AVAT singer Roly Velazquez is currently hiding out in a Boca Raton parking lot, taking a welcomed break from his day job. "It's the only place I get some peace!" he exclaims. Velazquez works for a marketing agency in South Florida that provides direct support for small businesses. It's late April when Revolver rings him, and social restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic are still in place. But the government has deemed his role essential, so Velazquez is dutifully suiting up and showing up to keep operations running smoothly.
"We're required to wear masks to work, we wipe down our desks every day and they installed footpads on all the doors so no one's using their hands," he tells us. "It's pretty hectic, but thankfully no cases were reported here …"
While the pandemic is certainly causing many to summon deeper levels of personal fortitude in the face of so many unknowns, Velazquez's determined work ethic is not a new development. It's deeply entrenched in every aspect of his life, not the least of which is the ambition and drive he brings to AVAT — his rising metal act that follows in the tradition of hard-hitting melodic metalcore crews like Killswitch Engage and Trivium. Velazquez and the Miami-based band, which also features core creative members Jonathan Rivera on bass and Dimitri Anchipolovsky on guitar, just dropped their latest single "Together We Fall" — a guitar-heavy cut that showcases Velazquez's soaring, emotional vocals. The new track has already earned a spot in Spotify's New Blood playlist, while its accompanying dramatic video was also featured on VEVO's Incoming Metal playlist.
Velazquez credits his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1979, with instilling this unfaltering drive in him. "[They influenced] me to continue to push my boundaries to achieve my goals, my aspirations and exceed my own expectations," he says. "Their experiences continue to provide me with wisdom to avoid situations that can hurt me and embrace those that will push me forward. It also gives me a beacon of guidance in daily life."
Velazquez's family, in particular his father, also played a crucial role in the singer's early musical development. "I was born in New Orleans, then I moved to South Florida, Miami area when I was a child, like eight or nine. We moved to the heart of Little Havana, which is like the Mecca for Cuban culture in South Florida," he says. "But when we were living in New Orleans my father invested in an old school Marantz stereo with tower speakers. That was his pride and joy. He listened to Black Sabbath, Metallica and a few other things sprinkled in ... I remember him sitting in front of that speaker system singing along, and growing up I did a lot of that singing in front of the speaker [too]."
Velazquez gravitated toward music early in school, playing trumpet and French horn, but it wasn't until high school — and an impromptu Incubus cover — that he realized his true ambitions to become a singer. "When I got into high school I wanted to focus more on guitar, so I picked up a guitar class. And it was in the middle of guitar class that they figured out I could sing," he recalls. "It was an Incubus song that had just come out from [1999's] Make Yourself, I was trying to learn it. When they heard me sing, the professor stopped me dead in my tracks and said, 'Hold on lemme go get somebody.' He went and grabbed … the chorus director and drama coach. They heard me sing and they said, 'We're taking you out of guitar class and you're gonna be part of the choir now.' That's where I started to learn …"
After high school Velazquez moved to the Kendall area of Florida, a fertile musical area that gave rise to groups including Black Tide and I Set My Friends on Fire. He spent the next few years trying to get a "Linkin Parkesque" project off the ground. When that eventually fizzled out, he switched it up and turned his focus to college courses, work and a ton of gaming. Diablo II, Quake III, Warcraft III, Battlefield 1942, Star Wars: Jedi Knight, Command & Conquer, Unreal Tournament, Half-Life were the choice picks at the time.
It wasn't until around 2004 that Velazquez found his musical footing again and joined up with the screamo/hardcore band Handgun Romance. While his tenure with the group was short, it was an impactful time for his developing style.
"I was coming from more of a nu-metal vibe, right at the cusp of the metalcore scene. I was listening to Linkin Park, Staind, Metallica, a lot of electronic music, like Prodigy," he says. "[The Handgun Romance] guys were the ones that introduced me to Alexisonfire, Poison the Well, Norma Jean, all these building stones of metalcore for the early 2000s. We hit the studio and recorded an EP … In the local scene we were a pretty respected band. We were going out there and packing shows. That's when it became, Oh, I need to do music for the rest of my life. I don't care what needs to get done, how much sacrifice I need to have in my life, whatever weight is required … I'll take that and bear it on my shoulders."
Velazquez's commitment would be tested a bit sooner than he'd have liked. Handgun Romance ultimately decided to switch up their sound, going down a "Number Twelve Looks Like You grindcore route," which meant "they had no need for a singer. So they decided to part ways with me."
Over the next few years he bounced around Florida, from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa to Broward County, trying his hand in a range of bands: from punk to power pop. Nothing really panned out, until he found himself living back in the Miami area. "When I moved back down everyone was like, 'Roly from Handgun Romance is back, I wonder what he's doing?' So I started getting offers to sing for bands. At that point I knew that I was on a different level than most others, so I was cautious … I needed to see the work ethic of people, I needed to see the drive, the professionalism … A friend of mine reached out to me and he was the one that ended up starting this project with a bunch of other people. They brought me on to start writing and singing and we started demoing some stuff and I liked it …"
The group was called A Victim a Target back then, and after cycling through numerous line-up changes Velazquez finally linked up with current bassist Jonathan Rivera and guitarist Dimitri Anchipolovsky around 2015. With the core team set, the group adopted the new mantle AVAT and solidified their sound, drawing from a range of heavy influences. For Velazquez that included "Megadeth, Iron Maiden … and I had this affinity for You Come Before You-era Poison the Well."
"Then you have the rest of the guys who have the more, old-world Lamb of God, Metallica vibe, and we also have Breaking Benjamin, nu-metal, metalcore," the singer continues. "We knew we never wanted to fully agree on one genre. We felt if we were ever doing that we would be limiting ourselves. But what I can clearly say is, yeah, we're metal."
With their sound set and vision locked, AVAT teamed up with Apocalypse Records and put into motion a pragmatic release schedule built around singles — including their latest aforementioned cut "Together We Fall," as well as 2018's "Wolves" and 2017's "Brenna."
"I think overall the market is really pushing towards the single thing," says Velazquez. "We have a ton of music coming out in 2020. I'd love in the future to be able to put out a full-length. But at this time it's not just easier managed to put out a single — but it gives you more focus. People are consuming one-offs. Maybe the attention span is not there. We want to cater to that and respect that a bit. We're also competing for everything else they have going on in their life. Why not feed them the content on that same level that they've expected?"
With COVID-19 disrupting expectations across nearly all sectors in life, including widespread concert cancellations, Velazquez has a new appreciation of the power of live shows. "Being stuck inside makes you realize that a great live performance is something you have to experience to truly appreciate," he says, "and we want to make that a reality not just for us but our fans as well." He's eager for the time when AVAT will be able to hit the stage again, but he's also open to adapting his approach during this new era of social distancing.
Not surprisingly, considering his love of gaming, he's excited by the new virtual concerts that are popping up — like the recent collab between Fortnite and hip-hop artist Travis Scott, in which the performer unleashed a mind-blowing "Astronomical" concert in the middle of the battle royale game.
"It's wild," says Velazquez of the Scott concert. "It was one of the most creative overlaps of gaming and music I have seen in a while. … All of us in the band love video games and the idea of being able to have some part in it beyond just playing the game. What is exciting is seeing the potential of something we imagined going from only being heard and seen in a video to experiencing it in both a parallel and alternate universe that is video games. I've seen the NBA culture getting into gaming, they did events and tournaments. I think that's fantastic, especially in this time. There's so much uncertainty out in the world, it's good that we can still bridge the gap by continuing to do that.
"It's a hustle, but it's a well-welcomed hustle," he continues. "I live for it. And I'm excited, hopefully when all this blows over we can learn a lot as a culture and grow from this whole experience and grow as humanity … and I'm looking forward to getting in front of fans. That's the dream."