In early November of 2016, Metal Insider contributor Schuler Benson paid a visit to 7over8 Studios in Myrtle Beach to join Byzantine’s Chris Ojeda and Brian Henderson as they laid down guitar tracks for the band’s forthcoming album and Metal Blade Records debut, The Cicada Tree.
This is the second time I’ve shown up at Jay Hannon’s 7over8 Studios near my home in Myrtle Beach. Although the scenery’s changed a bit, as Hannon and his wife have recently welcomed a baby girl into their family, the layout of the studio is much the same. I’m greeted at the door by Chris “OJ” Ojeda, Byzantine’s mastermind and sole remaining original member, and after some brief shooting of the shit in Hannon’s kitchen, we head upstairs to where Hannon and Brian “Hendo” Henderson are in the process of laying down Hendo’s solos for Byzantine’s sixth official full-length, The Cicada Tree.
It’s been two years since I last met up with OJ and Hannon during the recording of 2015’s To Release Is To Resolve. At the time, OJ was the band’s sole representative, and my visit fell during the vocal tracking process. This time he and Hendo are working on guitar harmonies, and the guys offer to let me check out some of the work they’ve recorded so far. Before I sit down in a chair at Hannon’s board, they inform me that the entirety of these sessions have been recorded and broadcast on Facebook Live for the band’s fans.
“It’s weird,” OJ says. “It’s like they’re here with us in a way. We’ll be coming up with harmonies and somebody’ll comment with, like, ‘Hey, try this instead.’ And sometimes we do try it. It’s been a lot of fun.”
The first music I hear is an instrumental section of one of the two cover songs Byzantine have chosen for inclusion on a bonus or overseas edition of The Cicada Tree. As always, they’re honing and developing aspects of their sound that, while instantly recognizable as Byzantine, see the instrumentation plowing forward into new territory. To Release Is To Resolve’s reissue featured reworked covers of Alice In Chains’ “Dam That River” and Fear Factory’s “Pisschrist”; while the new covers come from more unexpected, non-metallic subgenres, even without OJ’s vocals, they sound about as Byzantine-ish as any of the band’s original material. In addition to the typically pummeling, Meshuggah-esque guitar and percussion work, there’s a pop sensibility to the covers that’s reminiscent of Deftones or Karnivool. For a band who’s spent so much time in dark corners, it’s almost frighteningly accessible.
The new original material I sample is heavy… like, really heavy. To Release Is To Resolve was the band’s first outing to feature only material written solely by OJ, and the mark his style left on that record called to mind a straightforward delivery that past Byz LPs lacked. I don’t mean to say these song structures are simple; they’re not. They’re just as complex as anything from Oblivion Beckons, or any of the denser work of the band’s past and present peers. But this material feels easier on the listener, a testament to the ease with which these guys perform, not to a dulling of the music itself.
The new shit’s almost punky in its chord progressions and its immediacy. Fans of the last two albums’ more accessible tracks like “A Curious Lot” and “Signal Path” will be pleased to get reacquainted with some familiar chops. Byzantine’s status as groove metal purveyors has never been in question, but with each new release, that influence becomes more and more readily apparent. The new songs aren’t without experimentation, however. Like past deviations “Posthumous” and “To Release,” there’s ample room for the new music to breathe and meander, but this time around the breadth of OJ’s vision seems to exceed his past efforts. Gentler exploration doesn’t merely accent this new material; in many ways, it almost seems to guide it. Don’t fear a timid album though. For all the tender nuance, there’s just as much of the vitriol that made songs like “Justicia” and “Stick Figure” pit classics.
Around Thanksgiving of 2016, OJ took some time away from his family (which, like Hannon’s, had recently welcomed the addition of a baby girl) to chat with me about crowdfunding, lineup changes, label support and other fat we didn’t get to chew during my stop at 7over8.
Tell us what’s going on in the Byzantine camp since the release of To Release is To Resolve.
OJ : We were fortunate enough to do 3 small runs in support of To Release Is To Resolve after it was released. Each run consisting of about a week to 2 weeks of shows. Two headlining runs and one run supporting Wednesday 13. Since we have been releasing our own albums, we haven’t been able to tour properly in support of the releases so we try to do what we can around our day jobs and family life. We were able to garner some interest from Metal Blade Records whom we signed with in early 2016. We have taken the better part of 2016 and focused on our game plan for transitioning back into a signed act as well as working on new material for our Metal Blade Debut. We also parted ways with our original drummer, Matt Wolfe, who was replaced by Matt Bowles. It’s been a very transitional year for Byzantine!
As far as content of The Cicada Tree, I wrote the music and demoed out the whole album in advance of recording. Sean Sydnor (bass) and Brian Henderson both contributed some amazing pieces of music to accentuate the songs. They brought some clean sections and acoustic pieces to the table as well as some melodies here and there. You will definitely be able to hear their influence on this album, which will make for a very enjoyable listen.
When last we spoke, you sang praise of the crowdfunding process and how well it’d gone with the self-titled record. What was the post-release process like with To Release?
OJ: When you release an album through a crowdfunding outlet, the main focus is getting all of the pledgers their product in a timely fashion. It takes an incredible amount of work to manufacture the product and distribute it, all while maintaining some sort of presence in the press and contact with the pledgers. Things never go as smooth as you would hope. You have to be diligent in fixing the issues fast and all of this lands on the band itself.
The last two albums were definite eye-openers in how much work goes into a successful album release, but I’m so thankful we did it. That knowledge is golden moving forward. We are using Pledge Music once again with The Cicada Tree, but only as a pre-order platform. It will help keep us in close contact with our fans again with merchandising and updates.
At one point, you mentioned never wanting to be involved with a label again. Now you’ve signed with Metal Blade, probably the most influential indie label in the history of heavy music. What led to the signing and what’s different about this situation that made you rethink Byzantine’s involvement with a record label?
OJ: Our signing with Metal Blade was sparked by a show we did in Brooklyn last year on one of our short runs. We had received word that Jose Mangin was going to be coming to the show to interview us for Liquid Metal on Sirius. When he arrived, he brought Rob Caggiano (Volbeat/Anthrax), chef Chris Santos and Metal Blade CEO Brian Slagel with him. His guests were a complete shock to us. We played our show and then hung out with the guys afterward. Months later, I spoke with chef Santos and he mentioned he was starting an imprint called Blacklight Media with Slagel and wanted to sign us. We were excited to have the interest again after so many years of being DIY. A few weeks after that, I spoke with Brian Slagel and he informed me that due to chef Santos opening up another huge restaurant in NYC, he was unable to take us onto his imprint. Slagel then told me he wanted to offer Byzantine a full record deal directly with Metal Blade. I couldn’t turn it down. The arrangement seemed perfect for us as they expressed they wanted me to still manage the band and have full control over the artistic direction. So essentially, the band was able to keep chugging along but with Metal Blade’s full endorsement and marketing arm. It was a breath of new life into Byzantine!
The new record marks, if I’m not mistaken, your third time recording with Jay Hannon at 7over8 Studios. Was there even a question about whether or not you’d record with him again for this album? How has the recording process with Jay changed from one Byzantine album to the next?
OJ: We were a little worried that Metal Blade would want us to shop for another engineer, but Slagel informed me that the sound of our last few records was part of the reason he was interested in us, along with the fact that we seemed to still have a lot of gas left in the tank for a band of 16 years. Personally, we never thought of tracking with anyone else but Jay. We have been friends for 11 years now, and he has a vested interest in the success of Byzantine. He cares deeply for the band and its music, to the point of losing sleep over it. We need someone to care for this band as much as we do. He is a huge part of the reason why we have had success over the last three albums. Jay makes us a better band. And the new album has allowed Jay to have even more creative control. He not only engineered and produced it, he helped write lyrics, vocal melodies and even re-arranged some of the song structures to make them better. He’s instrumental for the success of Byzantine.
For a band who can shift gears as abruptly as Byzantine, after all this time you still manage to have a core sound that’s instantly recognizable. Is writing Byzantine songs a totally unconscious process for you at this juncture in your career, or are there aspects of songwriting you make a point to focus on (“gotta have a heavy part, gotta have a melodic part” etc)?
OJ: The songwriting process has now taken a life of its own. We have now written around 60 Byzantine songs and I have a pretty good understanding of what type of path they need to take in order for them to still sound like Byzantine. I make sure that I don’t put any restraints on what I put into the songs. This allows me to explore many different facets of heavy metal all within one album, or even one song. I realized that I will very quickly let Byzantine fans down if I don’t experiment, which is a fantastic feeling.
Also, some bands wait too long in their careers to start exploring and experimenting. We made sure from the first album that we tried different elements. Now, on album six, I feel I can throw the kitchen sink into the songs; as long as my bandmates and my producer digs the songs, I know Byzantine fans will enjoy them as well.
Following To Release is To Resolve, you guys did a Facebook poll to give fans a chance to vote on cover songs you’d record. They ended up being by Fear Factory and Alice in Chains, two very different bands whose original vibes you still managed to honor while adapting to the Byzantine sound. You’ve also included a couple of covers with the new album, and they’re definitely not metal songs. How much do outside genres influence your writing and delivery as a heavy metal musician, and does covering other groups’ material play an active role in that process?
OJ: We have just recently got into the vibe of doing cover songs again. Over the course of our first three albums, we only recorded two [covers], “Electric Eye” by Judas Priest and “Shoplift” by Eyehategod, [which were] both released in 2007 . Once we did the Fear Factory and Alice in Chains covers in 2015, we thought we should keep doing these as long as they are fun and honor the original songs. I’m not a fan of completely changing a song for a cover. We try to honor the original and add just a touch of our flair to the songs.
The new songs, “Moving In Stereo” by The Cars and “Servitude” by Fishbone, are complete opposites of our style, but when we heard the songs it felt completely natural for us to cover them. We all are huge fans of metal, but Byzantine has always been comprised of musicians who mainly listen to other types of music besides metal as their first choice. For me, I listen to more Porcupine Tree, Katatonia, Tears For Fears, Seal and Sade than I do heavy metal. We make sure our outside influences always color our music but never completely pull us away from our thrash metal roots.
What’s your lyrical inspiration this time around? You’re known for covering a hell of a lot of ground in that regard. Where do we find ourselves this time? What’s the album title mean? Is there a concept here? Do you find yourself moving into new territory lyric-wise, or are you comfortable in the areas you’ve already mined for past Byzantine albums?
OJ: The album is called The Cicada Tree because of an experience we had over the summer back home in West Virginia. This past spring we experienced the phenomenon known as The Seventeen Year Cicada. It’s the oldest living insect in the world, and every 17 years it emerges from a larvae stage underground, morphs into an adult and flies around looking for a mate. They live for only three months above ground, mate, die and the nymphs drop from the trees back into the ground to repeat the cycle. They have no defense other than to swarm. The sound of the cicada swarm is the loudest natural sound in the animal kingdom. I had a gigantic swarm under my tree in my front yard and it mesmerized me. My girlfriend jokingly said we should name the album The Cicada Tree. I starting thinking of the parallels between the cicada and Byzantine, and [I] was sold. Our band has existed for exactly 16 years, primarily as an underground band. Now we finally have the chance for our music to be heard on a major platform. It was so cool we actually named our newborn baby girl Aida.
Lyrically, I touched upon subjects across the board: current affairs, religion, aliens. Ha! I used to always write about regional topics related to West Virginia, but didn’t touch on that for this album. I thought since it would be a more global release I should wax on subjects that cast a wider net. Aliens affect everyone! Ha!
While there’s a ton of variety in this band’s style, is Byzantine all you do? Do you ever write music and think to yourself, “this song would be better for another project”? Are you working on anything else, and do you have any other creative outlets?
OJ: I put all my creative eggs in one basket. For the last 17 years, Byzantine has been the only band I have written original music for, and that’s how I want to keep it. I am completely supportive of the other members having side projects and/or playing in cover bands, but it’s just not something I’m interested in doing myself. In 2012 I recorded an album of thrash metal covers under the name Black Cap Miner, but that was mainly a labor of love to keep me busy during the five-year breakup that Byzantine experienced between 2008 and 2013. I also think that since I’m the only original member of the band, I should probably not dilute myself creatively when it comes to heavy music. I want to make sure that Byzantine gets my best stuff. Plus, writing a Byzantine album drains me for a good while so adding another musical outlet would be insane for me. Ha!
The Cicada Tree is due out this spring on Metal Blade Records. For more information on Byzantine’s upcoming shows and to purchase merch, as well as check out their past musical output, find them on Facebook and Twitter.