Shadows Fall: Life Lessons
Originallly published in Guitar World, December 2009
After their major-label release Threads of Life tanked, Shadows Fall got smart and dropped out of the corporate music machine. On Retribution, they reclaim their independence with a fury.
Signing a major-label deal with Atlantic Records seemed like a great idea to Shadows Fall in 2007. The Massachusetts metalcore band had sold 300,000 copies of its 2004 disc, The War Within, through independent label Century Media. The majors took notice and soon began dangling offers. Shadows Fall figured corporate firepower could help them reach the level of popularity enjoyed by their peers like Lamb of God and Mastodon.
They signed on with Atlantic and spent more than a year working on Threads of Life, their follow-up to The War Within. Shortly before the new album’s release, the band’s biggest supporters at Atlantic, including their A&R man, were laid off in a massive restructuring. Suddenly, no one at the company seemed to know or care who Shadows Fall were.
“Being ignored like that was terribly frustrating,” says rhythm guitarist Matt Bachand. “The people that ended up working the album didn’t even like metal and didn’t know how to sell it because it wasn’t their scene.”
Threads of Life sold just 93,000 copies, and when the band refused to follow it up with a more commercial release, Atlantic let Shadows Fall go. By the time the band members finished touring and returned to writing mode in early 2008, they were stressed out and pissed off. Those emotions were put to good use in the creation of Retribution, the group’s latest album. Packed with vintage thrash riffs, abrupt rhythm shifts, abundant fills and jaw-dropping solos, Retribution delivers Shadows Fall’s furious denunciation of the corporate music culture.
“This record is a big ‘fuck you’ to the entire industry,” Bachand says. “We had already tried to satisfy our label with Threads and it didn’t work, so when we wrote this one we didn’t worry about what someone else was gonna think about it; we just did what we wanted. We were like, Fuck it, we’ll put 15 riffs in a song, and who cares if it’s 10 minutes long and won’t get on the radio? If it sounds cool, let’s just do it.”
Retribution is a return to the musically diverse form Shadow Fall displayed on The War Within. The track “War” is fast, brutal and reminiscent of Slayer’s “War Ensemble.” On “My Demise,” barbed staccato picking is interrupted by a ringing, undistorted arpeggio that builds into a two-minute long, midpaced bridge. “Still I Rise,” the first single, balances chugging palm-muted riffs with melodic licks that complement the sweeping vocals.
Lead guitarist Jonathan Donais says, “To me, this is pretty much a combination of the five records we’ve already put out. We’ll always have a strong melodic side to us, but we left some of the heaviness out on the last record. I was happy to bring that back.”
Donais wrote most of the riffs for Retribution at his home in western Massachusetts, then brought them to Bachand, who helped cement the arrangements and demo them with a drum machine. Bachand also provided a couple of tracks, including “King of Nothing,” that he’d written on his own.
“That’s one of my favorite tracks, and I don’t really remember writing it,” Bachand says, laughing. “I had a bunch of people over for a house party, so we were all drinking heavily. At 3 a.m. with amps turned to 20, I just started recording for an hour onto my Zoom H2 [portable recorder]. The next day I checked the file and that’s what was on there.”
Donais says, “I’m all for drinking, but when I’m hammered I don’t pick up my guitar. But Matt does. I’ve listened to the stuff he’s recorded on the Zoom when he’s drunk, and usually it’s horrific, but sometimes there are gems on there.”
“King of Nothing” features guest vocals by Lamb of God’s Randy Blythe, whom Shadows Fall have known since the late Nineties, when LOG still called themselves Burn the Priest. Blythe lives just two hours from the Virginia studio where Shadows Fall recorded Retribution. “He drove up on a Sunday afternoon to cook us dinner while we were tracking," Bachand explains, revealing the singer’s previously unknown culinary talent. “And we looked at him and said, ‘Hey man, wanna growl on this one?’ ”
Donais composed all the leads and fills on Retribution by looping the guitar rhythm and then noodling around until he came up with something he liked. When he’s shredding, he usually uses an MXR Carbon Copy Analog Delay and a Dunlop Jimi Hendrix Wah. Donais explains, “A lot of times I’ll just step on it to give me that high-frequency cutting sound, especially if I’m doing legato parts, but I won’t actually pump the pedal. My favorite lead players are the melodic guys like [Testament’s] Alex Skolnick, Dimebag Darrell, Zakk Wylde, Randy Rhoads and [Thin Lizzy’s] John Sykes. They can shred, but their solos are as memorable as the choruses.”
After Donais and Bachand finished composing the songs for Retribution, they showed them to bassist Paul Romanko and drummer Jason Bittner, who worked them into final form. The composition process went smoothly but took longer than the band had expected. Shows had been scheduled between the writing sessions, and Shadows Fall were also meeting with labels in the hope of finding a new home. As a result, the songs were far from complete in January 2009, when they began recording with Zeuss, who had produced all their records before Threads of Life.
Bachand says, “We actually didn’t even have many vocal ideas by the time we started recording. When we were recording the guitars, we were a little nervous because we were struggling with licks and countermelodies and didn’t know what was gonna happen with the vocals. In the past, the vocal melody has often determined the music. Recording the music first could have caused some trouble for us, but luckily everything worked out.”
On the album, Donais played his ESP signature and Bachand used his Ibanez MBM signature. Both guitars were strung with DR strings and recorded through a Rivera Knucklehead Tre with an OD808 Maxon overdrive. Each guitarist played only the parts that he wrote. Donais says, “There are always little nuances and differences when people play the same riff, and we wanted it to be as tight as possible. It saves time and money and prevents a lot of fights.”
Shadows Fall considered releasing Retribution through an independent metal label, and spoke with a number of them. In the end, they decided to selfrelease the album on Ever Black Industries. Ferret Records was hired to handle marketing and promotion, and ILG was assigned distribution. Donais says, “It’s great for us because we own everything. We’re open to receiving guidance, but we have the final say over everything we do. We’ve been around long enough to have learned the business, so it’s finally time for us to take control.”