Fans sometimes get a little Peter Pan syndrome—we struggle with the fact that our favorite bands grow up. Bands progress and mature with time, and signature styles are often tested and changed as a result.
In the inundated arena of metalcore music, there’s a great deal of camaraderie and brotherhood of sorts among bands, but that doesn’t make the competition any less heated.
August Burns Red originated in Manheim, Pennsylvania, where five high school friends worked the local performance circuit to climb the ranks of metalcore stardom. And while the band has weathered a lineup shift, the current ensemble— Jake Luhrs (lead vocals), JB Brubaker (lead guitar), Brent Rambler (rhythm guitar), Dustin Davidson (bass guitar/backing vocals) and Matt Greiner (drums)—has found its sweet spot.
The quintet is gearing up for what will likely go down as the pinnacle of its hustling period. On Jan. 13, 2012, ABR will kick off a nearly 50-date tour in support of its June 2011 album release, Leveler, along with Silverstein, Texas In July, Letlive and I The Breather. The tour will stop in dozens of cities through the States and Europe through this coming June. The band is no stranger to hard touring, however, ABR has spent months on the road at a time to bring its sound to the masses. The band’s newest record, Leveler debuted at number 11 on the Billboard 200, upping the ante on its claim in the metalcore ranks, and leveling the playing field.
Founding guitarist and music composer JB Brubaker says it’s because the band is committed to separating itself from others in the genre.
“We’re trying to be leaders of the metalcore pack,” Brubaker says. “We want to stand out and write a record different from what everyone else is doing. We always have a different vibe to our music, but more so on Leveler, and we continue to grow. A lot of metal is really boring—things sound similar and it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.”
The 27-year-old guitarist admits that even his own musical preferences have changed since the band’s inception when he was just 21. “I’m not going to shows just to mosh anymore, so my priorities are a little different,” he laughs.
But Brubaker knows the ABR audience—the prominent 18 to 25-year-old bracket of metal maniacs looking for a chaotic concert.
“We’re certainly not trying to alienate those kids that just want to go to shows, hear breakdowns and go crazy,” he says.
This necessary balance of old-meets-new is found on the tracks that comprise Leveler. The song “Internal Cannon” fuses the deep, dark riffs of stripped-down metal with more relaxed bass lines that conjure up memories of late ‘90s metal, à la Ill Niño. Though the tracks on Leveler call for hard shells, this particular song has a soft center, which is an awfully nice surprise.
The cathartic album is a celebration of the ABR repertoire—rich, Christian messaging that takes lyrical lessons to the next level with an overall emphasis on soul-searching and awakening.
Brubaker’s super solos are prominent right from the opening track, “Empire,” a cold and complex song that calls for a cynicism of sorts. Lead singer Jake Luhrs screams, “Ingenuity is so cunning/ Innovation is not ours/ Creativity is a luxury/ We build with our hands what we have in our hearts/ Fight the avalanche/ You’ll be buried every time/ We run and run and run/ Keep falling behind.”
The band has come a long way from recording their first EP, titled Looks Fragile After All, with label CI Records in 2004. August Burns Red started playing locally, and networked as much as possible, in time graduating to play gigs outside the greater Lancaster area. Any money earned was reinvested back into the band for equipment and merchandise. Eventually the band saved up enough to tour for the first time in the summer of 2004.
August Burns Red released its first full-length album, Thrill Seeker, in November 2005. Founding vocalist Jon Hershey quit the band just two weeks after the release. Shocked and frazzled by his departure, the band held auditions and chose Josh McManness to be the new lead singer.
It was in 2005 that the band got its first taste of full-throttle approach to touring as professional unit. During the following years, what Brubaker calls “easily the most intense touring” the band has ever done, ABR spent months away from home evangelizing its sound and developing a core following across the country.
Unable to handle the pressure of touring, new singer McManness and bassist Jordan Tuscan departed from the band. In a fix for the trouble in touring paradise, ABR’s founding members enlisted new vocalist Jake Luhrs and bassist Dustin Davidson to join the band.
With its newfound formula, the band released its second album, Messengers, in June 2007. The record broke down the Billboard 200 barrier, reaching number 81. Extending the record’s traction, ABR released an EP called Lost Messengers: The Outtakes in 2009. The band then headlined tours in the U.S. and Europe, and then toured in support of Christian comrades Underoath.
Although each member of ABR is Christian, religious perspective differs among the members, according to Brubaker. “For some, it’s the biggest motivator of life,” he says. “Personally I have always been in the band to write music. It just so happened that we were all Christian. I think the Christian message is really cool because it’s a positive message and I think there’s a lot of negative content in heavy music. Given the age of kids we’re playing to, I don’t want any part of ‘influencing a young, impressionable mindset’ so while I don’t really care if we’re a Christian band or not, I’m glad our message is positive—that’s something I can get behind. But I’m not interested in getting behind a mic and giving a testimony.”
Brubaker emphasizes a key objective of the band’s songs—to resonate with as many people as possible.
“I generally would like our songs to have universal application,” he says. “When Christian bands get too detailed and forward about what songs are too blatantly Christian, then I feel you’re going to potentially alienate a portion of your listeners. We want to write to a lot of different people. It’s got to have a little vagueness. Now on Leveler I think we’re all a bit more outspoken—it comes across as a Christian record to most.”
Brubaker draws inspiration from other talented guitarists in the genre—including Paul Wagonner of Between The Buried And Me and Nick Hipa from As I Lay Dying. “They’re both fabulous players and way better than I am,” he says. “I look up to them as musicians.”
ABR admires bands like Between The Buried And Me for their creative expression and freedom to step outside their own limits, Brubaker says, and for their approach to writing music. As the popularity of metalcore continues to evolve, it’s become critical for bands to differentiate themselves—be it by branding, musical direction or style.
“The more accepted the genre gets, the greater it is for all of us playing this genre of music,” Brubaker says of the current state of metalcore. “You’ve got to wonder where the ceiling is going to be. There certainly is one. And this genre of music is not going to be appealing to everyone, but the fact that there’s more people getting into it is positive for the genre as a whole, for sure.”
Even in the difficult digital age, ABR is willing to take the bull by the horns, focusing on viralizing its music rather than the lost royalties.
“I understand piracy is stealing by definition, but I also understand that if it didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be as popular as we are now because not as many people would have taken the chance on us in the first place,” he says. “Our shows would be eternally smaller as a result. We’re very appreciative of the kids who go out and purchase our records legally. But we’ve accepted that we’re never going to sell 500,000 copies and have a gold record. That’s over for metal.”
It’s a reality that Brubaker is not only willing to accept, but barter on.
“Come to the show, sing along and buy a t-shirt—we’ll call it even,” he laughs.
August Burns Red will kick off its tour at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ, on Jan. 13, 2012 and will play Northern Lights in Clifton Park, NY, on Feb. 27. For more information, go to augustburnsred.com.