The metal outfit celebrates its new album with a March 30 show at The Frequency.
On their 2014 release Lost Ages, Madison metal band Bereft used the heft of doom and the screeches and rattling tremolo-picking of black metal to explore a great deal of vulnerability. Guitarist/vocalist Zach Johnson wrote “Unwelcome” about grappling with his religious upbringing and becoming an atheist. Fellow guitarist/vocalist Alex Linden, who started the band with Johnson in 2011, wrote the song “Loss” about an experience with grief. The songs were long and atmospheric, but never got lost in a delay-stirred mist; they seemed born of a desire to confront their subject matter head-on, and their structural twists and turns felt bracing rather than pompous. In short, it didn’t take Bereft all that long to emerge as a mature-sounding post-metal band.
A little less than a year after Lost Ages, the band joined the roster of LA-based label Prosthetic Records, which also includes excellent heavy bands like Skeletonwitch, Trap Them, and So Hideous. After the big signing announcement, things got real quiet—Bereft went almost a year without playing a show as it focused on writing, and Neil Weiss, who played drums on Lost Ages, left the band. In spring 2016, drummer Michael Kadnar of German metal band Downfall Of Gaia played with Bereft on the recording sessions for a new album, Lands, at the New Jersey studio of Kevin Antreassian, who has played guitar with and engineered recordings for Dillinger Escape Plan.
After the sessions, Bereft recruited a new drummer in Jerry McDougal, who had already been shaping the band’s sound from behind the scenes. McDougal makes all manner of effects pedals, amps, and speaker cabinets in his North Side basement workshop, including some custom effects and cabinets used in Bereft, like bassist Cade Gentry’s fuzz pedal.
The first chance people in Madison got to hear material from Lands (and the new lineup) was this past November, when Bereft opened for Bongzilla at the High Noon Saloon with a completely new set. From the start of that set, it was pretty clear that almost-year of hunkering down had produced a very different version of the band. First, the black metal elements in the band’s sound (keening tremolo-picked guitar lines, throttling blast beats) were still in the mix, but used much more sparingly than on Lost Ages—for long stretches, Lands takes its time in bitterly gorgeous expanses of forward-looking doom. Second, Linden took a completely different vocal approach. Previously, his vocals and Johnson’s had sounded pretty similar, a guttural but higher-register scream. But on the new material, Linden shifts to a low, cavernous growl, making for a dynamic back-and-forth with Johnson, especially on “We Wept” and “In Filth.”
The four extended tracks of Lands feel both more restrained and more fully developed than Bereft’s previous work, with Linden and Johnson’s guitars often balancing deep, textural riffs and mournful, searing melodies, their vocals supplying a patient but suspenseful rhythmic push-pull. But in spirit it’s still very much a continuation of Lost Ages, in that its heaviness isn’t something to hide behind, but a vehicle for a pretty unflinching plunge into human suffering. The best in recent doom releases (from bands like Bell Witch and Lycus) make the listener feel cathartically wrung-out, and that feeling approaches as the album ends with the soaring guitars and screams of “Waning Light.” Bereft will celebrate the new album with a show this Thursday, March 31 with a show at The Frequency. Ahead of that, Gentry, Linden, and Johnson answered some questions via email.
Tone Madison: It seems like you made a really deliberate choice to hold off from playing shows for a while until you had the new album done and a whole new set. Why was that? Was there a desire to make a clean break from the Lost Ages material?
Cade Gentry: We definitely made a conscious decision to not play shows for a while and it was deliberate for a few reasons. We needed to focus on writing, and when you’re playing shows every few weeks, hauling gear in and out can really put a damper on the process. We wanted to only worry about writing good songs, so that’s what we did. The other reason was the drummer search. For the first few months of 2016, it was just Alex, Zach and myself working on the new songs and getting ready for recording in May. Once Michael agreed to play on the album for us, we started demoing the songs and sending them out to him. He’d program his ideas and send them back. We did this back and forth for a while and decided to hold off on “try outs” for a full-time drummer until the record was done. After recording was done, we started looking for a drummer. Jerry came on board a not long after and then we spent all of our time practicing the songs. We didn’t want to rush out to play shows though, so we took our time.
While we aren’t playing any material from Lost Ages on this upcoming tour, I don’t want to eliminate those songs entirely. We’ve talked about reworking “Unwelcome” and playing that again. After tour we’ll have more time to work on those things.
Tone Madison: Is there anything that surprised you about the way this record turned out?
Cade Gentry: For me, the ease with which it all came together still surprises me. I’m not trying to yank my own chain here, but things really worked out. We had one practice with Michael Kadnar before we started tracking the songs for Lands. We’d only ever heard digitally programmed drums and had no idea what the songs sounded like with a full band. That practice went so incredibly well, though, and once we got into the studio and met Kevin, everything fell into place.
At the time, it didn’t seem like a big risk, but after getting home and taking time to think about the experience, it really set in for us just how big of a risk we took driving out to the east coast.
Tone Madison: How was the writing process different this time around?
Cade Gentry: The biggest difference was our focus. With Lost Ages, we just recorded the four best songs we had written up to that point. With Lands, however, we were signed and writing for our debut album. That added a lot of (good) pressure and we focused on making sure the songs were cohesive and flowed well together. We spent months hammering on them two or three times per week leading up to recording in May. That lead to much more cohesive album and I think that shows.
Tone Madison: Alex, it also seems like your vocal role in the band has changed quite a bit. How did that come about?
Alex Linden: On our first record I was still learning what worked for me as far as my voice went. I think I was trying to get a sound that wasn’t as natural for me. When we started working on this album, I consciously tried to do what felt better and didn’t push my voice—a direction that was more instinctive.
Tone Madison: The black metal element of your sound seems a bit less prominent on Lands than on Lost Ages. Was that deliberate?
Cade Gentry: I don’t think it was deliberate to reduce the amount of blast beats or black metal parts, but we all really enjoyed the heavier parts of Lost Ages, so that sort of became the focus for Lands. Michael helped push us back toward more blast beats, though. During our rehearsal, he came up with a lot of great ideas that really made the songs better.
Tone Madison: After Lost Ages came out, you guys told me that some of the themes driving the record included grief and religion. What were some of the themes and life experiences you drew on for Lands? Any songs that were particularly difficult to write on an emotional level or otherwise?
Zach Johnson: With Lands we wanted to convey, through a loose lyrical concept, the disgust we have for the greed and manipulation people suffer through constantly. In that way the record isn’t quite as personal lyrically as Lost Ages was. I think it’s more a statement of frustration and anger.
Tone Madison: What have you got planned for the next year?
Cade Gentry: After our tour next month we’ll be doing some regional shows and possibly looking to book another one- or two-week run later in 2017. After that though, it’ll be focusing on the next album. We’ve got one song mostly complete and will keep writing. Our main goal is to keep putting out music, so that’s what we’ll be doing!