RUMORS OF THEIR DEMISE have been greatly exaggerated.
Silencing the headstone-etchers once and for all, Florida’s Alter Bridge have reaffirmed their commitment to muscular, arena-friendly rock with Fortress, their fourth studio release and their first real sign of life for eighteen months. But what a resurrection. Within the first week, the album stormed the charts and easily commandeered the number one slot on the iTunes Rock Album’s chart. Not too shabby considering that many of their own fans had expected an obituary before a new album.
Rewind eighteen months and Alter Bridge’s prognosis offered little in the way of encouragement. Frontman Myles Kennedy had accepted the gig as full-time vocalist in the Slash’s new band, committing to a relentless touring schedule and eventually releasing Apocalyptic Love, the legendary guitarist’s blistering sophomore outing.
Meanwhile, Alter Bridge guitarist Mark Tremonti, still a full-time member of Creed, caught rock audiences flat-footed with the release of his first solo album, All I Was, a jackhammered and marauding celebration of his heavy metal roots.
2012 additionally saw Tremonti, bassist Brian Marshall and drummer Scott Phillips—also full-time members of Creed—embark on a high-profile tour with that band, and not to be outdone, Phillips also hooked up with his own side project with members of Sevendust and Submersed.
Consequently, reports that Alter Bridge had convened in early 2013 to begin work on a fourth studio album generated near-hysteria in the AB ranks, but outside of those fans, others speculated that perhaps the sun had already set on the band’s relevance. After all, with the four musicians all committed to other critically and commercially successful projects, where was the incentive to resurrect Alter Bridge?
Fortress has levied a thunderous response as the band’s heaviest album to date- a sweeping blizzard of precision riffage and unhinged rhythmic fury, coursing beneath the brawny vocals of Myles Kennedy. Anything but a rehash of their tried and true formula, Alter Bridge’s latest salvo has revealed their ambitions to be as expansive as their enthralling new sound.
As the band prepares for a fall campaign through Europe, we caught up with Myles to discuss the new album and the future of Alter Bridge.
In the past couple of years, you’ve released a remarkably successful album with Slash, you guys have toured almost the entire planet, and then you wrote and recorded the new Alter Bridge record. How would you describe the past year?
(laughs) In one word, “nonstop.” Yeah, it’s been essentially living to make music and then getting to play. I’m certainly not complaining, but it’s definitely a commitment—you’re very aware that you’re not going to have a lot of downtime when you jump into two bands and you commit to making records and touring. So I’m definitely collecting a lot of frequent flyer miles, which is nice.
With all the time you’ve spent with Slash, was there ever any sense that Alter Bridge might be done?
No. I know people were concerned about that, but it was something that didn’t cross my mind because number one, the fans would never let that happen—our fan base is so loyal and passionate about this band that I knew that was not an option—but also, we’ve been a band now for almost ten years and we’ve gone through a lot together. We just need to make music. We need to keep doing this.
So when would you say that the new album started to take shape?
I’d say January (2013). Mark and I had been putting our ideas together separately all last year, and we talked in the fall about getting together in January and putting those ideas together and starting to get the arrangements ready. So we did that for just a few weeks. It wasn’t a really long process. This record came together pretty quickly in that respect, and we started pre-production in early spring with Elvis (producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette), and then we started recording.
Well, we knew from a song and arrangement standpoint that we wanted to try different things and make it unpredictable, because after making three records together, and especially after making Blackbird and AB III, we started to utilize a certain formula and a certain approach to a lot of the material, so we wanted to step away from some of that. As far as sonically, I think that because Elvis was going to be mixing it as well, I think that in the back of his mind, he was very aware of approaching things a bit differently. This is the first record we’ve had to not just produce but also mix, so there were definitely some changes that we were very cognizant of in that respect.
Where might your core fans hear some of these differences in Fortress?
I think the biggest shift is probably in the arrangements because I think the past, we had followed a certain approach. I guess not just in the arrangements, but in some of the chord progressions that we would use for choruses or for bridges, and so with this record, if we’ve been there and done that in the past, then we really tried to shy away from it. Now that’s not to say that we didn’t still utilize some of our old approaches, because some of that is very Alter Bridge and very much a part of what we do. We didn’t want to alienate fans at the same time; we didn’t want to make a record where there was nothing that they could relate to from the past. It’s a very fine line and it’s definitely a balance that you’re always aware of.
It sounds substantially heavier than your previous material. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
Absolutely, and we didn’t necessarily set out to make the heaviest record that we’d made as a band, but I just think that for whatever reason, Mark and I had stockpiled a lot of ideas that were just heavier, and they were the ideas that we all seemed to like the best. We also knew that the heavier side of Alter Bridge was something that a lot of the fans had really embraced and seemed to like, so we weren’t afraid of it. That was the nice thing. We didn’t have to ask, “Well, is this going to be too heavy for our fan base?” because we knew that our fan base really did embrace that.
I think to some degree. I know that for me, from all the touring I’ve done with Slash and making records, I’m learning more and more about my voice and learning how to understand what my instrument does best, so that’s a process that hopefully I’m always going to be learning. Whereas with Mark, he loves really heavy stuff. When he was a kid, he was listening to a lot of Slayer and Celtic Frost and so that’s something that’s just in his blood. For me, on the heavy side of things, I was definitely absorbing and listening to more bands than I had listened to in the past that were heavier. I do have pretty eclectic tastes and I love so many different genres of music and last year I was spending a fair amount of time on the road, listening to bands like Gojira and Mastodon and so I think that some of that was coming out in my playing as well.
You’ve been at this now for quite some time. How would you say that your personal songwriting process has evolved over the years?
I think that it’s evolved in the sense that I don’t over-analyze as much as I used to, and I don’t stress out as much as I used to—I try to really stay in the moment and get comfortable stepping away from it and coming back to listen with fresh ears and not trying to tweak it too much—trying to keep that initial spark that made the song so special in the first place. I think that in the past, I’m so obsessive and I’m such a perfectionist, that those qualities had the potential to become an Achilles heel of sorts. I’m learning to lighten up and just go with the flow more now than I had in the past.
Looking back at the process of recording Fortress, was there one moment that stands out as particularly important or gratifying?
There were a few moments like that when we made that record. I think when we were all sitting in the room together, putting the first track together—”Cry of Achilles”—that was a very special moment because we felt like we were really capturing something that we knew we were going to be proud of at the end of the day. Another special moment was when we were working on “Calm the Fire;” Elvis and I were sitting in the studio putting the intro together and we really felt like it was something exciting and different that we hadn’t tried in the past. When you stumble into those moments, when you feel like you’re breaking new ground, those are pretty precious moments, because if you allow yourself to take chances and you feel that it’s going to turn out strong in the end, then it’s a really great feeling.
With all of the time that you’re traveling and working, do you find time to read?
Not as much as I have in the past. I’ve kind of started slacking with my reading… (laughing) Which really bums me out. I definitely want to dig back into that and get my reading chops back.
So what inspires you as an artist?
Life. I think just looking around and seeing what’s happening around me, whether it’s my own personal existence or what’s happening to my family and friends—people I care about—or just the world at large, and things that are frustrating me. I think that on Fortress, overall, there are certain themes that run throughout and there are a lot of moments where lyrically I’m expressing discontent with this, that or the other. And that’s the beauty of being a songwriter, you get to express yourself and you get to work through those things. If someone asked me to be on one of those television shows where you talk about your political ideas or philosophies, or your world views, I wouldn’t be good at that. I’m not good in that environment, but as a songwriter, you can step back and say what you need to say and get things off your chest and express yourself, so feel very lucky that I get to do that.
Would you say that you’d be uncomfortable expressing your political ideas because you prefer to keep those private or because you don’t feel that it serves you as an artist to get into that area?
Well, I think for me, maybe a little bit of both, but also I just feel that I just don’t have that gift of articulating how I feel with words in real time like that. I’m not that guy. Some people are hard-wired for that and they do it splendidly, but I don’t; I have to step back and really think about things and take my time thinking about how I want to articulate my ideas. I’ll watch some of these shows, like Real Time with Bill Maher, and he’ll have people on there that will make me sit back and think, “Wow, they’re really great at expressing their political views or their world views.” That stuff really impresses me how some people have that gift.
It’s a heavy burden to be speaking on that kind of platform.
Absolutely. I’d be fucking terrified!
There’s always been a fair amount of scuttlebutt about your solo album. Is that still in the works and if so, where does it stand?
Well, I hope so. I actually was back in New York a few weeks ago with the person who I was working on that record with, and we were just listening to the tracks and where we are, and I came to the conclusion that it needs more work and it needs more songs. Ultimately, the hardest part about that is just finding time to get it done and to release it. When you’re playing in two bands, you do a lot of touring and unless I clone myself, I’d have a tough time getting it out anytime soon.
So Fortress is on the digital shelves now–what’s next for Alter Bridge?
We actually head to Europe next week for a month long tour and we’re going to try to put some US dates together for early next year, then we’ve got Australia. So the next six months is just tour, tour, tour. We’ll probably, hopefully, hit some marks that we haven’t hit in the past and just get our music out all over the world to as many fans as we can.