Band To Watch: Ripped To Shreds
The third album by the San Jose death metal band Ripped To Shreds is called 劇變, which romanizes as Jubian. That translates to “upheaval,” and the apocalyptic Jubian certainly feels like one.
“I was going for a world downfall kind of vibe,” frontman Andrew Lee says, possibly smuggling in a reference to World Downfall by LA grindcore legends Terrorizer. “I was looking for the right words and characters to express it. I had my friend Derek [Lin] from Brain Corrosion help me out there. We went through a whole bunch of different titles. Part of the struggle was I wanted something that looked good written down, but you had to have it look good in Pinyin and English, and also have it sound good. We went through a whole bunch of different possible titles before we settled on Jubian.”
There was never any question that Jubian would have a Chinese title. Lee, who is American-born Chinese, has always insisted that his heritage and culture live at the forefront of Ripped To Shreds. Their first two albums were called 埋葬 (Mai-zang, or “tomb”) and 亂 (Luan, or “chaos”), and Lee’s lyrics explore Chinese mythology, history, and stories from the wuxia genre. He even wrote an impassioned op-ed for Decibel in 2020 in the wake of the horrific spike in hate crimes against Asian people during the pandemic, calling out anti-Asian racism in the metal scene.
“There were a whole bunch of positive responses, and a whole bunch of pretty negative responses,” Lee says of the Decibel essay. “My point of view there is it’s less about educating ignorant people and more about energizing people who already have a sympathetic viewpoint. I feel like it’s a waste of my time to go around trying to convince every troll their worldview is wrong.”
Ripped To Shreds may not be as directly political as that essay was, but Lee does get to use the band to lead by example. As an Asian American kid growing up in California and getting into heavy metal, he didn’t have too many musical role models who looked like him.
“When I think of Asian American metal musicians, you’ve got Death Angel, and Dave Suzuki [from Churchburn], maybe Jon Chang [from Discordance Axis], and that’s, like, kind of it,” Lee says. “Kirk Hammett is half-Filipino, and Eddie Van Halen is half-Indonesian, but that’s not really presented as part of their identities. From that perspective, the band and myself just present ourselves the way we are. There’s not really a role model that we can look toward for presenting ourselves.”
Another key part of Ripped To Shreds’ presentation is the artwork, which for the past two albums has been done by the Beijing-based painter Guang Yang. “I know artists hate being micromanaged, and I wouldn’t want to micromanage an artist anyway, because I’m not artist,” Lee says. “I don’t know what good composition is, or good contrast in colors, or whatever.” His only instruction to Yang for the Jubian art was to paint a statue of the Taiwanese sea goddess Mazu being smashed to pieces. Yang returned with one of the most striking death metal covers in recent memory.
“Throughout history, China is like an ancient beast, heavy but indestructible,” Yang tells me in an email, which I’ve translated from Chinese. “China has undergone tremendous changes at various stages in its history. Every upheaval seems so pathetic. Unlike the West, China never emphasizes the stalwart of the individual, even at the expense of personal interests. Based on this understanding, I drew this cover. You can see the Mazu colossus on the cover. and Raiden’s interaction and contrast between details. Mazu, the god of the sea, blesses her people, but at her feet there are even some cruel little elements that take place against a huge backdrop. This dramatic conflict is the image of the East I think about. Regardless of whether I belong to the Mazu belief circle or not, I think that Chinese beliefs, in a sense, have the same origin in the depths of beliefs.”
“I was very impressed with Lee’s enthusiasm and his constant energy,” Yang adds. “The most important thing for me is that he gave me ample creative space, and Lee is very supportive of my personal understanding and theme fusion. I think this is because he, as an Asian, has some kind of trust in my understanding of Chinese culture and history in China. I also believe that even if there is no need for any communication, I must have a lot of potential consensus with him in the depths of our consciousness.”
The first song on Jubian, “Violent Compulsion For Conquest” — out today, featuring a guitar solo from Vital Remains/Churchburn shredder Dave Suzuki — is about the Mukden Incident of 1931, a false flag operation in which Japanese infantrymen detonated dynamite on a railroad track and blamed Chinese dissidents, using it as pretext to invade Manchuria. The second song, “Split Apart by Five Chariots,” is significantly less serious. It’s about Lao Ai, a 3rd century BC consort to the Queen Dowager Zhao, who was dismembered and killed after it was discovered that his purported castration never happened. Its chorus goes like this: “Split apart/ Giant cock/ Split apart for his giant cock.” This is still death metal, after all.
“When it comes to Chinese pop culture or fantasy, wuxia novels, that kind of stuff, I already had a prior interest in them. When it comes to history, I’m not a huge history buff,” Lee admits. “I had to start doing research, and I was thinking, ‘Okay, I want to write some brutal war stuff, but I don’t want to do that same World War II thing that literally everyone has been doing for the last 30 years.'” It feels safe to say that the execution of an imposter eunuch from the Warring States Period qualifies.
Jubian is the first full-band album for Ripped To Shreds, which Lee originally conceived as a solo project. (“I’m actually within driving distance of these guys,” he remarks, unlike the Taiwan-based lineup that he’s also gigged with.) He’s joined by drummer Brian Do, as well as bassist Ryan (just Ryan) from the Oakland hardcore band Doomsday. Their presence helped hone Jubian into the devastating machine that it is. Having other people around to jam out the songs with meant Lee was able to focus more intently on his guitar parts. It also meant he knew when a song was getting too complicated for its own good. Where earlier Ripped To Shreds songs were written strictly to be recorded, Lee conceived Jubian for the live stage. Mostly, anyway.
“The long song on this record…” Lee sighs — referring to the 10-and-a-half minute “In Solitude – Sun Moon Holy Cult Pt. 3” — “we’re never gonna play that because there’s too many parts. It’s just a nightmare. I would say the biggest thing is that I know I write things sometimes into odd groupings. Or the number of times that a riff repeats is a little off-kilter. But when I write it the first time, it makes sense to me. One example would be ‘Eight Immortals Feast,’ off the second album. We tried to learn it together for the 2020 shows, and we were like, ‘We can’t count this, we keep getting lost.’ But we’re trying again. We’re going to play it next week.”
Another standout track is “Race Traitor,” which sees Lee channeling the muscular melodic death metal of the cult Japanese band Intestine Baalism. Going into the album, he’d issued himself a challenge to write the first Ripped To Shreds melodeath song. He came back with one of his finest tunes to date. Lee says “Race Traitor” is about “the experience of existing as a minority in a country where any action is seen as representative of their whole race,” and his frustration with that experience bursts through in the song.
“Race Traitor” is the only honest-to-goodness melodic death metal song on Jubian, but that distinction gets blurry. This is an album chock full of memorable melodies. Lee’s playing has always tended toward forthright melodic expression, and his work outside of Ripped To Shreds has emphasized that even more in recent years. Last December, he released an instrumental solo album under the name Heavy Metal Shrapnel, a reference to the shred-heavy roster of Shrapnel Records. Earlier this year, he played all the lead guitar parts on Pharmacist’s Flourishing Extremities On Unspoiled Mental Grounds, an album that paid impressive homage to Carcass’ game-changing Necroticism LP. In both of those contexts, Lee’s guitar stood front and center, the way a lead singer typically would. That carries over into Jubian.
“Obviously, I love guitar solos, so I usually am looking for some sort of excuse to put a guitar solo in any song,” Lee says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Ripped To Shreds or Houkago Grind Time or any of my other projects, I’m looking for an excuse to put a solo in there. When I started playing guitar, I loved solos. Fifteen, 16 years later, I still love solos. That’s all it comes down to.”
That’s not to say Jubian is a 36-minute guitar solo. In fact, some of the album’s most memorable bursts of lead guitar don’t even come in solo form. Lee has become adept at sneaking them in around the edges and margins of the songs. “There’s more melodic leads on the new record, but there’s actually fewer guitar solo guitar solos on the new one,” he concurs. “When I try to come up with this stuff, I’m usually thinking of a whole part at once, and if I want a guitar solo somewhere, I think, ‘I want to put a guitar solo here, so I need to build up to it.’ I feel like on this new record, I didn’t find that many places where it was necessarily appropriate to have a guitar solo.”
That intuition for following a song wherever it wants to go led Lee and his bandmates to write what is easily the best Ripped To Shreds album yet. Jubian is the band’s Relapse debut, after years working with smaller labels, and already, it feels like they’ve gone up a level. That comes as no surprise to Lee.
“I do consciously try to outdo myself on each record,” he says. “I always want to feel like I am creating something that is more sick, more awesome than the last one.”
劇變 (Jubian) is out 10/14 on Relapse.