Published Nov 14, 2019When Montreal deathcore inventors Despised Icon made their comeback announcement in 2014, fans were satisfied to see them live again, and later got the surprise of a new record with 2016's Beast.
No one was expecting what happened next: Despised Icon have made a new album, Purgatory, that's arguable the strongest of their career, and reflects why they're so important, not only to deathcore, but Canada's history in heavy metal.
"Musically speaking, what's fun with this one is taking a step back," co-vocalist Alex Erian tells Exclaim! "We've been a band for 17 years; Purgatory really acknowledges that, and every musical era of the band. The death metal aspect was much more present on our earlier records, and definitely shines on this one, but if you're into more technical stuff like The Ills of Modern Man or Day of Mourning, there's stuff for that audience as well."
It's difficult to ignore the nostalgia factor when a band comes back after breaking up, and while Beast was made because they had a personal need to return, it did sound like an album fans would expect.
This time, things are different. "I feel like it's our most varied record because looking back, being constantly being on tour and writing in the limited time we had between tours, this time around it's the opposite. We tour three weeks out of the year, so we had so much time to not do the band and have some resting time to get those creative juices flowing."
Although Despised Icon were one of the very first deathcore bands, they've never sounded exactly like their peers. Sure, they jam blast beats and breakdowns into songs just like any other band, but they've always had an odd approach to the music. With members being influenced by genres like hardcore and hip-hop on top of typical death metal, riffs and vocal delivery come together differently than bands like Suicide Silence or Whitechapel, where you hear more Slipknot and Korn influence.
"When we started Despised Icon, we wanted to do something a little different. We love blast beats, but we wanted to have a couple of influences here and there that didn't necessarily make sense, truthfully, but we did it anyway and got our sound going. As far as being a deathcore band, eventually the scene got organized and all of these bands were popping off. At some point, we took a step back and realized we don't listen to deathcore bands, we just happen to play it," says Erian.
Different influences from their peers is something they want to highlight on tour too. Recently, the band hit the road with Suffocation, Devourment, Ingested and to celebrated the 10th anniversary of 2009's Day of Mourning. Despised Icon wanted to pay tribute to where they started.
"We did the North American tour and got to choose the bands we invited. These aren't bands that do deathcore tours, but these are bands that influenced us, and because we were there earlier on, I felt like it was a nice way to pay homage to our roots even if they aren't deathcore bands. I think it's important for the younger generation to be into those bands, but also it's important for us old heads to be supportive of these new bands. So many great ones are popping up left and right, and there are people my age that hate change. There's a lot of good stuff happening now."
Looking back, Erian feels that Day of Mourning was one of their best — until Purgatory. It's incredibly important to their history, but Erian admits there are some things he would change.
"I feel like we've topped it with Purgatory and I mean that sincerely. It's a record that opened up a lot of doors for us, in the same way that Ills Of Modern Man did. Day of Mourning has that track everyone talks about, "MVP," so we're probably going to play that forever. Sound wise, I feel like it's a bit too digital, a bit too processed. I feel like the drums are maybe mixed a bit loud or perhaps digital-sounding, if I'm being fully honest. Some of the songs we wrote in the studio for that record because we were on tour full time."
Even though straightforward death metal bands have been a driving force in the Montreal band's sound, the influence of hip-hop is undeniable. A major aspect of Erian's lyricism ties together his various projects, which he says dates back to the first album he ever wrote, with death metal act Neuraxis, A Passage Into Forlorn. He's done this with metalcore project Obey the Brave, as well as Despised Icon, which comes up on the track "Apex Predator" from Purgatory.
A line in the song refers to "The Aftermath," which many fans would assume references the track of the same name from Beast, but it actually dates back to a hip-hop project called the Crimson Syndicate with members of fellow Montreal act Ion Dissonance. If you listen closely enough to the rap group's songs, you can spot other references to Obey the Brave lyrics, and even a name drop of Despised Icon's 2005 album The Healing Process.
"There's a lot of common ground with the bands I write for. A lot of people are aware of our bond with Ion Dissonance, and their guitar player Antoine [Lussier] is my drummer's cousin, so they started playing in their first bands together back in the day. Antoine recorded the first two Obey the Brave records, and the vocals for this Despised Icon album. Back then, me and a couple of guys from Ion Dissonance started a hip-hop project called the Crimson Syndicate, and my artist name was the Aftermath, so there's a little reference there."
Lyrics, for Erian, are his way of "transforming a negative experience into a learning experience," so it isn't surprising he's put this much thought into his words. Looking at the new record, the vocalist also feels it's a continuation of the overall themes reflected on Obey the Brave's Balance.
"I feel like we all need something like that in our lives and for me that's Obey the Brave and Despised Icon. For Obey the Brave, we put out a record called Balance earlier this year, and I feel like Purgatory is the continuation of that record, lyrically speaking. I feel like I'm in an in-between phase right now, with trying to balance my career and my life at home — obviously there are a lot of sacrifices."
The constant touring cycle was what led to Despised Icon's downfall in the first place and although Obey the Brave are an entirely different story, band members are happy to have things the way they are now. Erian explains that the members are happy to finally have the project back and running, but everything is happening only when the members feel they want to do it.
"We only do this three weeks out of the year, so every show we play is not just a show, it's straight-up an event. When you're on tour every day for the majority of the year, sometimes it loses its spark. It's like punching in to work or something, and we had to take a step back and get back into our daily lives, work life, family life and all of that. It gives us a lot more time to appreciate what we do on the road when we are on the road, which is rare," says Erian.
"Not to sell ourselves short, but when you're not doing that full-time, you step on stage for that first show of the year and think 'Holy fuck, I'm actually doing this.' I feel like at this point in our lives, it's how it needs to be. Luckily, because we play so rarely, people do know that if they want to see us live, they better show up, because if not, it's going to be another two or three years before we roll back through town."
Purgatory comes out November 15 on Nuclear Blast.