There might not be a more prescient song title on See What’s On the Inside, the seventh and latest full-length from British rock unit Asking Alexandria, than its centerpiece, Find Myself.
As lead guitarist Ben Bruce explains to Guitar World, the act have pretty well been running full steam ahead since they first started slicing through metalcore licks and concrete-crunching stomp-moshes after forming in York, England, in the mid-2000s.
That was set to continue last year with the release of the band’s Like a House on Fire, but of course, Covid postponed the quintet’s extensive tour plans. Despite the dire situation around the globe, the extended downtime allowed Bruce to refocus his energies on his greatest loves: his family, his friends and heavy metal.
“So far our career has all been ‘go! go! go!’” Bruce explains over Zoom from his current home in South Carolina.
“Then this pandemic hit, and while it’s been difficult for everyone around the world – personal losses, job losses, all kinds of horrible things – I suppose for me, in particular, I’d been awarded the gift of time for the first time since I was a teenager. I got to spend so much time with my wife and kids, and I also really reconnected with myself at my core.
"I think that translated directly to music on this new album. It allowed me to sort of sit back and really remember what it was that made me fall in love with rock and metal – and with guitar – in the first place. I sat back and remembered listening to bands like Metallica when I was a kid, feeling the electricity run through my body when I heard those guitar riffs. It made me go mad!”
Fittingly, you can feel that metal madness in Bruce’s own playing on See What’s On the Inside. Though overall the album definitely skews toward the more melodic, hard rock path Asking Alexandria have carved for themselves since founding vocalist Danny Worsnop rejoined the fold in 2016 after a brief absence – the singer now reveling in more of an oaken croon than the glass-fracturing screams of the early days – Bruce and co-guitarist Cameron Liddell still ramp up the collection with some serious heft.
It’s an album where arena-sized hooks (You’ve Made It This Far) and cocksure rockers (Fame) naturally commingle with brutally grooving, if melodic, breakdowns (If I Could Erase It). While Find Myself is a power ballad rife with melancholy orchestral strings, Bruce still manages to go nuclear with face-melting, neoclassical sweeping in his lead section; his wah-slathered fret-play on lead single Alone Again fittingly tips its hat to early ’90s Kirk Hammett.
Making the album was an equally nostalgic process for Asking Alexandria. Remarkably, it’s the first time in a decade that the quintet has tracked an album together in-person – having safely set up shop at Franklin, Tennessee’s Dark Horse Recording this past spring with longtime producer Matt Good (Hollywood Undead, Sleeping With Sirens).
In the past, Bruce would send the songs to the rest of the band, who would track their parts individually. This time, the material was in flux as the full unit bashed things out in the studio.
Getting up close and personal also inspired Bruce and Liddell to skip the plug-in effects they’d relied on over the past couple of albums to instead experiment with a monolithic gear haul pieced together from online scores and trips to music stores in nearby Nashville.
“There were no tricks; we weren’t hiding behind computer programs that allowed us to put synths and sound effects all over the place. [See What’s On the Inside] was going to be about the drums, the bass, the vocals and the guitars. That’s it,” Bruce says excitedly of the overall experience. “It was the easiest time I’ve ever had because I was so excited to hear a raw, loud guitar riff again.”
What was the first riff that really got this album going?
"I did much of the writing at home by myself, but a lot of it changed when we got to the studio – It was the first time since 2010 that we were all in a studio together! That energy and excitement was like 'Boom!' The first riff we wrote then and there in the room with that level of electricity and passion was the opening riff in Alone Again. That set the tone, like, 'Yes, this is sick.'"
Why had it been so long since the full band was in the studio together? A decade is quite a long stretch.
"The fact that I’m the primary songwriter, it just became easier for me to sit down and write the songs, then send them to the guys, and then they’d go into the studio to record their parts individually. That’s how we did it for so long, so that after a tour people could be home and decompress, and not go straight back into the studio.
"But it’s super easy to get sidetracked…. [and] it becomes like this motion that you do over and over again. Not to say that we weren’t enjoying it, it just wasn’t like it was when you’re first starting a band as a kid, where you’re excited to get together. We lost that along the way, which is sad to say.
"But with this pandemic, it’s almost been like a reset switch. It’s allowed people to reevaluate; we took the time to reevaluate what we were doing this for in the first place. We decided we wanted to reconnect – even music aside, just as best friends. That’s why we went to the studio together: 'This is going to be about us.' And it was!
"We went to the middle of nowhere [with] no distractions. It was the band, living with each other. We reconnected on such a level that once people see pictures and footage start surfacing, they’re going to see the joy in our faces. The first thing my wife said when I showed her a picture from the studio was, 'Look at how happy you all look!' It never occurred to me.
"There are pictures of Cam and [bassist] Sam [Bettley] smiling, or me smiling, and it’s not like 'Smile for the camera!' They’re candid shots where we’re deep in laughter; it was such a beautiful thing. I think you can hear that in this record, too."
How did putting the band in this scenario – where, for the first time in years, you’re fully fleshing out the songs together before putting them to tape – affect the songwriting process?
"It afforded the songs time to grow. It wasn’t, 'Here are the songs, go record your bit.' It allowed us to follow where the song itself wanted to go. Because we were all there, it was easy to see if the song was going in the right direction. You could tell by the energy in the room."
So I see you’re wearing a Metallica shirt right now, and you mentioned how the album taps into that feeling of being a 16-year-old metal fan. Fittingly, there’s almost a Black Album, Hammett-kind of feel to the crawling wah solo on Alone Again. What can you say about this particular lead?
"A guitar solo can be good or bad – but good doesn’t necessarily mean how technically proficient or fast the guitarist is, or how many notes he hits. And like I said, I was going back to how I felt when I was a kid. I remember being a kid and picking up a guitar. I was so excited to learn songs and show them off to my mom and dad, or my friends, and say, 'Look what I’ve learned!'
"I never want to be the band that does something solely to show off how crazy my skills are, because it takes something away from the kid that I was – sitting in my bedroom [just after] picking up the guitar – from even being able to learn it. Some [solos] can be so daunting, like, 'I don’t want to learn that. It’s too hard!'”
"There’s a fine line [you need to hit where] it needs to sound cool, but it also needs to be attainable – reachable to a guitarist that’s just learning. I wanted to write a solo that people would hear and say, 'This is sick!' It’s jumping out of the speakers at you, but at the same time I wanted people in their bedroom to be able to go learn it. When you do that, it inspires you as a musician – as a guitarist, particularly – to keep honing in on that craft. Whereas if you’re just bombarded, it can get very frustrating that you can’t do it yourself. That’s when a lot of people turn away from [guitar].
"A lot of thought went into this [solo]. Is it cool? Is it memorable? Will people want to learn this, and feel good once they have? Will they say, 'I’m stoked that I learnt this.' That’s how I felt when I was learning guitar; I wanted that feeling to come from that lead."
What was the first solo of someone else’s that you recall mastering?
"Enter Sandman. I liked the fact that Kirk Hammett was reachable. I listened to a lot of Steve Vai when I was 12, but when I sat down I’d just be like, 'Can’t do it. Ridiculous!' I gravitated toward guitarists like Kirk Hammett because it sounded cool, it did what it needed to do, and I could sit and learn it in my bedroom. I look back now and I probably wasn’t playing it correctly, but it was enjoyable."
The poles are wide between the metalcore the band had started with on [2009 debut] Stand up and Scream and this latest record, but do you still hear that earlier technique working itself through this latest collection?
"I 100 percent do. A lot of that is down to the fact that when we did Stand Up and Scream, our debut album, we were literally teenagers. We were so excited, you have no idea. We had just been signed internationally; we were in a real recording studio for the first time; we were buzzing. I feel like that level of excitement and passion is in this new album, too.
"There are other things, too, like, we were very big into harmonized octave chords and big booming choruses back then. That’s something we brought back on this album. The choruses are reminiscent of that era of Asking Alexandria, [but] if I’m being completely honest, [2013’s] From Death to Destiny is the album I hear the most in this. That was when we really started to hone in on our passion for rock and metal – bands we liked like Metallica and Pantera. I feel that on this record, too."
Not that the new album is lacking in crushing moments – there’s the chunky intro riff to Misery Loves Company, or that nasty, quarter note bend groove in the middle of If I Could Erase It – but compared to the breakdown riffs of old, what is your current relationship to that kind of heaviness, within the context of this more outwardly melodic version of the band?
"I think we just let the songs speak naturally. Those parts are what were needed there. When we were younger and didn’t know what we were doing, we’d just throw in these heavy parts with melodic parts after, [but] it was a mix and match. We’ve now figured out how to harmonize those things together. Like you said, in the beginning of Misery Loves Company, it’s got that infectious, heavy groove, but it’s got that beautiful melody intertwined within it.
"I think we started exploring that in the Reckless and Relentless [Asking Alexandria’s 2011 sophomore LP] era. There’s a breakdown [on that album’s] Another Bottle Down that’s big, open and groove-laden, but it also has this beautiful piano going through it."
What was the overall experience like at Dark Horse Recording?
"Dark Horse Recording is about 45 minutes outside of Nashville, in the countryside. You’re not bombarded with distractions from the city, like restaurants, the bars or the cinema, [but] we went on a deep dive [in terms of] gear when we went into the studio. We weren’t using guitar plug-ins, so we spent a fortune on guitars and heads; we accumulated so much gear. Nashville was close enough for us to go [into town to] spend more money on gear… but it wasn’t close enough to where it would be a permanent distraction."
Did you bring any gear with you from home?
"I brought my trusty Les Paul Studio that I’ve had since I was a kid, but I didn’t end up using it. When we came to America to record Stand Up and Scream, I’d brought my PRS Custom 22 that my granddad bought for me before he passed away. While I was in the studio, I went too hard on the whammy bar and ripped the bridge out the back of it. We had our first-ever tour like a week later and I was like, 'I don’t have a guitar!'
"So my parents sent me two grand. I ran into a Guitar Center and bought that [the Les Paul Studio]. This has been here for me when I was in a pinch, but this is the first album it hasn’t made it onto. I brought it with me and I recorded some stuff with it, but we went and bought this crazy ’50s Gibson… the tones, they’re not comparable. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Les Paul Studio made it onto the album, but it was there for the experience."
What were some of the standouts in that gear haul, and where could they have been applied on the album?
"We didn’t want to rely on effects made on a computer, so we went down a rabbit hole with guitar pedals. We had so many pedals by the end of it that I can’t even tell you what they all were. Some I’d never even heard of. We wanted a specific overdrive tone from a Klon pedal, but no one had one, so we scoured the internet. We ordered that and got the tone, which you’ll hear sprinkled throughout the album. The EarthQuaker Plumes pedal is what I was using as an overdrive before I got my Klon, but that’s since been switched out for the Klon.
"You hear a lot of MXR Phase 90 on See What’s on the Inside – those leads that have that warm fluctuation in them. It hasn’t got a spot on my pedalboard [at home] right now – I’ve just run out of patch cables – but I love this thing. I’d not played with one of these until that lead, but then I found myself actively searching for other spots on the record to use it on.
"As far as heads go, it was so easy in the past to go through a plug-in, find a tone, and go, 'Cool! That’s the tone!’ We didn’t want to do that again, [so] every guitar that was laid down was [through] a different head; I don’t think the chain repeated on any song on this album. We had Friedman heads, Mesa Dual Rectifiers, Marshall Jubilees, Soldanos. Just heads everywhere. We went there with some stuff, but we left with all the stuff [Laughs].
"I had never played through a Soldano SLO-100 before until I went into the studio, but when I plugged into that head, my mind was blown. It was the coolest tone I’d ever heard – so aggressive but so crisp. The Soldano is the star tone on the album, but we also got the Friedman JJ-100 toward the end. We loved that tone so much that we went and re-recorded eight songs with that, too."
If you moved away from that trusty Les Paul, what did you end up playing on the sessions?
"An unbelievable amount of guitars, but one thing that really struck me was I got a Fender Custom Shop Strat, masterbuilt, and it was so beautiful to play. I bought one of the first few Relics guitars that John Page ever built in the Custom Shop – I think it’s from 1995. It cost a pretty penny, but this instrument made me fall in love with playing [again].
"As soon as my hand hit that fretboard I felt the difference. If you listen to the clean guitars [on See What’s On the Inside], most of it is with a John Page masterbuilt Custom Shop Stratocaster. It’s just so warm, so beautiful. I fell in love with it, like, 'Let’s do more clean guitar!' because I needed to hear more of it."
What can you say about the chemistry between you and Cam on See What’s On the Inside? You’d hinted at how in the early days a lot of it was about those double octave harmonies, but what’s the core interplay between you two on this record?
"Cameron is super shy. He’s very quiet; He’s not super confident. So over the years, it’s just become that I play the guitar on the album, and he learns it for live shows. It’s been me playing for the most part, [but] on this album, I was like, 'C’mon dude, break out of that shell! It’s just us, who here can you be embarrassed in front of?'
"So he sat down and really learned the parts to the point where he was playing them perfectly. That was a huge turning point, because you can tell that he was putting in so much effort and killing it! It allowed us to go, 'OK, well, now we can do some cool shit!' because it’s not just Cameron playing chords. 'While I’m playing a lead, you can play some nice syncopated harmonies, or you could play some crazy raked chords. Maybe you’ll switch into a lead here, and then I’ll switch to the lead.'
"That confidence grew in him, day by day. It was a joy to sit down and play guitar with Cam again; we work so well together."
Is there a particular lead of his on the album that stands out?
"There’s a really cool lick in the second verse of See What’s On the Inside. I remember when that riff was written, by me and the producer, I was like, 'Man, this is challenging.' But at the same time, [I thought it called for] lead guitar playing over top of it that feels real bluesy, and has a lot of my passion for blues injected into it.
"Cameron doesn’t share that love of blues music, so I was like, 'I have to play the lead; that’s my style!' but I remember Cameron saying, 'I can do it.' He struggled with it for a while, but he left the room, worked on it for a few hours, came back and nailed it. I think that was really cool to watch him get a grip on playing something like that. He’d never done that before in the history of the band."
This may be cherry-picking philosophies, but there's a song in the middle of the album called Find Myself. If the band had been rebuilding – or re-bonding – throughout the making of See What’s On the Inside, where do you feel Asking Alexandria are now?
"I feel like we’re just in a completely different headspace. It would have been very easy for us to go, 'Well, we released a record [Like a House on Fire] during the pandemic, so we’ll ride it out, and when touring comes back we’ll tour the record,' but that’s just not what Asking Alexandria is. We spent a lot of time re-bonding – with our families and each other.
"You listen to [new] songs like Find Myself Again, and I think we’re finally back in the place where we are just so passionate and on the same page. I don’t think we’ve ever been a more cohesive unit than we are right now. I think that shows on this record. It’s taken a long time to get there, but we’re there, finally."