It’s no secret that tragedy makes for some damn great music. Think about all the best albums from The Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Radiohead… really, any big rock album from the ‘90s. But that widespread depression made for a chapter of guitar music renowned for its fierce passion and unshakable talent. Even in the present day, some of the most superlative radio scorchers stem from heartbreak and/or despair.
The latest band to channel their emotional travesties into crushing mosh fuel is I Prevail. Following a whirlwind two years of international stardom at the hands of their chart-annihilating debut, Lifelines, the Michigan metalcore maniacs have tapped into a darker corner of their songwriting might on album number two: the destructively loud and defiantly rugged Trauma.
“I think the most important thing about Trauma is that it comes from a lot of real life experience,” says clean vocalist Brian Burkheiser. “My mental state over the last couple of years got to a pretty tough spot, where I came from being this 21-year-old kid with no future, who formed a band for fun to all of a sudden five years later being like, ‘Holy crap, where did my early 20s even go!?’ And for me, I’m a really big family guy and I’m really close with my fiancée, so it got really tough to be out on the road so often; there were a lot of negative thoughts that started taking over my head. So I really wanted to get a lot of the pent-up feelings I had out on this record, and just be raw and open with people.”
Though they’ve enjoyed ever-growing success as one of the biggest outfits in the heavy scene, there was no shortage of agonising ordeals to pluck from in penning Trauma.
“There were a lot of little events that happened in our lives which snowballed into us just having a lot to work through,” Burkheiser says. “There were some very real, harrowing things that happened over the last couple of years – I would say around 2016 and 2017 – which is funny, in a sense, because it was around the time Lifelines was at its most successful. But that just goes to show you that no matter how successful you are, there can still be a lot of things that weigh you down.
Y’know, I have nothing against Lifelines, but there were definitely tracks on that record that we didn’t really want to put out, or that we didn’t have a tonne of faith in. But with Trauma, every song means the world to us; when I go out onstage and sing those songs, I feel that shit deep in my soul. And I think that’s why this record is going to succeed so much – just because it’s such a real, raw and genuine record.”
At the core of I Prevail’s ethos with Trauma is an amplified emphasis on autonomy. As a relatively young band when they signed to Fearless Records in 2014, the quintet were eager to push their music out to the masses and, not knowing how to say no, let A&R tycoons take advantage of that excitement to shape their sound into something more profitable than authentic. But after five years of wrestling with the industry, Burkheiser and co. were adamant on keeping in control for the follow-up – leading to a more open and ultimately heavier-sounding record.
“There were definitely forces on the outside of Lifelines who were trying to push us more in a… I don’t want to say ‘cookie cutter’ direction, but definitely more ‘radio rock,’” Burkheiser says. We weren’t even allowed to take ‘Scars’ onto the radio because American rock radio wanted ‘Stuck In Your Head’ more. But this time around, we really put our foot down with our music and said, ‘Hey, these are the songs that we want to write, and we’re not going to compromise on that.’”
That’s not to say fans of I Prevail’s poppier moments won’t find much to sink their teeth into on Trauma. The LP is sharply grim from the onset, but across its labyrinthine 13 tracks, the band explore a wealth of sonic peaks and valleys.
“We’ve always been a band that wants to be versatile,” Burkheiser says, “But on the heavier side, with this album, it was a very thought-out process where we went into the studio saying, ‘We need to make sure that this record is a banger.’ And y’know, with songs like ‘Bow Down’, ‘Gasoline’ and ‘Dead Weight’, we were able to accomplish that very authentic, visceral heaviness while still being able to have tracks like ‘Let Me Be Sad’ and ‘Hurricane’, that were maybe a little bit more light, but still bring some heavy elements out. Having everything translate to the live side of things is such a critical piece of the puzzle as well.”
Trauma is out now via Fearless / Caroline.