Year Of The Knife’s Year Of Triumph And Tragedy

Cameron Nunez

Year Of The Knife’s Year Of Triumph And Tragedy

Cameron Nunez

The Delaware metallic hardcore band on their devastating van crash, the dizzying rise that preceded it, and how they leveled up their sound on new album No Love Lost

This past June was shaping up to be a typical month for Delaware metallic hardcore wreckers Year Of The Knife — which is to say it was busy as hell. They’d just returned home from a May weekender in New England supporting the Acacia Strain, which itself came on the heels of a month-long run in Europe with Unearth and Misery Index. Before that, they’d done a few stray headliners and a series of record release shows for Sanguisugabogg’s Homicidal Ecstasy. June began with a sold-out preshow for Detroit’s enormous Tied Down festival, and mid-month, they hit the road with Texas death metal rising stars Creeping Death and Fleshrot. According to data, Year Of The Knife were on pace to shatter their personal record for most shows in a year by July.

The shows were electric, too. Frontwoman Madi Watkins, who slid over from bass in 2022 after the departure of former singer Tyler Mullen, had really started to come into her own as a vocalist and a performer. Hardcore scene documentarian hate5six shot the band’s Tied Down set, and the video captures them at their menacing, sinewy best. Madi stalks the ground-level stage with fevered intensity, commanding the attention of wallflowers and spin-kickers alike while the rest of the band churns in lockstep behind her.

That lineup – Madi, her husband Brandon Watkins on bass, and twins Aaron and Andy Kisielewski on guitar and drums respectively – was sharpening into one of the most imposing units in heavy music. Tied Down drew a hardcore crowd, but Year Of The Knife are a true crossover act; they’ve toured with at least as many death metal bands as punk and hardcore ones. That June run with Creeping Death was another chance to flex for mixed groups of heshers and hardcore kids. For the first couple weeks of the tour, everything seemed to be coming up Year Of The Knife.

“The tour started in Texas and made its way up the coast, up to the Northwest, which we haven’t been to since 2018. It was also around the same time as our birthday,” Aaron says. “I was like, ‘Man, this is awesome. It feels so good.’ I was thinking to myself – not that I was anticipating anything bad happening to us – but I was like, ‘Man, this is going a little too good.’ And then, yeah, obviously that happened.”

The that that happened has been well-documented by now. On June 28, while driving from Salt Lake City to Colorado Springs, the band’s tour van crashed into an 18-wheeler. Aaron broke his femur. Andy shattered both ankles. Brandon was badly concussed. Madi had it worst, suffering a laundry list of broken bones and, more worryingly, severe brain trauma. She was placed in a medically induced coma. The van – also Madi and Brandon’s only personal vehicle – was totaled. Year Of The Knife canceled everything they had coming up — the rest of the Creeping Death tour, a run of headline dates in July, and the planned rollout campaign for their new album, No Love Lost.

“I was only in the hospital for five days out there, but even by the time I got home, it took me over a month to really process what happened,” Andy says. “When I woke up in the hospital, I knew I had gotten in an accident, and I hurt myself. But it took months and months to be like, ‘Oh, this is real.'”

“I think I was the only one that actually remembered everything from the moment it happened, just the whole process going to the hospital and everything,” Aaron adds. “Andy and Brandon [and Madi], they were all out of it.”

Year Of The Knife’s seemingly unstoppable ascent had been halted, but in the hazy aftermath of the crash, nobody was thinking much about the band. “I was more so just focusing on myself,” Aaron recalls. “It was obviously a bummer, because then everything kind of came to a screeching halt. But even over the past few months, I never really found myself getting too upset about it, because music is always gonna be there, and it’s gonna be there when we come back.”

“It’s really helped that I’ve just been taking it day by day,” Andy echoes. “When you’re looking forward like, ‘I can’t wait until I’m able to walk again,’ or ‘I can’t wait ’til we’re able to play music again,’ then it just makes things so much slower.”

One bright spot of those harrowing early days was the GoFundMe that was quickly set up on the band’s behalf. It would be an exaggeration to say it solved their problems or even did much to ease their pain – Madi was still unconscious and facing an uncertain prognosis at the time – but the immediate pressures of medical bills felt a lot less threatening.

“Brandon came into my room, and he was like, ‘They set up a GoFundMe,'” Aaron remembers. “I was like, ‘Ah, I figured someone might do that.’ And he was like, ‘It’s at $80,000.’ I was like, ‘What? Are you serious?’ It was like a day, only 24 hours since it got posted. I could’ve never anticipated that much support to come in in such a short amount of time. That was an exhilarating feeling.”

Metal and hardcore scenes like to boast about how community-minded they are. You’ve probably heard a singer say something onstage about how we’re all one big family. Reality doesn’t always rise to meet that ideal. Punks are just human beings, after all, and in-fighting, backbiting, and gatekeeping tend to poison movements, no matter how feel-good they start out. During Year Of The Knife’s convalescence, the current iterations of the metal and hardcore scenes had the chance to show up for one of their own. They didn’t blow it. The band’s GoFundMe has raised over a quarter of a million dollars from nearly 6,000 contributors.

“I was just scrolling through like, ‘What? That person?” Aaron says. Off the top of their heads, the brothers mentioned that members of Fall Out Boy, Goatwhore, Killswitch Engage, and Biohazard have shared the fundraiser. Turnstile, their good friends and hardcore-scene contemporaries, spread the word to their half a million followers. The money kept the bills from piling up, and it kept family members in an Airbnb in Utah after Madi regained consciousness and began months of grueling rehab. The situation, so precarious days before, started to stabilize. Eventually, it became time to talk about music again. That started with the conversation around whether Year Of The Knife would even continue.

“There was a thought of [breaking up] initially, because obviously, [we prioritized] our health over everything,” Andy says. “But I had thought, with the state that Madi was in, if she can’t do it ever again, then we’re just not gonna be a band anymore. And I was content with that.”

“At this point, it’s definitely looking a lot better,” Aaron says. “Madi’s doing really good in recovery. With brain injuries, it’s impossible to tell when it’s gonna improve. It could be sooner than we all think. That’s definitely a good thing. But for a second, I was like, ‘This could be the end of this band.'”

As Aaron notes, recovery from brain injuries can be confoundingly, frustratingly nonlinear. One good day can be followed by a series of bad ones. But given that caveat, Madi’s improvement has been exponential, especially since she returned to the East Coast from Utah at the beginning of October. Brandon has been documenting her recovery on social media, sharing earlier this week that she went up and down a staircase by herself in physical therapy. It’s been genuinely life-affirming to watch Madi enjoy the rescheduled rollout of No Love Lost, her first full-length as Year Of The Knife’s lead vocalist. Originally slated for the beginning of September, the album will now be released by Pure Noise Records this Friday. (The label will also take the borderline unprecedented step of giving 100% of proceeds to the band.)

“That was definitely a tough decision to make at first, because we were like, ‘We don’t know if or when we’re gonna come back,'” Andy says. “So putting out this thing that we put so much work into, we were worried that it’ll flop or something.”

That seems unlikely. The response to the album’s pre-release singles has been rapturous, and for good reason. Everything that rules about Year Of The Knife’s 2020 debut, Internal Incarceration, rules even harder on No Love Lost. It’s leaner, clocking in at around 22 minutes to Incarceration’s 31. It’s also meaner. Every tough-as-nails riff, punishing breakdown, and throat-shredding vocal barrage feels engineered to set off a bomb in the pit of a sweaty DIY space. February’s killer Dust To Dust EP provided a hint of what the new, Madi-fronted version of Year Of The Knife could be. No Love Lost delivers on all of its tantalizing promise. The band teamed back up with Internal Incarceration producer and Converge guitarist Kurt Ballou, whom the Kisielewskis credit for bringing out the best in them.

“He’s really good at making bands sound like themselves, and I think our record sounds the most like Year Of The Knife it possibly could,” Aaron says. “It sounds like us live. From the practice room to the record, it’s spot-on. I think he couldn’t have done a better job with that.”

Madi is a major key for why No Love Lost works as well as it does. The contrast between the band’s detuned mayhem and her high-register shrieks is stark, and while Mullen was a gifted hardcore vocalist in his own right, Madi is a hand-in-glove fit for these songs. She was never even supposed to be a singer; Mullen didn’t get his passport renewed in time for a European run last year, and she stepped in at the last minute. (“She managed to bang out a whole three-week Euro tour without losing her voice once,” Aaron beams. “It’s amazing. I don’t understand.”) Already, it’s impossible to imagine Year Of The Knife without her venom-drenched voice.

The death metal and grind bands they’ve shared so many stages with rubbed off on the album, too. No Love Lost is still probably best understood as a hardcore record, but it’s a hardcore record with an extensive collection of faded Cannibal Corpse longsleeves. It’s easy to hear why Year Of The Knife are at home on such a wide variety of bills. A couple of those allies pop up on the record. Sanguisugabogg’s Devin Swank lends his guttural, glass-gargling roar to “Wish,” while Full Of Hell frontman Dylan Walker jumps on the 45-second goregrind fastball “Last Laugh.”

“I feel like they’re two of the most perfect people to have, because both of those bands have always existed to bridge the gap between hardcore and death metal,” Andy says. “They exist as a death metal band or a grind band, but they still exist in the hardcore scene, which I feel like we are starting to do now, too.”

“All these fans are accepting of us, even though we don’t really sound like the bands that we’re playing with,” Aaron adds. “It helps people discover music that they’ve probably never listened to before. Personally, I think it’s really cool when bands wear their influence on their sleeves, like literally. I try to push that out there, even if it’s just getting onstage wearing a shirt of a band, and someone’s like, ‘Wait, I’ve never heard that band before.’ And maybe they go check it out, and they’re like, ‘Oh, this kind of sounds like that one Year Of The Knife song.'”

With the worst of their injuries behind them and an album full of new songs to debut live, the Kisielewski brothers are eager to get back onstage. They know it won’t be easy, and they acknowledge that Madi’s health situation is a lot different than theirs. (She wasn’t made available for comment, and Brandon couldn’t make it to our interview.) But they say she wants to get back out there, too.

“We were talking about our death metal band, Damnations Domain, because before we left for our Creeping Death tour, we were working on new music,” Aaron says. “We got back, and we were like, ‘Let’s get back to it.’ And Madi was like, ‘Yeah, just let me know. Teach me the bass parts.’ And we had to be like, ‘Alright, slow down.’ She’s definitely very eager to get back to just playing music in general.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I sheepishly asked Andy and Aaron if they had any trepidation about getting back in a tour van after what happened in June. “I’m definitely not scared of it,” Aaron immediately replied. That answer didn’t surprise me in the slightest. Earlier in the interview, he had told me that he’s an eternal optimist, and that his disposition had helped him weather the worst of his injuries and the band’s unenviable situation.

“I feel like in a weird way, it helps that our whole accident didn’t feel real,” Andy said. “Getting into a car after the fact, I’m not like, ‘Oh, this is scary.'”

“Whenever we come back, we’re just gonna pick back up right where we left off,” Aaron added. “We’re just gonna go full-swing. We were planning on doing music videos and all that, touring, and whenever we feel ready to go back to it, we’re just gonna get the ball rolling and get right back on it. People, I would hope, will still be there to support it. I’m sure they will.”

No Love Lost is out 10/27 on Pure Noise.

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