Martín Méndez was just 17 years old when he bought a one-way ticket from his native Uruguay to Sweden in the hope of pursuing a career in heavy metal.
It was a risky move – he didn’t have any money or know a single word of Swedish, although ultimately the gamble paid off well.
He would soon end up joining Opeth, the progressive rock pioneers led by singer/guitarist Mikael Åkerfeldt, and now stands, 24 years on from relocating halfway across the world to fulfil his dream, as the group’s second-longest serving member after Åkerfeldt himself.
Edging away from the metallic extremes of their roots, Opeth’s last four albums have seen the quintet embracing cleaner vocals, less distortion and folky psychedelia, with some truly stunning results.
This creative departure has also given Méndez an opportunity to revisit his death metal influences in White Stones, a new project led by him and named after his hometown in Montevideo, Uruguay – with this year’s second full-length, Dancing Into Oblivion, arriving in quick succession after their debut album, Kuarahy.
“I haven’t had much to do other than sit at home and write,” says Méndez, who initially launched the project in March 2020 only weeks before the world transcended into chaos. Like everyone else, the group’s touring plans were put on hold and their live debut cancelled, leaving the bassist no option but to continue writing.
“Luckily, I found myself very inspired when the lockdown started,” he calmly reflects. “It was clear we’d all be at home for a while, so I’m glad I took advantage of the situation to focus on more music.”
The eight new tracks are certainly a reminder of Méndez at his most sonically menacing, using some finger-twisting chromaticism and discordance to throw the listener at every turn.
There are moments that sound like Morbid Angel or Slayer being forced to play though a jazz band’s live rig – with more heaviness coming through the note choices themselves than any kind of pedal or amp distortion.
There’s even a fusion bass odyssey titled Iron Titans, where walking arpeggios lead the band through an avalanche of otherworldly atmospherics.
“I started writing that on bass, which was unusual, because with this band I usually start on guitar,” he notes. “That’s probably why it ended up being so bass-heavy, which is definitely a good thing! You can cut that song into three sections, and I feel like it’s the most progressive song on the album, as well as the longest. It’s one of my favorites we’ve done – the fusion feel makes it really fun to play.”
Those jazz influences have always been evident in Méndez’s work in Opeth, from his tones to his techniques and touches over Åkerfeldt’s mind-bending compositions. While there are moments where the two bands cross over musically, the newer project also offers up its own varying degrees of dissonance.
“Jaco Pastorius has always been the main influence when it comes to that side of my playing,” explains Méndez. “I tend not to think about other players when I’m writing. Of course, the influences are there, though it’s more about trying to find my own voice. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Coltrane over the last year or two.
“That music has inspired me a lot, even though it might not be obvious on the albums. There’s this sense of melancholy and darkness in the recordings made by people like him and Miles Davis. I pay a lot of attention to the bass register on those albums: Those musicians ended up affecting how I approach my riffs and lines.”
At the beginning of 2021, it was announced that the bassist had partnered up with Sandberg for his first-ever signature model. Based on their California TT passive bass and available as 34”-scale four-string or 35”-scale five-string, it features an alder body, a hard rock maple neck, an ebony fingerboard and two Delano JMVC pickups. As we suspected, the new instrument can be heard all over the new recordings.
“It was played entirely on my Sandberg basses,” nods Méndez. “I used my white five-string for one song and then my black four-string for the rest of the album. They are incredibly versatile instruments because I can get very aggressive sounds and switch to more jazzy and warm tones that are closer to a Fender Jazz.
“It’s not that heavy, which is nice for my back, and it plays very comfortably. The Delano JMVC single-coils are quite similar to a Jazz, though the ones I use have a bit more bottom end than the regular ones. That’s down to the position of the pickups, too.”
He adds: “When I visited the factory, they had a bass where you could move the pickups around and choose the exact position you wanted to have them. I was surprised, because I didn’t know that moving things even just half a centimeter would open up a whole new world of sound.
“The tone would change a lot! That’s when I figured out the setup I wanted, which is with both pickups a bit closer to the bridge. I felt that gave me a nicer clean attack, but lost a little low end, which is how we ended up choosing the right pickups to compensate.”
The Sandberg guitars were then fed into a Darkglass Microtubes 900v2, with nothing in between. As the bassist explains, the amp had more than enough firepower for his needs, which – looking back now, with the gift of hindsight – were a little different this time round.
“The Darkglass has this distortion I really like,” he confesses. “That’s actually something quite new for me, I usually use a bit of overdrive, but on this album I dialed in a lot more.
“That was mainly to compensate for the rhythm guitar sound – they’re all quite clean, I used an old Mexican Strat. I needed the bass to be fat and aggressive, and the Darkglass really worked for that. I didn’t need any pedals, like I might with Opeth.”
Perhaps what this project shares most in common with his main band is the usage of passing tones and outside scales, exploring exotic tonalities to their absolute darkest.
Theory is key, states Méndez, provided you learn how to break the rules as much as adhere to them. Knowing where to use the harmonic minor and melodic minor scales to create tension is fundamental for the kind of music he plays – as is remembering to add your own chromatic twists, he rather poignantly observes.
“I try to think about it from both ways, starting off very much in key and then moving into the outside stuff,” explains the bassist. “I guess I use theory as a guide, but I trust my ears and ideas more than anything else. First of all, you have to believe in the note you are choosing. There has to be that clear intention for it to sound convincing.
“But you also have to understand why certain notes feel more beautiful or threatening – you need the theory to do that, but eventually you start trusting your ears and breaking away from the books and scales.”
He continues, “For example, I love the sound of harmonic minor – it works really well for those dark, jazzier riffs – but I rarely stick within that kind of framework for the whole song.
“I like surprising the listener by going outside, using more notes to intensify the atmosphere. I think that’s why a lot of these songs have that extra sense of darkness.”
When we mention that there are a lot of diminished ideas on this latest release, much like every album he’s played on, he flashes us a devilish grin. It’s clearly a sound he’s a fan of, stretching back to his death metal-obsessed teenage years in Uruguay, back to a time when the power of music alone would be enough to convince him to start a new life 8,000 miles away.
“The diminished scales can feel like the darkest of them all, I would say!” laughs Méndez. “That’s why we metal bands love them the most! Even the whole-tone scale, which is quite hard on the ear, can be useful – maybe not for writing riffs, but definitely for linking passages together.
“I also grew up on a lot of flamenco and tango,” he continues, “which isn’t typical major-scale stuff. I’m often looking for notes that are fighting each other. Of course, the ‘right’ notes are more pleasing to the ear, but if you want more nervousness and tension in the music, try using them less.”
- Dancing into Oblivion is out now via Nuclear Blast.