The band Burnt by the Sun made a big splash in the late Nineties metallic hardcore world with their thinking man's approach to a genre that oftentimes lacks subtly. Before they broke up in 2009, BBTS shared the stage with luminaries such as Mastodon, Dillinger Escape Plan and Candiria, and their influence can be felt in the pummeling output of groups such as Harm's Way and Pulling Teeth. Even Brann Dailor and Bill Keliher of Mastodon acknowledge BBTS' influence on some of the riff writing on their band's latest album, Emperor of Sand.
Enter River Black, which features three-quarters of Burnt by the Sun: vocalist Mike Olender, guitarist John Adubato and drummer Dave Witte. Their self-titled debut album, out on Season of Mist July 7th, delivers 12 tracks of brutality that continue the tradition of the band members' past endeavor. There are ragers such as "South x South," "Sink," and "Boat" to satisfy the old-school fans, but melody, something often overlooked by Burnt By the Sun, is a territory being newly explored by River Black. Superficially, it may seem like just another reunion, but let's call it a reincarnation: The spirit is intact but there are subtle overtones that have changed, evolved and improved.
"We didn't want it to be Burnt by the Sun," Witte is quick to point out. "If we didn't have Ted, it couldn't be Burnt by the Sun." He's speaking of bassist Ted Patterson, who left BBTS primarily to pursue a more pastoral, suburban life; Brett Bamberger (Revocation, Publicist UK) rounds out River Black's lineup in his stead.
"There were some people asking why we just don't call it Burnt by the Sun," Olender says. "People asked if there was some legal thing. Did Teddy threaten to sue? Was it stuff with Relapse? It's just a different band. It sounds different, Dave's playing and John's playing are different than the earlier stuff and Brett adds a totally different kind of energy and style to it."
The band members also bring the experiences of the years since Burnt by the Sun broke up to their new project. Witte joined Municipal Waste and embarked on several projects such as Brain Tentacles, Publicist UK, Birds of Prey and many others. For Olender, the years have been relatively quiet with his life taking a relatively "un-rock & roll" turn in contrast to Witte. "When Burnt by the Sun was ending, I was still playing with [his other band] For the Love of…. We did a couple of shows here and there. I was really just focusing on being the best Dad I could be and my work — typical type of suburban situation, you could say."
Witte and Adubato would continue to play together and write music, mostly around Witte's touring schedule. "We wanted to something a little bit different, a little darker, a little heavier with less emphasis on speed and more on grooves, impact, and heaviness," the drummer recalls. "I don't want to use the word 'streamline,' but something more effective in a certain way."
They recruited Bamberger on bass and went through a series of band names — first being known as Argonauts, then as the Glorious Gone — and lead singers. Dimitri Minakakis, the Dillinger Escape Plan's original vocalist, was the first on board. According to Witte, "Everyone did a great job singing. We had Dmitri, then Chris Alfano [East of the Wall] on vocals, then we had Harrison Christie [Psyopus] singing. It just didn't feel right the whole time. Olender was starting to get itchy creatively and was hinting around that he wanted to do something. When Mike hopped on board, everything just popped into place. Even the older stuff, that we thought we had beaten to death, found new life with his ideas."
"Whenever they would switch singers, Dave or John would reach out to me to see if I was interested in it," Olender recalls. "When they started the band, they really wanted to go out and tour a lot and I was really not interested in that anymore.
"This last time they reached out to me, at the end of 2015, I just happened to be in the right mindset where I was far enough into being a Dad and settled with my work in a way that I could actually be able to have some time to do music again. It was the opportunity plus timing that just came together perfectly."
Despite the time away from the rigors of singing in a metallic hardcore band, Oldender seemed to fall right into line. "When I first jumped on board, they sent me all the songs and over the course of that first weekend I laid down vocals demo tracks for three of them right out of the gate — the creative energies were flowing," he enthuses. "It felt really, really awesome to be able to express myself in ways that I hadn't done in a few years. It was good to exercise some of those creative muscles, to think about some of the things that were on my mind and how my perceptions have changed since becoming a dad.
"Physically, that actually has been a little different. You get older and certain things get harder, especially when you want to jump around on stage. I used to hop all over the stage and be able to give close to 100 percent doing live shows and now it's 'OK man, if you want to sound halfway decent …' There's a big difference between going to the gym and running on a tread mill and being on stage singing the way I do. It's been an interesting challenge doing that. It's good to realize that I'm 42 years old and can still sound as good as I ever have, maybe a little bit better. That has been really awesome because a lot of things disappear with age, certain abilities can atrophy and its been really cool to realize that I can still do most of that stuff."
Echoes of the band's former incarnation resound in the new group's thematic and lyrical statements. According to Olender, even the band's moniker, River Black, was spun off the title of last Burnt by the Sun record, Heart of Darkness, which was itself a nod to the Joseph Conrad's novel of the same name and the inspiration behind the film Apocalypse Now. "It's about taking a journey, literally up a river, but also up the river of the human spirit," Olender says of the name River Black. "It was the first idea I had when we were throwing around band names. Lyrically, I was looking at human nature more than anything else. Looking at things like principles or aspirations that people have or that humanity has, but at the end of the day it comes down to the fact that human nature ultimately dictates everything that we aspire to be."
The record is filled with demonstrations of River Black's (and Burnt by the Sun's) East Coast metallic hardcore sound: sinister, discordant riffs, burly vocal delivery and knife-strike snare drum attacks. However, the track "Haunt" shows a slight expansion of that sound, incorporating a touch more melody that contrasts with the intense, claustrophobic riffs that comprise the main body of the song. Also notable on the track is the inclusion of backing vocals by Mastodon's Brann Dailor, a longtime friend of the band members. "I got to meet him through Burnt by the Sun back in 2000," says Olender. "Dave and John, especially John, go way back with him. They have a lot of history with him. Back when we used to play as Burnt by the Sun, we played with Mastodon a bunch of times. They were generous with us as they got to be a bigger and bigger band, asking us to play shows with them.
"When the time came to record, there was one particular song that I was having difficulty with. I was hearing something in my head, but it was not me. That's when the discussion between us opened up. I thought it could be a good guest spot. He didn't take two seconds to say yes. He did an amazing job. His contribution to that song was really fantastic. From what I understand, [Dailor's vocals] were done pretty much in one take. He's an amazing vocalist and added a very different dynamic to the record. Having his personality and spirit on the record, having his sheer talent on the record was really a great gift for us."
With the record complete and about to be unleashed, the next logical step for River Black would be hitting the road, something that unfortunately is not part of the game plan. With everyone's commitments to work, family and other bands, River Black have decided to apply the quality-over-quantity approach to playing live. "There are no plans to tour," Olender reports. "We may go off and do some festivals, but with so much on our plates, we're in a position to be really selective and make it special. For me, what makes it special is if it's a really great festival or something that's going to be worthwhile for us to go out and do, or if it's something that's really small but maybe sentimental, like playing a certain venue with bands that we're friends with and that we get to connect with, or if it's with bands that we maybe don't know personally, but that we really like.
"The days of going out, hopping in a cargo van, and grinding it out show to show are pretty much over," he concludes. "We have the ability to choose what we want to do, because none of us need to do this band. We're doing it because we want to do it."