bands of their ilk will ever achieve.
"We started off writing a few songs, not knowing at all what to expect," reveals Alex. "We were modest at first, going in with lowered expectations. We also kept everything very secret, not putting ourselves in a situation where we would have pressure to live up to outside expectations, either from fans or the industry - anything that might hinder or suffocate that creative vibe. We did our thing and, as soon as we sat down, the riffs and ideas came out right away. Next thing you know, we had a full-length in our hands. At first we were thinking of keeping it an independent EP, but it quickly became something more. We toyed with the idea of keeping complete control, but then we realized that we didn't want to preoccupy ourselves with the business side of things too much. So, when we decided to approach labels, the first and only label we talked to was Nuclear Blast. Luckily, they were totally down. It was as simple as that."
It might come as a shock to learn that Despised Icon cut their teeth touring alongside such heavyweights as Cryptopsy, Vader, Suffocation, Aborted, Deicide, Immolation, to name a few. Keep in mind, the Icon of that time predated the term 'deathcore'. These guys were just playing and touring alongside the bands they grew up listening to... quite a fucking feat for a little band outta Quebec!
"I gotta be honest, those first couple of years on the road were quite a challenge," remembers Alex. " I recall the Morbid Angel, Krisiun, and Behemoth tours being difficult. Both sonically and visually we were quite different those bands. We didn't really fit into the standards of traditional death metal. There was definitely some resistance to Despised Icon at first, with many people being quite vocal about how non-death metal we were. In fact, I got the term 'emo' a couple of times. When we started this band back in '02 most of us were already onto our second or third death metal band. All the early death metal bands are the bands we grew up listening to - literally the bands that got us into this shit in the first place. When we started Despised Icon we made certain that we weren't just copying what we had done in Neuraxis, Necrotic Mutation, Hidden Pride, or whatever death metal bands we were in. We just wanted to incorporate whatever elements we were into at the time, which was a lot of hardcore and - bands such as Hatebreed, Madball, Biohazard - and death metal. This is how Despised Icon came about."
Every band worth their weight in titanium-like riffing has a pivotal moment - that point in the space-time continuum that literally changes the course of history. For Metallica, it was the release of the Black Album. For Death, it was the explosion of the Florida death metal scene. For Despised Icon...
"Man, I really can't pin-point that, but I can say that, all of sudden, 2007 hit and we saw all these bands like Job For A Cowboy, Whitechapel, Carnifex, Suicide Silence making huge waves. That really made things a whole lot easier for us. Next thing you know, it became a trend, and deathcore was a thing. At some point it became so popular that there was a stigma attached to it, just as every trend succumbs to."
As Alex mentioned, things became a little homogenous with the trend that became deathcore, and Despised Icon - although trendsetters - were not immune. What steps have the guys taken to ensure that they can, once again, inform and lead. Beast, to these ears, recalls all the best things about Despised - particularly the earlier stuff, where the Devourment-like slams were dank.
"Oh yeah, definitely Devourment. We were extremely influenced by those guys. They were doing piq squeals and shit way before us and certainly don't get enough credit for it," admits Alex. "Taking a step back, we tried to identify what we like most and least about Despised Icon from every era. As you pointed out, we've revisited some of the slam stuff. We brought the sound from some of our earlier albums back, stuff that you would hear on Consumed By Your Poison and The Healing Process. For the fans that are into our later records, The Ills Of Modern Man and Day Of Mourning, there is more of that technical aspect - such as the speed and agility of our drummer, Alex Grind. Those fans will also be served by the new album. To us, Beast brings out the very best of all eras of Despised Icon."
I asked Alex, straight-up, what he believes to be Despised Icon's contribution and lasting legacy to the sub-genre of Deathcore...
"Honestly, I feel that deathcore sort of died down in around 2010 or 2011," says Erian. "I think we left at the right time. Now that we are back, I feel like we are significantly different than the rest of our peers. These are all bands that we've toured with, bands that I respect, and good on them for persevering. That said, it seems like deathcore bands are influenced by deathcore. When we were teenagers that shit didn't exist - we just influenced ourselves with death metal and hardcore and mashed that shit up. If you listen to the deathcore bands that stayed relevant, it's because they pushed away from the blastbeats and the growls, away from the heavy stuff. Now, they sound like metalcore and djent. With djent being the current trend, a lot of those bands have taken influence from that and transformed themselves to what's relevant right now. I'm just stuck in the past. I don't give a fuck what's cool. I'm just gonna keep doing what I do. When it comes to Despised Icon we play Despised Icon, and I think this is what sets us apart from what the other bands within our scene are doing. That said, I'm not talking shit or talking ill of any band - I've got a lot of respect for a lot of the bands we have toured with. It's a rough line of work - a tough industry - and good on them for sticking it out."