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GWAR on “doing drugs and collecting Marshalls”, becoming “a full-fledged rock juggernaut”, and enjoying wah nearly as much as Kirk Hammett

GWAR
Pustulus Maximus [L] and Balsac the Jaws of Death of GWAR onstage in California. (Image credit: Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic)

GWAR’s New Dark Ages album finds the infamously blood-spilling metal monsters dealing with “the specter of rogue technology” the only way they can: goofily and gorily. 

The album naturally has co-guitarists BalSac the Jaws of Death and Pustulus Maximus cleaving through barbarically brutal riffs, sometimes while vocalist Blothar putridly pontificates on self-mutilation (The Cutter). There’s also razor-sharp smartphone satire in the form of Venom of the Platypus, where GWAR ask a digital, duckbilled Siri stand-in named Raspy to root out stock tips, free shipping options on sword purchases – and the best place to buy phlegm. 

The band explains to Guitar World that this is all taking the piss out of us lowly humans for “being led astray by a little three-inch screen in front of you.” Steel trap-mouthed BalSac elaborates on our folly: “No one uses their brain anymore. Just ask your phone and it’ll tell you what you want to hear, whether it’s the truth or not.

“GWAR is embracing this new, fake intellectualism,” he continues, though somewhat self-consciously. “If every human is super-powered by this device in their pocket, then we – who are super-powered aliens from outer space – are a little threatened by that. So we’re embracing this new power that the human beings are all flocking to and giving you our take on it.”

It turns out tech has been a tough foe to vanquish for BalSac and Pustulus – a necessary evil, even, since both six-stringers link up with Guitar World via separate Zoom connections, at least under the guises of their respective “human slaves”, Mike Derks and Brent Purgason. 

But while the guitarists share the same disdain for iOS updates, GWAR’s main amp blasters have a difference of opinion when it comes to modernizing one’s tone. This mainly boils down to an ages-old question: to tube or not to tube?

Some people do drugs; I do drugs and collect Marshalls

Pustulus Maximus

“There’s a war of ‘technology vs. old school’ between the guitarists,” BalSac says, “because Pustulus has the most amazing Marshall collection anyone’s ever seen – he is vehemently all tube, all the time – whereas I’ve got an X/Y midi control pad built into my guitar so that I can control parameters on the Fractal.”

“Some people do drugs; I do drugs and collect Marshalls,” Pustulus quips of the cherry selection of 40-plus Silver Jubilees, JCM800 2204s, Majors, Mosfets and more stashed all over his home. “The foundation of the house is all DSLs; I couldn’t find anything to use ’em for.”

That difference in tonal aesthetic manifests in other ways across New Dark Ages, GWAR’s 15th full-length massacre. 

BalSac, for instance, is the player gleefully glitching-out stuttered guitar damage with a Meris Ottobit Jr. bit-crusher pedal on Deus Ex Monstrum, an ambient piece that also deconstructs the primal chugging of the record’s preceding Starving Gods – at the time of their talk with Guitar World, Pustulus Maximus had yet to even hear the experimental, album-closing remix. 

Throughout the sessions, BalSac was hoisting his Schecter BälSäc E-1 signature guitar, an Explorer-shaped mahogany body with a lava-burst finish, this referencing a volcanic plot point of the band’s 2019 graphic novel, GWAR: The Enormogantic Fail.

For Pustulus’ part, he plugged his Dean Custom Shop ML “Croc-top” and a Tokai Love Rock into those vintage Marshalls and a more tried-and-true set of effects than his GWAR co-guitarist. 

The deep and gloomy gnarl to slow-mo creeper Unto the Breach, for instance, was achieved by chaining a trusty RAT to a Russian transistor Big Muff Pi he’d found on a shelf at Charlottesville, Virginia’s White Star Studio. Beyond that, the guitarist was surprised at the lack of effects he ultimately coursed through New Dark Ages.

“I used the least amount of stuff on this record than any other GWAR record I’ve ever made,” he says. “Not that I ever used an abundance of shit, but we got all the way through [the sessions] and I realized I didn’t even use a wah pedal [on a solo]. And I enjoy a wah – maybe not as much as Kirk Hammett, but pretty close.”

Pustulus Maximus’ lack of frequency-warbling leads on New Dark Ages is nevertheless one of the milder setbacks GWAR have faced over the past few years. Their previous album, 2017’s The Blood of Gods, ushered in a new era for the band following the 2014 passing of founding member and longtime frontman Oderus Urungus (a.k.a. Dave Brockie, who tragically died of a heroin overdose). 

In many ways, GWAR remain GWAR – the group’s notorious concerts continue to find the armor-plated aliens attacking instruments and mutilating mid-set antagonists, spraying gore-thirsty crowds in pools of stage blood along the way. But following the introduction of rasp-throated tenor vocalist Blothar (a.k.a. Michael Bishop, a former bassist for the act), the sonic parameters of GWAR began to shift.

If you want to make money, play country instead of metal – we got the bum rap on that

Balsac the Jaws of Death

“GWAR has gone through a lot of eras,” BalSac says of the group, which formed in 1984 (Derks has performed as his character since 1988). “We had the original punk rock years; we had the silly, experimental years where we were doing whatever the hell we wanted to; we had the solid section where we actually became a real, legitimate metal band. With this [latest lineup], we’re becoming a legitimate rock band. We’re not just a metal band anymore, we’re a full-fledged rock juggernaut.”

Mixing horns-raising originals with a faithful and fitting take on AC/DC’s If You Want Blood (You Got It), the monstrously riffy The Blood of Gods was a triumph for GWAR, but just as the tour cycle began, Derks started experiencing significant and concerning on-stage fatigue.

After seeing doctors, he was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare form of bone marrow cancer. Fortunately, he found a suitable blood stem donor in his sister and underwent a successful transplant procedure, and has since returned to the stage. 

The path to New Dark Ages was also complicated by the pandemic, though GWAR kept themselves busy at the beginning of lockdowns by producing their own fetid livestream variety show, Undead from Antarctica, where they shared cocktail recipes and interviewed fellow metal figures like Halestorm’s Lzzy Hale and Hatebreed’s Jamey Jasta. 

Though they’d slowly been working on their New Dark Ages in the background, GWAR also put the focus off new tunes in 2021 when they celebrated the belated 30th anniversary of their 1990 breakthrough, Scumdogs of the Universe, with an updated, reverb-removing remaster and a round of North American tour dates.

Spotlighting the older material apparently rubbed off on New Dark Ages, which keeps things similarly scummy via the numbskull chunking of Bored to Death or the thrash-mining velocity of The Cutter, but GWAR’s latest is likewise a profoundly bizarre foray for the longtime headbangers. 

Take the record’s drastic swings between discordantly groove-based jazz-metal fusion (The Beast Will Eat Itself), digital cutups (the aforementioned Deus Ex Monstrum) and cowbell-blaring Sunset Strip sleaze (Ratcatcher, a macabre retelling of the Pied Piper fairy tale). 

Then there’s Completely Fucked, a gauntlet-raising lament for this doomed planet that cross-pollinates the sunny chords of SoCal pop-punk with Pustulus Maximus’ aggressively over-the-top tap-and-dive bravado.

Balsac the Jaws of Death

(Image credit: Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

“There are a lot of elements to GWAR that are all over the rock ’n’ roll spectrum. That song in particular has some pop-punk vibes to it, so I thought it was really cool that I was able to shoe-horn in a Judas Priest-inspired solo,” he says, adding of the inspiration, “that opening divebomb is definitely ripped out of Jawbreaker, or some shit like that. I’m a huge Priest fan.”

While arguably the most wide-scope GWAR release yet, New Dark Ages apparently could have been even weirder. 

Within the pages of the new record’s accompanying graphic novel, GWAR in the Duoverse of Absurdity, the group find themselves staring into a magic mirror that puts them face-to-face with darker, alternate versions of themselves. Those doppelgangers are then accidentally let loose in our reality, hellbent on conquering humanity. Even more insidious? The other GWAR is a successful country band.

“When we looked on the other side of the mirror, we saw that the GWAR over there had decided to play country music instead of metal. They took over their world because – let’s face it – country is far superior to metal, as far as sales go,” BalSac reports. “If you want to make money, play country instead of metal – we got the bum rap on that. We’re poor and living in Antarctica, while they’re rich and living in the capital of their universe.”

Though there isn’t much in the way of C&W cosplay on New Dark Ages, a Southern-fried swerve exists within the new record’s Rise Again. The Freebird-leaning epic is drenched in Hammond organ melodies and features an epically extended, skies-reaching waggle from Pustulus; Blothar brings a slack-jawed Southern drawl to his lines. 

Thematically, it’s an eye-raiser of questionable, polarizing taste – again, this is GWAR – imagining a world where felled Confederate statues come back to stage a rising of the South.

Pustulus Maximus

(Image credit: Jim Bennett/Getty Images)

“GWAR keeps our human slaves in Richmond, Virginia; we’ve always had a fond place for the capital of the Confederacy,” BalSac reveals with a good dose of smarm. “This was GWAR’s take on the statues coming down on Monument Avenue. In our universe these statues got pissed off, came to life and brought all the zombie corpses of the Confederate soldiers out of Hollywood Cemetery to rise up against the human race, to show that the South will rise again.”

He continues: “Rise Again is a Southern rock anthem told by some liberal monsters from [outer] space who don’t know that if the South did rise again, it’s going to be ugly. It’s not North and South anymore, [though]; it’s left and right. There might be another civil war coming.” A dark thought, even if caged in the shock-humor conceit of GWAR. 

The ultimate fate of the culture wars is debatable, but what’s sure is that GWAR will once again bring their bodily fluid-spewing stage show to fans this year to promote New Dark Ages. 

BalSac is light on the details but notes that the show will “be addressing a lot of what’s going on in the world right now.” As in the past, you can probably expect a few decapitations to be peppered into their satire. Having performed under a tsunami of stage blood for eons, Pustulus and BalSac note they’ve nearly perfected the art of weather-guarding their pedalboards

With the new tunes in mind, both Pustulus and BalSac are psyched to drop into the hill-climbing, twin-guitar leads of New Dark AgesBerserker Mode. Though the double-time thrasher is ostensibly an anthem about the life of Blothar – labeled in-song as the God of Cock and Roll – the tandem, NWOBHM-styled dual harmony was modeled as a moment for the GWAR guitarists to “stand in front of the lead singer”.

“So many times, the bigger monsters come onstage and push us to the back, but, goddamn it, guitarists are supposed to be taking the spotlight,” BalSac says with contempt. “We wrote a moment where there’s no way that anyone can stand in front of us. You can’t do that lead from the back.”

So many times, the bigger monsters come onstage and push us to the back, but, goddamn it, guitarists are supposed to be taking the spotlight

Balsac the Jaws of Death

To that end, Pustulus Maximus is a little more skeptical of the potential spotlight moment, suggesting that their duplicitous, glory-seeking bandmates will somehow ruin the showcase by staging a gore-spurting climax at the same time.

“They’re going to say, ‘This is where the epic battle has to happen, there’s nowhere else in the set that it could possibly be,’” the GWAR ax-wielder theorizes, adding wryly, “and then we’ll have to kill ’em.” 

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Gregory Adams is a Vancouver-based arts reporter. From metal legends to emerging pop icons to the best of the basement circuit, he’s interviewed musicians across countless genres for nearly two decades, most recently with Guitar World, Bass Player, Revolver, and more – as well as through his independent newsletter, Gut Feeling (opens in new tab). This all still blows his mind. He’s a guitar player, generally bouncing hardcore riffs off his ’52 Tele reissue and a dinged-up SG.