Sure, August Burns Red have long been purveyors of heavier-than-thou breakdowns, throat-shredding vocals and intense, highly technical dual-electric guitar acrobatics. But the Pennsylvania-based quintet is far from your standard metalcore outfit.
Take, as just one example, their recent pandemic activity, beginning with a holiday-season version of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You, which saw the band transform the Yuletide pop classic into a shredding – but still highly musical – instrumental workout, full of racing guitars playing in harmony, splitting into counterpoint and just generally shredding all over the place in an incredibly melodic but also ridiculously acrobatic manner.
And now there’s the new Guardians Sessions EP, which takes two songs – Extinct by Instinct and Paramount – from their impressively heavy 2020 full-length, Guardians, and turns them inside out by repurposing them with layers of acoustic guitars, strings and other atmospherics in what the band dubs “reprise” versions.
The EP also adds in epic covers of System of a Down’s Chop Suey! and the theme to the HBO sci-fi Western Westworld, as well as two unreleased tracks from the Guardians sessions.
As for what inspired August Burns Red to head out on this musical tangent?
“We always want to push the boundaries on our sound,” bassist Dustin Davidson tells Guitar World. “We have this home-base that we always come back to, and that's the heavy side of our music.
“But at the same time we have such a wide range of things we can do musically, and I feel like the sky's the limit for what we can throw into a song. That goes for our playing, too, and learning new sounds and new scales to help us take the music in different directions.”
Davidson sat down with guitarists JB Brubaker and Brent Rambler to discuss these different directions, and how that mindset played out in the creation of the Guardians Sessions EP.
Explains Rambler, “We've had a core group of fans for 18 years that we don't want to turn away by being too experimental. But something like this EP allows us to get really experimental while not turning off any kind of our regular fanbase. It makes it possible for the band to continue to grow and evolve.”
“You can only write so many breakdowns and Swedish metal riffs and that kind of stuff,” Brubaker adds. “And then you're just like, ‘Okay, we've done that, let's do something new.’”
Was the majority of the material we hear on the new Guardians Sessions EP recorded at the same time as the Guardians album?
JB Brubaker: “Two songs were. We had extra material after finishing Guardians because we didn't want a 13 song record – it just felt too dense. So we held two songs back, which are the tracks Standing in the Storm and Icarus.
“But then during the pandemic we had a lot of downtime, of course, and so we recorded the two acoustic “reprise” versions of two Guardians songs, as well as the Chop Suey cover and the Westworld theme.”
The two “reprise” tracks receive a much different reading here than on Guardians. It's a considerably lighter approach.
Dustin Davidson: “I think what's really fun about it is, these songs, the way they are on Guardians with the metal guitars and the distortion, that all takes up a lot of space. But when you strip them down and remove those elements there's a lot more room to add these other elements that you can't fit in there otherwise.
“Extinct by Instinct definitely lent itself to be a “reprise” track because it already had a lot of atmospheric stuff in it, and Paramount was fun as well because it's more rhythmic – those types of songs are really fun to tackle because you can add a lot of new ideas that are very rhythm-based. So two completely different songs came from those reprises, which is very cool.”
How did you approach the guitars when it came to rearranging them?
Brubaker: “It was very on the fly. That's kind of how things have always gone when we've done these acoustic versions. Dustin's actually responsible for writing the music for Extinct by Instinct, and for both of these songs what we did was, Dustin recorded all the rhythm guitars on acoustic which... thank you, Dustin, because I didn't have to do it! [laughs]
“Then he re-recorded all the leads on the clean channel and when he was done with that he passed the track off to me and our producer.
“I took Dustin's leads and re-amped them, and then we just kind of went through each section of the song and added what we could. Like, 'Oh, this part would be cool to use this vibe…' It was very in-the-moment. And the same goes for Paramount.”
The Westworld theme is considerably heavier, but also continues the instrumentally expansive and adventurous approach of the “reprise” tracks. What led you to tackle that one?
Brubaker: “I’m a big fan of that show and soundtrack. I started transposing the theme song for fun back in 2018 when we were finishing up a different session and just put it on the back burner.
“Then the pandemic hit and we were at home and it was the first thing I started working on. Just messing around with it. It was something that I thought would be a fun song to put a metal twist on because it’s so epic and dark-sounding.”
Brent Rambler: “We do all our guitar arrangements in a program called TabIt – it’s a really archaic, like, MIDI software program. And I remember when JB first sent that song over on TabIt I was just like, 'Oh my god, I love this!'
“Because I love that show. You know, I got a little lost, like, second season… [laughs] But I think that even if you don't know the show, you'll be able to appreciate this as a sick metal song. It's a really cool listen.”
Speaking of sick metal songs, you guys take on System of a Down’s Chop Suey! on the EP. That song has become something of a modern-metal standard, but why did you feel the desire to cover it?
Rambler: “That song means a lot to this band because it’s the song that we walk out onstage to. It's the song that gets played over the PA as we’re getting ready and the crowd just goes nuts – they sing along to the words and it's awesome. It’s really special to us – especially right now, because we don't get to go and play shows.
“So we had the idea to cover it and then debut it right before a livestream we did not too long ago. And you know, it was kind of a surprise, too, because our vocalist, Jake [Luhrs], doesn't do a ton of clean vocals. But he knocked it out of the park.”
JB, you recently unveiled a new signature model with Ibanez, the JBBM30. What can you tell us about it?
Brubaker: “The JBBM30 is a new finish on the JBBM20 model. I’ve been playing the prototype for months now and I’m really loving this guitar. The new model has a flat black finish with two white stripes. It looks very sexy and is a pretty massive departure from the vibes given off from the JBBM20 with the green finish.
“It has more of a serious tone to it. And the neck is a three-piece maple/bubinga neck that is thin and shreds [the JBBM20 featured a maple/purpleheart neck]. So the guitar is a lot of fun to play and is a real shred stick.”
This is a song that is not on Guardians Sessions, but I have to ask you about it: your instrumental version of Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You. There’s some wicked guitar playing on that one.
Brubaker: “I arranged that one, and it's definitely guitar-intensive. When we finished it I was like, “God, I hope I never have to actually learn how to play this front to back without looking at my tabs!” Because there's a lot of lead guitar. And it took me forever to track the leads, too. But yeah, it’s a Christmas classic.
“My only regret is that I had a really hard time making it super-heavy. So it’s not a very heavy August Burns Red song. It’s just a fun, bouncy Mariah Carey cover from a metal band.”
As far as keeping things super-heavy, the Guardians track Bones was recently used in an episode of the show NCIS: Los Angeles to soundtrack a scene where kidnappers use it to torture their captives. How did that all come together?
Rambler: “We got hit up by our publishing company and they're like, 'Hey, this show wants to use your song.' They did kind of describe what was going to be happening in that scene. And we were just like, 'Okay!'”
Brubaker: “I didn't think anything of it, to be honest with you. I read the synopsis, I was like, 'Cool, whatever.' I didn't think, 'Oh, they're going to be using our music to torture someone.' But I'm not offended.
“I saw some dialogue on the metalcore Reddit where people were saying, 'I'm so sick of this kind of music being framed this way to the general population…' I'm like, 'Eh, I don't really care.' I'm just stoked our music was played on network television [laughs].”
- August Burns Red's Guardian Sessions EP is out on April 16 via Fearless Records, and available to preorder now.