Last year's Catharsis EP was a solid return to form for reunited Poughkeepsie, NY metalcore act Drowning Room, but holy shit: Monument, their new seven-song, 22-minute follow-up, is an absolute statement that the band has not lost a single step. Monument combines four brand new tracks plus three rarities from Drowning Room's initial run in the '90s—"Bring Goliath Down" was originally released on a split 7" with Veil in 1996, while "Angelica" and "Bishop Takes Pawn" first appeared on the group's final CD-R demo back in 1998—and listening to the compositions back-to-back is a seamless experience, so you'd never know the difference.
Opener "Zero Sum Game" peppers its groove with caustic and angular stabs of guitar, the vocals rooted in their quickly recognizable style of tortured roars for the bulk of the piece. "Trace Decay" fuses chugging rhythms with post-hardcore dissonance, while primarily focusing on the vocals' ghoulish singing delivery—even bringing in some subtle vocal harmonies for added effect. The straightforward attack of "Ruiner" ups the main tempo to a thrashy gallop while still retaining harsher chord phrasings aplenty, and even touches on the slightest hint of a traditional hardcore vibe with some of its backup vocal shouts. And the surprisingly melodic surges of "In Absentia" flow between Helmet-like start/stop arrangements and a heavy, '90s style of emo.
They've definitely stepped it up across the board. Compared to Catharsis, the writing is more diverse and hits harder, the production's a bit beefier, and Monument quite nicely holds its own with the recently reissued True Love Always full-length. I seriously started getting chills during my first listen. It's just so cool to see an underappreciated band like Drowning Room come back and recapture exactly what they always had, while still pushing into new territory and refusing to simply retread the past.
Monument is now available for pre-order on CD; or digitally through Bandcamp, Spotify, iTunes/Apple Music, and Google Play. I'm excited and honored to have the opportunity to premiere the entire EP below, followed by an informative interview with Drowning Room vocalist Sean Mesler:
Alright, so Drowning Room had reunited for a number of one-off shows here and there since the '90s, but it wasn't until you moved back to the east coast that things really picked up in 2016 and new recordings started poppin' off, etc. Given that that was damn near two decades after the band's initial breakup, how did it all come back together?
For me, I missed creating heavy music. It's just in my nature. I've never stopped writing lyrics, having ideas, etc. We had talked about writing new music a lot a few years before I moved back, but it wasn't until I was actually back that we could make it happen. After Drowning Room's initial breakup in I believe 1998, all of us except Karl [Krebs, guitar] went on to do new bands, but I hadn't done anything since the early-2000s with a band called Red Devil Suit. Forming a new band is a headache of finding people you can work with not only creatively, but click on a personal level. Drowning Room was pretty much always Karl, Greg [Nazak, bass], Shane [Chikeles, drums], and myself. We had a drummer before and after Shane—a really good drummer after Shane—but we would all agree that the strongest lineup in terms of work ethic was the four of us.
So, we got together, wrote Catharsis, and enjoyed the direction we were going in, so we kept going. We added Matt [Pietrogallo] to the band because I've always wanted a second guitarist to thicken the sound, but we just never pulled the trigger when it came to writing. Then Greg wrote the chorus to "Trace Decay" and it needed a second guitarist. Matt came on board and clicked. He adds a new dynamic to our sound that you'll hear on Monument.
Before we break away from the '90s, I've gotta ask one of my staple questions here. I always have a huge soft spot for bands—especially from that era—who didn't get the attention they deserved. Drowning Room being one of those bands in my opinion, I'm curious if you recall some of your peers from "back in the day" that you—as a fan—would continue to recommend as unsung gems that listeners should investigate?
I would say Sum of All Fears, from Connecticut. Great band. Great bunch of guys. For our tour, I wanted to go out on the road with them but their drummer, Rob, was sick with Hodgkin's and couldn't do it, so Shane did double duty playing for both Sum of All Fears and Drowning Room. They really should have blown up. Sons of Abraham is another one. It was Beck and Josh from Glassjaw's side project. Really great stuff. Termites in His Smile is one of the very best examples of the genre, and the way they handled subject matter—both common and uncommon—was truly unique. Lament never really got their due, either. They were basically Maximum Penalty when Jim [Williams, vocals] went away. We actually got our band name from their 7". Lastly, I would say Demonspeed. I absolutely loved that band. For the uninitiated, they were a metal swing band that sang about murder and serial killers. If anyone can find their Kill, Kill, Kill record, it's fantastic.
Diving into the new tunes, "Zero Sum Game," has a little more of a caustic and angular aesthetic, and is lyrically bleak. I'm always a sucker for lines like, "Giving a shit is his biggest sin."
A bit of trivia: that's the first time I've used profanity in our lyrics. It's actually the first song we wrote after Catharsis. We were consciously trying to bring new elements to our material, so Greg and Karl came up with the verse and chorus respectively and I came up with the intro drum part and middle break. I had been listening to a lot of The Dillinger Escape Plan at the time, so that mid-section is them filtered through Drowning Room. Shane was pretty busy with work, so a lot of the new material was written with me on drums—coming up with the beats and rhythms and such on a really basic level—and then Shane gets on that seat and just works his insane magic to make things better than I had ever conceived.
Lyrically, that was the last song I wrote before we recorded. In fact, I finished the lyrics the day I recorded my tracks. I had the title for a while, but I just couldn't wrap my head around what I wanted to sing about. I wanted lyrics that went with the music, and then that day it just clicked. It's definitely bleak, but I think all of my lyrics are. "Zero Sum Game" in particular is about how being happy is temporary, and as much as I hate to admit it, I've spent more time being miserable than being happy or content. However, that particular line is basically me saying, "No matter how terrible things get, I'll always care and want them to get better."
Another song that really stands out is "In Absentia," which applies the Drowning Room aesthetic to sort of a surging post-hardcore feel and some heavy, emo-esque melodic attributes.
Thanks. If I'm being honest, that's my favorite song on the record—sonically, lyrically—I'm really proud of how that turned out. It was the last song we wrote for Monument. It's so unique to the record and has a nice dynamic shift midway through that carries through the rest of the song. If Monument had a title track, that would be it. A lot of where I came up with the cover concept came from that song. It's probably the most I've ever exposed myself. Drowning Room has always had "love" songs, but this is me laid bare. My last relationship lasted for six-and-a-half years, and I would have given my life for her. Of course, in retrospect, that would have been a colossally stupid thing to do, but it's how I felt during the tumult that is love.
Some of Monument's material actually dates back to Drowning Room's final late-'90s recordings, which is awesome. What drove the decision to dig into the archives now as opposed to with last year's Catharsis EP?
"Bring Goliath Down" dates back further than that. It was actually recorded during The Divinity Syndrome 7" session and released on a split [with Veil] for Moo Cow Records [in 1996]. We always liked the meat of the song, but not the middle break. Then Karl had the idea to add the middle break we had done in "Divider," a song from The Divinity Syndrome 7" that we hadn't played pretty much since it was released in 1996. It fit perfectly, so we decided to record this new version so we can reintroduce it to the world.
For Catharsis, we wanted to make a statement that we were writing new music—that we weren't going to rest on what little laurels we had, and that we were going to treat it like we are a new band. With Monument, we just wanted to offer more than four songs, so we looked at what we had, what would fit well with the direction we are going in and had the kind of songwriting we like, and—ultimately—what was still relevant lyrically. Suicide, which is the theme of "Angelica," is unfortunately never going away; and neither is the fanaticism of organized religion, so we brought back "Bishop Takes Pawn." I feel like that song really speaks to what is going on today, even more so than it did when we originally wrote it. Also, the recording we did for those songs was with a different drummer, Anthony [Realbuto], whom I think absolutely killed it, but we never really released it beyond a CD-R demo. We figured, "Let's make this new record more epic by adding old with the new."
It's not easy for a band to come back after such a long break without "missing a step," so to speak, but it really feels like Drowning Room has picked up right where you left off—though still exploring new elements as opposed to simply recreating the past. How would you characterize this process? For example, I think I read that the songwriting is now more of a group effort, right?
For me, it's simple: 20 years is a long time for a human being. A lot can and will happen. You'll gain new perspectives from all sides and in all facets of who you are, and that includes musically. We already had a great foundation as friends and collaborators, but taking where we have all gone with our tastes and experiences and putting that into the music is going to create something more meaningful. So, taking our shared love of heavy music, our approach to songwriting, and adding in new elements that have grown and matured will make some interesting music.
For example, I've recently become a huge fan of Deftones. Yes, I finally like a band that has existed for 20 years, but with that I've gleaned ideas for the production of Monument. You'll find Monument runs the gamut from some straightforward crossover like "Ruiner" to my doo-wop melody in "In Absentia" and all in between. We've also written songs in drop D for the first time ever.
When we write, it's really as simple as someone coming into rehearsal with a riff. Then we will mess around with beats and ideas for how that will flow together. I'm pretty good at arrangements, so I can fit pieces together to make something cohesive and dynamic. For "In Absentia," Karl had the first two parts of the song, then Matt added the transitions that helped the parts flow together, and then Greg played this single-string idea that goes from the low-end to a quick higher-end riff. I worked with Karl on the picking pattern, and then Shane brought it all together with the improvements to the drums and such.
"Ruiner" was Karl. Through and through. That man loves him some thrash. I came up with the idea on how to start it and how to end it, but those riffs are all Karl. It's just so punishing and raw that there really wasn't much any of us could or would do to expand on it.
I also really respect that the band is sort of on its own doing its own thing at its own pace—especially given the fact that Drowning Room was pretty underappreciated even back in the day, so it's not like you're coming back into the arms of a lot of hype or anything. That fact really speaks to the authenticity of your creative spark.
Thank you. We appreciate that. Yes, none of us are under any delusion that we are coming back with fanfare. We really do just enjoy creating music together and enjoy the music we've been creating. If this would have felt like we were doing the same thing as we were 20 years ago, I wouldn't bother. I can't speak for anyone else in the band, but I know that my heart wouldn't be into it. And to expand on what I said earlier, doing just reunion shows, it's tough because I enjoy what we created, but as a singer my head and heart aren't even remotely in the same space that they were when those songs were written. So, singing some of those songs that were about a very specific moment or experience in my life just doesn't mean the same—or much of anything—to me where I am today.
Drowning Room was regionally popular, but we didn't tour save for the east coast tour we did to support True Love Always, and the reality is that most of the people that loved us and would come see us 20 years ago are now older, married, have kids, [or are] physically broken down from the incredibly stupid things we put our bodies through in the name of a "good time." So, we can't expect those people to support us, and I don't feel like trying to win new fans by playing all old songs. Some things have a time and a place.
Did your feelings about some of the old material and/or your desire to move forward give you any hesitation toward the remastered reissue of True Love Always that the band released earlier this year? I was so glad you all did that, because to this day I've never seen a copy of the original CD.
Hardly anyone did. I've made a lot of mistakes with Drowning Room, but I don't think any was bigger or had a more devastating impact on the band at the time than convincing everyone to go with Rhythm Den. No disrespect intended, because I truly believe their heart was in the right place, but they had no experience with running a label. If I could do it again, we would have held off a little while longer and went back to Trip Machine. Chris [Weinblad, founder of Trip Machine Laboratories] is a grumpy bastard, but that guy gets his releases out there.
There wasn't much hesitation. I know we want to treat the band like we're new, but at the same time we do have some kind of legacy. We were never happy with how it originally turned out, so we had the opportunity for Shane to remaster it and we decided to re-release it with new artwork and such.
That's something else I have to give you guys credit for, is actually producing physical releases for these new EPs—as well as the True Love Always reissue. A lot of bands wouldn't bother to do that in this day and age, but as a grumpy old man who still loves CDs, I'm quite appreciative of it...
I, too, am a grumpy old man luddite and wanted to have a physical release. We would love to do vinyl, but it's costly and we would only be doing it to have a record. But, hey, if anyone with a label wants to pick up the vinyl versions of our releases, we wouldn't say no. We're all cavemen who still like CDs. Maybe we're behind the times in terms of that, but it is what it is. You don't get lyrics with digital-only releases, and I'm huge on having lyrics.
We figured it was the 20th anniversary of the original release, so why not? It's cool for the people that enjoyed us back then, but honestly—between the new release and Catharsis—those songs are most likely not going to be appearing in our sets going forward.
Speaking of moving forward, do you think there's more to come? To my ears, Monument is even stronger than Catharsis, so once this EP starts to get out there, I sincerely hope that you'll be feeling enough support to maintain...
Thank you! I'm moving back to Los Angeles in October, but we do plan to keep writing and releasing material. We have a lot of pieces of songs that we didn't finish for this record, so we have a good foundation to start from. We've already discussed using technology to make this happen—things like Skype and such—and I will be flying back out to see family and friends and occasionally play shows. I would love for people to enjoy Monument enough to want more from us. I also think it's stronger. I know it's cliché to say it, but I do think it's among the best stuff we've ever created. We all do. We're all super proud of this record and hope that once everyone hears it they'll love it as much as we do.