Courtesy of Atom Splitter PR

From Then to Now With Shadows Fall

Something is in the air, and while it could be the fresh ‘kick in the ass’ of bands on-the-rise or the beginning of springtime pollination, we think it’s more in line with the nostalgic metal memories that come with two-decade celebrations.

If you’re a fan of early 2000s metal music, chances are you remember a band called Shadows Fall relentlessly touring and spreading their brand of metal to the masses. Their 2004 album The War Within broke them out of the underground scene, and they will be celebrating the 20 year anniversary of that iconic record at none other than New Jersey’s own Starland Ballroom on March 16. Vocalist Brian Fair took the time to provide some insight on the significance of this album and the memories associated with it, as well as the artists and life events that inspired Shadows Fall to craft their signature sound.

You’ve chosen the iconic Jersey venue Starland Ballroom as the place to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of your landmark album The War Within. Considering that the band originated in Massachusetts, what made you decide on Starland Ballroom as the location to celebrate? 

Jersey’s always been one of our favorite places to play on the East Coast. The crowds are always insane, we’ve had some of our most memorable moments there, and Starland’s been part of a lot of those. From headlining shows to playing there with Korn, which was absolute insanity, we’ve just had so many good memories in that room. It was also the perfect size to kind of throw a party, so we just figured, “Why not? This is the perfect spot,” and I think it’s just gonna be another New Jersey rager.

Do you have any favorite memories from past shows at this venue?

We’ve been lucky enough to have many of them – that Korn show stands out, playing there with Damageplan for Dimebag Darrell’s last sort of run. Those will always be memorable. That entire tour was memorable, but that show especially. We’ve just had some great headlining ones there, as well. I think there’s something about the way the room is set up, where there’s enough space for people to kind of do their own thing, but the crowd in front of you is trapped right at the stage [Laughs], you know? There’s no escape from the chaos, which is great ‘cause I’m always diving in the crowd, so I know I’m not gonna hit the ground if it’s a packed room at the Starland.

Oh, absolutely! There are always crowdsurfers going through Starland, and, as a photographer myself, that’s the kind of stuff I love to capture at shows.

Totally, it’s such a good launching pad, you can get up there real easy and it’s not too scary for people to jump off of; it’s kind of the perfect stage diving board.

The War Within was a breakthrough record for Shadows Fall, as it marked the band’s first placement in the Billboard 200 and sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the US alone. Can you remember if you had anticipated this level of success when writing the record, or was this reception more of a pleasant surprise? 

I guess maybe a little bit of both. The album before, The Art of Balance, kind of had us knocking on the door of a more successful breaking out. We had done the Ozzfest tour in 2003 so we kind of had some momentum. As far as how big it got, no, we didn’t see that coming at all. It really surpassed all of our goals because we wrote a really, sort of selfish record – we threw everything we wanted to do at the wall. It wasn’t like we had toned down what we did, if anything we stepped it all up a notch. There was more shredding guitar, there was more double bass, there was more screaming and singing; we really touched on all our influences in a very non-commercial way, so to get a sort of commercial success out of that was such a gratifying surprise. But, as far as the numbers go, we never thought a band like us could get to those kinds of numbers sales-wise, but that was also kind of the beginning of underground metal bands getting to that level. Between us and Lamb of God, Killswitch [Engage], and Mastodon, everyone seemed to break out right around that time where things just went to a whole different level than we all expected.

You mentioned that you felt a little bit selfish in the process of making this record, do you think that selfishness – or rather just doing exactly what you wanted to do with the record –is what made it stand out?

100%, because at the time the scene was getting a lot of attention, but Shadows Fall was a band that always sort of fit in with that scene while doing our own thing as well. So I think with that confidence to write exactly what we wanted to hear, people could tell we were genuine. There wasn’t a formula to it, we weren’t trying to take advantage of any sort of sound that was big at the time. If anything, to our detriment we never did that (laughs), so yeah I said selfish but I think confidence might be a better word for it because we knew what we wanted to do, we knew what we always wanted to hear, and we just decided to go for it. You’re never gonna get to exactly what that sound in your mind is, but we got as close as we ever had up to that point on that record.

Sure thing, and I’m sure the fans responded to that confidence and that genuine feel and sound of the record because they could just tell that’s exactly what you wanted to do and what you wanted to put out.

Totally, because when a band does fake it, it can be pretty obvious sometimes. That record’s lyrically very personal and about going through your own emotions, so I was able to really put a lot of myself into it, whereas if I had been writing about sword fighting dragons or some sort of gore death metal lyrics it would have been really obvious that we were faking it. I think that’s the key for a lot of bands, if you want to be successful on your own terms you gotta really be genuine. You gotta put yourself completely into the process, and we really did that.

Shadows Fall has been credited as a staple of the new wave of American heavy metal, a title that clearly pays homage to the new wave of British heavy metal that originated in the seventies. If you had to pick a “big four” of Shadows Fall influences, who would those bands be?

Collectively, we’re all over the place, but as a unit I would say (especially around the time of that record) thta Carcass was a huge influence, Testament was another huge influence, and seventies Aerosmith, surprisingly.

Really? I would not have guessed that one!

Yeah, we were listening to that a lot. Jon [Donias] is always sneaking in some sort of slinky seventies rock riff, even if we add some chugs to make it more metal [Laughs].

Well, I’m sure that helps with the catchiness and the melodies.

We were always influenced by songwriters and not just riffs.

And then, let’s see who would be the last one? We got Carcass, Testament, seventies-Aerosmith, and probably some metalcore – like Integrity type stuff, those would be the big ones. Integrity or Cro-Mags – that sort of world. What’s cool with Shadows Fall is we would share a lot of those influences, but everyone was really eclectic in what they listened to individually, so we’d start from a bedrock of that kind of sound, but everyone was bringing in weird ideas out of nowhere. Like I would know a lyric was fully influenced by The Smiths, but you never would hear it in the song, but I knew where it came from! I knew I was ripping off Morrissey and not Bruce Dickinson [Laughs].

To build off of that a little bit more, when it comes to songwriting, let’s say lyrics in this instance, what would you say is your greatest source of inspiration?

For me, it’s really life experience and a cumulative of acquiring knowledge through different readings and philosophy; that’s really where it comes from. There’s not a single writer or lyricist that I could point to; it’s funny listening back through the catalog while we’ve been doing some of these shows, I can hear what I was either into, what I was reading, or where my head was at based on the lyrics. so it’s got this very chronological feel that I never noticed until I could look back on it. Like The Art of Balance was very philosophical – I had been reading tons of philosophy and nonfiction, and studying transcendental meditation and Buddhism and all this stuff. That is all over those lyrics. The War Within was way more introspective, I think I was reading a lot of Tom Robbins at the time, and I was reading some [Charles] Bukowski and just darker, inner turmoil kind of writers. You could tell that I was also trying to sort through my own thoughts as the band was getting bigger, and I was trying to balance this idea of being a philosophical writer who also wanted to party and have success, so it was sort of balancing all those things. That was the inner struggle, trying to figure out how this all fits into my life, which is where the title came from. The War Within was about really trying to come to terms with a lot of these ideas and thoughts and emotions I was going through.

Yeah that makes a lot of sense, I mean you can even hear it in the titles, The Art of Balance definitely sounds like a philosophical term, whereas The War Within definitely lends itself to a more introspective viewpoint.

100% – and I could see that progression, then by the next record with Threads of Life, I was kind of trying to piece all of that together and weave my own little tapestry of my own ideas. It’s just funny looking back, I did not realize at the time but I can totally follow my evolution and learning process just by looking back at the records.

In 2021, Shadows Fall revealed that they would be reuniting after over a half decade hiatus. What sparked this return and how did it come to fruition?

I think we really stopped touring because we’d just been on such a grind for close to 20 years on the road, and we were road warriors. We were out there all the time and we just got physically and mentally a little bit burnt out. Our guys were getting amazing opportunities, like Jon [Donias] had an opportunity to join Anthraxand Jason [Bittner] was playing with a bunch of other bands and now ended up in Overkill – New Jersey represent. Then we just kind of knew it was time to take a break. I think audiences were almost as burnt out on us as we were burnt out on touring, you know? So it was time for us to go away and just rest for a bit. Both myself and Paul [Romanko] started families, so we just had different focuses and priorities at the time. We didn’t want to half-ass it either, we had already started to have a few tours with fill in guys, and that just wasn’t really what we wanted to do. We decided to take a step back, and it was the best thing we could have done; we really took a deep breath and got excited about music again. Everyone was doing different things, and then after five years we started talking like, “Man, if we’re gonna play this would be the perfect time,” and then of course the pandemic hit and our first original ideas were all killed [Laughs]. That gave us another year to practice. We got into the rehearsal space the first time and it felt so amazing; we had all stayed close and stayed friends, there was no fallout so it was easy to get back in there. The songs had a new life to them, we were playing them with a new energy, and we were just like, “Yeah, this makes sense.” We wanted to do it the right way, and coming back and playing a big show in Massachusetts with a bunch of our friends opening, it kind of worked out perfectly. 

As a fan of Shadows Fall for nearly 20 years, I can tell you that my first exposure to the band was playing the crushingly difficult track “The Light That Blinds” in Guitar Hero II. Have you ever discovered a new band from their inclusion in a video game?

I probably did in the early Tony Hawk days, just playing and hearing some old punk rock, whether it was Agent Orange or like a band I had been familiar with and might have forgotten about or just hadn’t heard. I feel like nowadays video game soundtracks are more important than CDs, they probably have more sales – it’s funny how that shifts. We were very lucky to be included in that video game, Guitar Hero II exposed us to a huge amount of fans that probably wouldn’t have stumbled across us otherwise, especially younger kids. And, yes, it was insanely difficult, I think for MTV2 they had our guitarists try to do it and they were terrible at it!

I was actually going to ask you that! I’ve heard that from others, I think the guitarist from Dragonforce had the same sentiment where he was like, “Yeah, I could not play that game.” [Laughs]

No, because you’re trying to play it how you think it would be picked, not following the buttons, so you have to get that muscle memory out of your head. I think that’s the problem but also, there’s too many damn buttons to hit! I mean it’s insane, there was some kid on YouTube who was playing that song on expert while also solving a Rubix cube with his other hand. That is a different level of insanity, meanwhile I was just trying to get through “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” forget trying to do the sweep picking in the beginning of “The Light That Blinds.”

Tell me about it, that was a crushing one for sure. Can you think of anywhere you’d like to see a Shadows Fall song featured next?

Let’s see, I’ve been playing some games with my kids as they get a little bit older, so I would love to be in some sort of first person adventure game, whether it’s like a Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption type of thing. I don’t know if we’d fit in with a country soundtrack for a cowboy game, but I’d love to sneak it in there. We’re always open for more video games – we’ve been in a couple so far, we were in a Backyard Wrestling game for I think the ICP league or something like that.

I think I remember that, and there was a soundtrack that I bought when I was younger, around 2007 or something, it was a WWE soundtrack and it had “Fury of the Storm.” I love that song.

Yeah, it was the RVD, or Rob Van Dam theme song, and it was such a cool experience because we actually got to go to the WWE headquarters. I’ve been a wrestling fan since I was a kid, to the point where even in my mid to late twenties I was still going to Wrestlemania pretty consistently. Rob Van Dam was one of my favorite wrestlers at the time, I was a huge ECW guy, and then he made the jump to WWE and we got to do his theme and record in the mothership building. We saw “Mean Gene” Okerlund doing voiceover dubs that day, which blew my fuckin’ mind. The thing that was funny about that was there was already a riff for his theme, so we just had to riff off of that… it was pretty cool.

I always loved Rob Van Dam growing up, too. He was one of my favorites to play in those wrestling video games. I always loved his signature moves.

Oh, totally! He was the best. Every move he did involving a chair, whether it was the Van Daminator or anything, it was always so awesome. He was the man; it was cool to be a part of that.

Your band has covered a few classic songs on past albums, with “Welcome to the Machine” and “Bark at the Moon” being the standouts that come to mind. Do you have a favorite song to cover that you have yet to record for an album or play to a live crowd? 

My favorite one we’ve recorded was probably “Welcome to the Machine,” which we also have not played live. What I’ve always wanted to do is “Synchronicity II” by The Police. I think that would be the best melodic death metal or thrash metal cover you could do. We talk about it, we think about ideas, but we just never had the time to put the energy into how good we would want it to be. That’s high on my list of songs we never got to cover that maybe we will do one day. Another sleeper would be “Pressure” by Billy Joel – that riff needs to be played with a mosh beat and double bass. The lyrics would be pretty funny to do metal to, but that song is ready to be covered by a metal band. Don’t steal any of my ideas, though! Leave it for Shadows Fall! [Laughs]

I mean… it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve done a drastically different Shadows Fall reimagining. I think it was on “War” that the lyrics were originally by Bob Marley, but you gave them the death metal treatment.

Totally, and that’s one of those ones where the lyrics are super aggressive – it was based on a speech by Haile Selassie. I was using them as filler for that song as I was singing along trying to come up with vocals, then I’m like, “Wait a minute, this all just fits as it is, let’s just cover it!”

In “Welcome to the Machine,” there’s no real guitars outside of synth guitars and some acoustics on the original, so we just wrote a big ass Judas Priest-sounding riff in the background and just kind of did our own thing with that, as well. We kept the vocals true to the original but then wrote our own music around it, and that was not only a fun challenge, but a way to do a cover that wasn’t just, “Let’s make this original and just a little bit heavier.”

That’s probably one of my favorites because Pink Floyd was my very first favorite band growing up, and I only just learned that you guys covered “Welcome to the Machine” a couple years ago. I just happened to stumble upon it. I just love that chugging riff that you guys put in the background of that song. It stayed so true to the original, but that just added that little extra bit of heaviness to it.

That was the thing: we wanted to keep the original vibe and atmosphere, but then just have our own big riff in the background. It’s funny, the reason we haven’t played it is because it’s in E standard, which is something we don’t have any other songs in, so we were just too lazy to bring another set of guitars [Laughs]. Maybe one day we’ll bust it out! When The Art of Balance turns 50 we’ll cover it live.

Shadows Fall has shared the stage with several iconic heavy metal bands such as Slipknot, Lamb of God, and Killswitch Engage just to name a few. What is a bucket list band that Shadows Fall has never toured with that you have always wanted to? 

We’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve toured with a lot of them or at least played festivals with them. We got to tour with Iron Maiden. We got to tour with Black Sabbath, which is just mind-blowing. We’ve played festivals with Metallica, but we’ve never gotten to actually tour with them – that would be incredible, obviously. I would love to tour with either Carcass or At the Gates. Again, we’ve played some metal fests with them, but never got to actually tour with them, so that would be incredible. Those are high on the list for sure, but then it would also be cool to tour with some band that’s maybe not sonically the same as us, like to tour with Muse or a band like that would be incredible.

That would be really cool – a little bit of mixed genre.

Yeah, definitely, and then just scare some of their fans with some thrash metal!

Since your time away, there has been a lot of new blood making waves in rock and heavy metal, such as Bad Omens, Spiritbox, and Nothing More. Can you name any newer bands within the last decade that have you excited for the future of heavy metal, and are there any you’d like to play a show or tour with?

Spiritbox comes to mind big time, because I feel like they’ve really created their own sort of sound and vibe, taking a lot of different approaches to things, and talent-wise they’re just an incredible band. They definitely caught my attention, and we got to play with them at one of our first festivals back when we did the Blue Ridge Rock festival a few years ago. They were just great live.

More similar to our approach to music? This band Upon Stone that’s kind of a melodic death metal band. I did some vocals on one of their songs on their new record and they were great. It’s nice to see a younger generation keeping that sound alive, but giving it a fresh little kick in the ass. I’m a little bit of a dinosaur in my listening approach, but I’m always psyched when I stumble across a new band that’s doing something cool and gets me out of my old guy rock.

What’s next for Shadows Fall? Can we expect a larger tour on the horizon? Will there be any hints of new music at your upcoming Starland show?

We’re definitely going to be playing a lot more shows than we have been for years. I don’t know if we’ll do full tours – it’s still very difficult to balance everyone’s lives and their other bands and everything to where we could go on like a full U.S. tour, but we have festivals lined up throughout the year. We’re hoping to add maybe a couple more The War Within shows if possible to do this for the 20th anniversary… it may creep into the 21st anniversary and we’ll be like, “Let’s call it the 21st birthday! The album’s old enough to drink, so we might as well have another party!”

As far as new music, we are writing as we speak. It’s coming along amazing, I’d say we’ve got six songs that are pretty done – I’ve gotta still tweak some lyrics and finish off a few things – and then there’s probably another four or five in the skeleton stage. I don’t know when we will finish them or put them out, and I also don’t know how we’ll put them out. These days I think the approach of doing a few songs at a time, like EPs or internet-only releases, which just changes the way everything is done, but we’ll see what happens as far as when they come out. However, we are working on it, and we are very excited about the new music.