Band To Watch: Undeath

Errick Easterday

Band To Watch: Undeath

Errick Easterday

Last month, the metal festival and blog Knotfest hosted a “death metal round table” on their YouTube channel. The video chat brought together four vocalists who represent the cream of the genre’s crop: Cannibal Corpse’s George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher, the Black Dahlia Murder’s Trevor Strnad, Gatecreeper’s Chase Mason, and Alexander Jones, from the rising Rochester band Undeath. About a week after the video came out, former Cannibal Corpse singer and current anti-vax dipshit Chris Barnes tweeted about how much he hated it. “It made me physically ill,” Barnes wrote. “I despise what this genre has become.”

“I felt bad for him,” Jones told me a few days after seeing Barnes’ tweet. “I feel like he had such an opportunity in front of him to secure a comfortable legacy as the original singer of Cannibal Corpse, but instead he chose to become a total curmudgeon who has a lot of really ghoulish beliefs. And I knew that about him, and then when I saw the tweet go up, I can’t exactly say I was surprised, you know? Of course this dude is gonna be frustrated and upset about other death metal bands doing well.”

Guitarist Kyle Beam was less diplomatic. “Chris Barnes: Fuck that guy. What the fuck? Why would he even say that? What a dickhead.”

At the risk of giving Barnes’ out-of-touch idiocy too much oxygen, it feels a bit surreal that Undeath are in the position of defending themselves against the dude who sang on Tomb Of The Mutilated. It is, however, a tidy illustration of the band’s rapid ascent since they dropped their first demo at the beginning of 2019. The raw but auspicious bludgeoning they delivered on that release caught the ear of Prosthetic Records, who put out the first proper Undeath album, Lesions Of A Different Kind, in 2020. I’m talking to Jones and Beam shortly after the release of “Rise From The Grave,” the pseudo-title track and first single from their sophomore LP, It’s Time… To Rise From The Grave.

“Rise From The Grave” is a sinewy death metal song with an almost pop-like arrangement, its murderous brutality and undeniable catchiness sitting in perfect equilibrium. The nine remaining songs on It’s Time mostly share its basic template, and there’s not a dud in the bunch. (For further reference, check out today’s blood-soaked new single “Head Splattered In Seven Ways,” streaming below.) By streamlining their already lean-and-mean sound even further, Undeath made one of the best death metal albums in recent memory.

“When Kyle and I are getting together and just getting wasted and stuff like that, the stuff we want to listen to is [Judas] Priest, Corpsegrinder [era] Cannibal Corpse, stuff like that,” Jones says. “Stuff that just really lends itself to turning up loud as fuck, to irresponsible levels, and just screaming along with. I think there’s a part of you, whether or not you constantly realize it, that just wants to make the music that you like listening to. And I think a lot of that is present on the new album.”

“We didn’t start off doing stuff like that, and honestly, I think that it’s really hard to do stuff like that and have it come across as not really fucking lame and cheesy in death metal,” Beam adds. “There is a lot of fat-trimming and rearranging, spending a lot of time with the same five or six riffs just trying to get them just right and shit like that.”

Besides the more streamlined songwriting approach, the biggest development between Lesions Of A Different Kind and It’s Time… To Rise From The Grave was the addition of Jared Welch on second guitar and Tommy Wall on bass. Undeath now boast a five-man lineup, including founding drummer Matt Browning. (“If a string quartet is a standard chamber ensemble, then the five-piece death metal band is a standard for that genre,” Beam muses.) The influx of new musicians has allowed Beam, still the band’s primary songwriter, to do things he never could when he knew he’d have to play all the guitar and bass parts himself.

“Some tracks really showcase that. I think ‘Fiend For Corpses’ is a really good example,” he says, getting animated while he tries to recount everything the band did on the song. “Like the bridge part. There’s a little fucking bass fill, there’s one riff, and there’s guitar solos interrupted by rhythm-section flair, like fucking big band-style little drum flam, little bass sweep. It is something that came through, for sure.”

“We not only upgraded with a new guitar player and a bass player, it’s like we got one of the best bass players I’ve ever seen,” Jones adds. “Tommy’s just really just beyond-competent at his instrument. He is just a shredder. And Jared’s a little less flashy than Tommy, so I feel like maybe he doesn’t get his due credit sometimes, but Jared’s a fucking awesome guitar player. I think adding two people with their degree of talent to our band just elevated things to a degree that I don’t think any of us could have anticipated.”

Jones is no slouch, either. His vocal performance effortlessly balances the rumbling, guttural quality of his instrument with the attention-commanding salesmanship necessary to embed the songs’ hooks in your skull. You might need a lyrics sheet to decipher what he’s singing, but once you learn the lines, you’ll be singing them to yourself for days.

“You kind of want to exist in this weird space between, [where] you’re kind of an added texture in the music, but you’re also sitting on top of it and you’re drawing people into the song more, in a more traditional singer sense,” Jones says. “When we’re going over the songs in the space and in the studio and stuff, when we get to the choruses, that’s when I know it’s time to amp up the energy just a little bit more. Everything I do is just trying to make the song better, you know?”

It’s Time… To Rise From The Grave isn’t specifically aimed at casual listeners, but it does have the potential to bring them in. Death metal has had a long and uneasy romance with the mainstream, from Cannibal Corpse’s cameo in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, to Morbid Angel signing to a Warner Brothers subsidiary for Covenant, to MTV resurrecting Headbanger’s Ball in 2003 with a focus on heavier subgenres. That iteration of Headbanger’s Ball, hosted by Hatebreed frontman Jamey Jasta, was a formative touchstone for a lot of millennial metalheads. Before streaming and social media, it was one of the few places you could find new extreme metal without the help of an older friend or sibling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a major influence for Undeath.

“I remember I used to watch the Jasta Headbanger’s Ball a lot because it was one of the last things that was on TV before my parents made me go to bed,” Jones recalls. “Shit like that is just kind of like embedded into my early metal exposure, in a lot of different ways. So I think I was hoping that the ‘Rise [From The Grave]’ video would call upon that experience in some way.”

It’s a grimy, lo-fi video, just footage of Undeath miming along to the song and an Evil Dead-lite B-plot that serves as an excuse to put a bunch of blood and vomit onscreen. If it had been in rotation on MTV2 alongside the videos for Cannibal Corpse’s “Make Them Suffer” and Amon Amarth’s “Runes To My Memory” in 2006, my high-schooler mind would have been blown. (“Dude, ‘Runes To My Memory’ was one of my favorite songs when I was 12,” Beam says when I make the connection.) What stands out most to me about the “Rise” clip is its impeccable hangout vibe. I don’t know how well Undeath knew director Errick Easterday or the small cast of actors prior to the shoot, but the video feels like something you’d make with friends, promising pizza and beer to anyone willing to hold a camera or get stabbed with a fake knife. That’s ultimately what makes Undeath’s music so great. It feels like everybody’s invited. Whether they’re playing hardcore festivals, opening for genre forefathers, or headlining their own gigs, they belong—and they want you to know that you belong, too.

“We’re just, like, drunk, degenerate, Western New York people,” Jones half-jokes. “We have no delusions about ourselves, so I think we try to translate that into the live space. We just want people, whatever you’re into, whether it’s hardcore, metal, or freeform jazz, or anime soundtracks. Whatever you’re into, just come out, we’ll have a good time.”

It’s Time… To Rise From The Grave is out 4/22 on Prosthetic.

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