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The Black Dahlia Murder's Brandon Ellis and Brian Eschbach talk tone hunting, songcraft and keeping death metal fresh

The Black Dahlia Murder
(Image credit: Vince Edwards)

After nearly 20 years in the game, the Black Dahlia Murder are an undeniable institution of death metal. 

Their pummeling fusion of American death metal’s rhythmic churn, European death metal’s melodic sensibilities, prog’s technicality and the vicious riffing of classic thrash has developed over the years into a truly unique sound; this is a band with a distinct musical personality that strikes a remarkable balance between innovation and familiarity. 

Throughout their discography, the Black Dahlia Murder have shirked metal’s ever-shifting trends, electing instead to hone and elaborate upon their own sound. 

With their latest LP, Verminous, the Michigan-bred crew have spawned their most cohesive and focused collection of songs yet. Verminous is a 10-track maelstrom of stank-face-inducing riffs and searing lead guitar vignettes that recall the melodic intrigue, whammy bar abuse and wide vibrato drama of your favorite Eighties guitar heroes. 

The man behind Verminous’ stunning lead guitar work (as well as the album’s production and much of its songwriting) is the band’s newest member, Brandon Ellis. While Ellis was on hand for the band’s last record, 2017’s Nightbringers, he was fresh to the group at the time and admittedly still finding his sea legs.

On Verminous, his contributions as a songwriter, producer and soloist provide the X-factor that make the album a fresh and streamlined take on the Black Dahlia Murder’s sound.

GW caught up with Ellis and founding member and rhythm guitarist Brian Eschbach to discuss crafting the band’s new record, their bromance as co-guitarists and Ellis’ background as a student of Eighties guitar heroics.

The Black Dahlia Murder have never drastically changed their sound and have always evolved within their own idiom. How do you approach developing as a band without repeating yourselves or going too far out?

BRANDON ELLIS: ”The goal is never really to change our sound, but to add new elements that make the music more dynamic. I’m familiar with our live staple songs and the shows are a really good way to gauge how our music works with people. 

”I pay attention to that and always try to contribute music that’s going to add something new to our live set. Brian is always going to deliver that super-classic Black Dahlia Murder stuff, so I try to write things that reach toward the odder end of the spectrum, but within our sound and in a way that’ll blend well with our classics.”

BRIAN ESCHBACH: ”We’ve never specifically tried to grow. When I write, it’s a really organic thing that just comes from playing around on the guitar; hopefully an idea shows up that I can build on. My process is ignorant; if a riff ends up being in a weird time signature or something, I find that out from someone else after writing it.”

How is writing divided between you guys? 

ELLIS: ”Brian and I will write our own songs and we bring them in as complete ideas and then work as a full band to get everybody’s style in there. Verminous is right about 50/50 between us. 

”Brian’s songs on Verminous have a lot of slower, really emotional and dynamic parts that rein things in and jerk the tears out of you. Those songs have solo sections that are really fun, where I can just yank these super-emotional notes out in my solos. 

”Because of how emotional Brian’s songs were this time around, I tried to contribute more aggressive, cut-throat old-school metal — sheer violence [and] knuckleheaded stuff.”

Brandon takes guitar seriously to a scientific level, so it’s inspiring to be around him

Brian Eschbach

You two have been playing together since 2016. How has your relationship as co-guitarists developed since 2017’s Nightbringers? 

ELLIS: ”I was really fresh coming into Nightbringers, and the guys didn’t know how we’d gel in a recording situation or that I was going to write much. 

”Now we’re in a different place where we’ll cross the stage and play off each other and rub shoulder blades and harmonize a riff. I’m more comfortable contributing things. I know where I can push it and I feel trusted and respected.” 

ESCHBACH: ”The biggest thing about working with Brandon is how inspiring he is to be around. When we started this band, I was playing power chords; I don’t have any education or technical training with the guitar, so to have a guy like Brandon, who seems like he can do anything on the instrument, was intimidating. 

”Now it’s fun to try and keep up with him and it’s made me a better player. He takes guitar seriously to a scientific level, so it’s inspiring to be around him.”

Brandon, your contributions as a soloist bridge the gap between Eighties guitar heroics and contemporary metal. How do you approach contextualizing those ideas within modern metal? 

ELLIS: ”When Brian gives me a solo section to work with, I listen closely to his chords and what notes are in there rather than just taking off and ripping something. I listen to them over and over again before I even try to play over them to really get into my head where the power notes in a progression are. 

”It all started with Eddie Van Halen for me; his solos always had the most perfect structuring and phrasing. Yngwie Malmsteen is my Number 1 guitar hero after Eddie – and for the same reasons I like Eddie.”

With this style of metal, you’re stuck between wanting to make a unique sound no one else has, but also wanting a tried-and-true thing that works for the style

Brandon Ellis

Brandon, you produced most of the album. What challenges were presented by producing your own band? 

ELLIS: ”I’ve got a home studio in New Jersey, and it’s a much more comfortable way to record than how we did the last album, so I lobbied the guys to go that route and they trusted me, so we did guitars, bass and vocals at my house. We know each other so well at this point that there was nothing uncomfortable. The guys in my band are so good at what they do, so it was pretty easy.” 

ESCHBACH: ”Brandon sees songs from an elemental level, so there was no apprehension. Brandon knows what he’s doing in the studio and is a very serious person, so we knew he’d take it seriously. 

”When you’re responsible for recording your own band, you’re emotionally invested in the project in a way that someone on the outside might not be, so it was cool to give someone with that kind of passion a shot at it.

”Just being able to track at his house was chill as fuck, and Brandon being the ultra-experienced player that he is meant if we got hung up on a riff, he and I could maximize making a part sound its best.”

Tone hunting in death metal is a bit of a dying art, especially considering how good the plugins geared toward extreme metal have gotten. Tell us about the amps and tools you used to craft the sounds on Verminous. 

ELLIS: ”I tracked my parts before I brought the other guys in, so I had a lot of time to hone in the tones and taste-test different amps and hear how different tones shaped the demos. With this style of metal, you’re stuck between wanting to make a unique sound no one else has, but also wanting a tried-and-true thing that works for the style. 

”Making sure the guitars fit in the mix the way they’re supposed to can be tricky, so I had to do interesting things to get the tones there. The core rhythm guitar sounds are my green crackle custom shop Jackson Kelly with a Seymour Duncan Parallel Axis II Distortion humbucker. 

I really wanted the guitars and the bass to occupy their own spaces, so having tons of low-end coming from the guitars wasn’t super important, but having the notes pop hard was

Brandon Ellis

”Brian and I played that guitar for rhythm parts. I used a Maxon OD808 into my Peavey 6505mh 20-watt mini head; I could have used that for the whole album. At the last second, I decided I was going to try slaving the preamp from that Peavey into the poweramp of another one of my amps to see how it sounded with a full 100 watts behind it, so I slaved it into a Baron K2 KT88 head and that rig had a little bit of extra boldness and a little less sag and compression.

”It became its own beast at that point but retained that 6505 thing. That was my way of making my own unique guitar tone, but still having a foot firmly in the world of the classic Black Dahlia Murder 6505 thing.

Brandon, you have a wild guitar collection. What made that Jackson the winner for most of Verminous’ guitar parts?

ELLIS: ”That Kelly was a guitar I was playing when I made most of my demos and writing these songs, and I got really used to the way its mids were much more forward. That green Kelly’s mids are like a fist! I really wanted the guitars and the bass to occupy their own spaces, so having tons of low-end coming from the guitars wasn’t super important, but having the notes pop hard was. That Jackson’s midrange punch worked perfectly for that.”

I look at the structure of our songs like pop songs. You need an opener that gets ’em interested and you should immediately be moving along with something catchy

Brian Eschbach

What’s your attraction to vintage Jacksons and ESPs?

ELLIS: ”My first guitars included a Charvel 650xl that I got on eBay for, like, $200. I really wanted some cool old guitar that had a story behind it and wasn’t something my friends would have; it had this awesome pearlescent blue paint job that looked kind of like bubblegum, and it was this super-Eighties ax. 

”It turned out to be a better guitar than the much more expensive guitars I’d buy over the next few years. Nothing quite stacked up to that Charvel, and it came down to quality for your money. I was always after guitars that were undesirable at the time because they were too 'hair metal.' Nowadays those guitars are in demand and not so cheap, but I always loved hair metal guitars.”

A lot of death-metal bands just mash a bunch of heavy riffs together, but there’s real songcraft on Verminous. What’s the key to that side of writing? 

ELLIS: ”I have a huge appreciation for classical music, and my melodic sense comes from that. I approach songwriting like a composer and the transitions between themes and melodies is one of the most important parts of music to me. I want our songs to be cinematic and flow like a film score, so those big changeups are really important to the energy and excitement of the songs and can’t be an afterthought.

ESCHBACH: “I look at the structure of our songs like pop songs. You need an opener that gets ’em interested and you should immediately be moving along with something catchy that grabs you, and it should all flow in a way that feels like changes, but works together.

“For the entire time we’ve been involved in metal, the progression of new bands coming out seems to be a focus on more riffs, more changeups and this full-on assault kind of thing – which is awesome – but I’ve always been into a more traditional songwriting style closer to Chuck Berry or AC/DC.

“I look back at some stuff like off [2005’s] Miasma or [2007’s] Nocturnal and I think, 'That song doesn’t need that many parts' and acknowledge that we over-complicated things occasionally in the past. That might just be the old man rocker in me, but that is where I’m at now.“

  • The Black Dahlia Murder's new album, Verminous, is out now via Metal Blade.