Meet Irist: Mastodonian Atlantans Behind One of 2020's Best Metal Debuts | Revolver

Meet Irist: Mastodonian Atlantans Behind One of 2020's Best Metal Debuts

South American heaviness by way of the American South
irist_press_2020_credit_susy-irais-reyes.jpg, Susy Irais Reyes
photograph by Susy Irais Reyes

Order of the Mind, the brutally bombastic new album from Atlanta's Irist, is one of the most startlingly self-assured metal debuts in recent memory, but according to the band's vocalist Rodrigo Carvalho, it was not long ago that he had almost given up on music entirely.

Around the turn of the century, back in his homeland of Brazil, Carvalho was entertaining club and festival crowds, belting out Pearl Jam and power-metal favorites in a cover band. Then he received a scholarship in 2004 to study linguistics in the U.S., and the aspiring frontman's microphone started collecting dust. The idleness wasn't due to a lack of trying.

"I was frustrated because I was writing my own stuff, but couldn't find the right people [to play with]. That's basically it. That's when I decided that I should give up and focus on linguistics," he says. "I was really miserable. I had just moved to the U.S., too. I didn't know a lot of people. I was isolated and feeling bored."

Even so, he thrived in academia. Carvalho's studies took him from Alabama, to Green Bay, Wisconsin, to Atlanta, where he earned his Masters in Applied Linguistics in 2010. He spent the last eight years lecturing at Georgia Tech. While Carvalho found stability in the Big Peach — the city is also where he met his wife — he ultimately missed being in a band. By 2015, he started cruising Craigslist adverts for fellow metalheads.

Five years later, the payoff from that search is Order of the Mind, a stunning amalgamation of thorny metalcore, muscled-up blasts, prog freak-outs and Latin music syncopation tied together by Carvalho's scorched-earth screaming. It's the sound of a band on a mission "to help push the boundaries of heavy music in our own, distinct way," says Carvalho, and it's a work spearheaded by dedicated players, not weekend warriors: The vocalist recently quit his teaching position at Georgia Tech to focus on his frontman duties full-time. "I'm really just a screamer, but I'm trying to learn how to sing better now, so it's taking more of my time," the 38-year-old reasons of his midlife shift in priorities. "You have to be in shape [to be a vocalist]. We really have to take care of ourselves, especially when you're almost in your forties." Following in the footsteps of likeminded Atlantans Mastodon, Irist are out to spread their music far and wide.

It was far away, in Iúna, Brazil — a municipality of 28,000 set 160 miles inward from the country's South-eastern border — that Calvalho grew up. He describes his hometown as "very conservative" and consisting of "mostly cows and coffee trees," but he enjoyed the natural beauty of the area's rivers and waterfalls. It was under the influence of rain-soaked Seattle grunge, however, that a 12-year-old Carvalho begged his mom to buy him a bass in the mid-Nineties. He'd often jam with his brother, who played drums, but by the time he'd entered college, he switched his focus to vocals.

In that endeavor, Carvalho takes inspiration from the feral growl of Brazil's favorite metal son, Max Cavalera, but he also has love for the Neoclassical vibrato of the late Angra frontman André  Matos and Ronnie James Dio (Carvalho's pet German Shepherd is named Dio in the singer's honor). While Order of the Mind doesn't possess classic-metal vocal acrobatics, Carvalho's voice does pivot from cord-rupturing screams into a brooding tenor on pieces like "Severed" and "Harvester." Still, he takes special care to say that he doesn't consider himself a singer, but rather a vocalist. "I like that term [vocalist] because it talks about people making weird noises with their mouths. It's more encompassing."

In 2015, his overwhelming urge to make those weird noises again with a band led him to prowl Craigslist; there he came across a curious listing from guitarist Pablo Davila and bassist Bruno Segovia, who were then working together under the name Mardigan. "It was a picture of three super nerdy-looking dudes with sunglasses, side by side, one wearing a pink button-down shirt. It wasn't Pablo or Bruno — it was just some random stock picture they found. I thought it was funny, especially given how heavy the music was," Carvalho says of the online catfishing that eventually brought him into Irist. He was the first vocalist to try out for Mardigan, but while he hit it off personally with the guys, Carvalho was unsure if, after a decade of inactivity, he was physically prepared for the job. "Because I was so out of shape, I was like, 'Guys, let's not do this. The band sounds really good. I don't want to mess this up.'"

Instead, the group coalesced around Davila, Segovia, guitarist Adam Mitchell, drummer Jason Belisha and another vocalist, and they rebranded as Toro. After building a buzz around Atlanta and nearby Athens, Georgia, they released 2017's monstrous digital-only EP, Departure. Carvalho was still in the mix as a close friend, though, having found common ground with Davila and Segovia's shared experiences of growing up in South America (the guitarist is from Argentina, while the bassist was born in Chile). Outside of concerts, the three would often get together for weekend Asados, building their friendship while grilling meat and vegetables, and bonding over music.

"Pablo is a big fan of Sepultura. He grew up [loving] the Chaos A.D., Roots era, and I did, too. That was a really good starting point for Pablo and I to connect," Carvalho says, before adding with a laugh, "even though with soccer we can't really connect, because Brazil and Argentina are pretty much the biggest rivalry in sports. ... I don't think we'll ever see eye to eye on that. We're civil, though!"

As Toro continued wrecking crowds around Georgia, Carvalho was strengthening his screaming voice in private. The members of Toro were well-aware that their friend had been conditioning himself to become a better performer, and when their original vocalist exited the lineup near the end of 2017, they asked Carvalho if he wanted to give the band another shot. His first show with the group was in the spring of 2018; they quickly began workshopping the songs that became Order of the Mind in Mitchell's basement studio in Athens.

After a year of finessing the songs at home, the quintet signed with Nuclear Blast and traveled to Southampton, U.K., to record Order of the Mind. Late last year, they officially renamed themselves Irist. It's a made-up word, drawing on Carvalho's linguistics background, no doubt. Irist compounds "ire," "iris" and "rist," the last of which refers to the practice of carving of runs into stone — a fitting act for a group trying to put their mark on the global metal community.

Carvalho's way with words plays out in the band's lyrics, too. Order of the Mind opener "Eons" has Carvalho's thick-necked howl summing up the imbalance between a ruler and their oppressed servants ("bow to your master"). Rather than focusing on a real-life tyrant, the vocalist explains that the song is about "being discontent with having to constantly reinvent yourself and adapt to circumstances in life."

"Time is pretty merciless," Carvalho continues. "It just changes things, even if you don't want to change. So I decided to use this imagery of a dictator, a tyrant of sorts, [where] no matter how much you scream or protest, [he's] inflexible. [Time is] always there, crushing and changing everything. It's an existentialist song. A lot of our songs are."

While "Eons" takes root in the most negative aspects of the passage of time, Carvalho is reminded that a series of incredible changes have led him towards this particularly exciting moment. Ten years ago, the vocalist thought he had left heavy music behind for good. Even when he was first offered a chance to sing for Toro, he didn't have enough confidence to take the bull by the horns. Five years and a second chance later, he's built up his vocal presence into a brutal beast, and has helped deliver one of 2020's finest metal albums. Right now, time's on Irist's side.

"[Time] destroys, but it also creates," Carvalho concedes. "There are opportunities that come, and you have to do whatever you can to grab them. We've worked incredibly hard on all of this. I think we're in a better place now."