Interview: Unreal City on Long-Awaited New Full-Length, Cruelty of Heaven

Following last year's excellent Satyr/Sheol 7", Unreal City will finally unleash their eagerly anticipated sophomore full-length—the 10-song Cruelty of Heaven—next month through Closed Casket Activities (pre-order now: U.S. or Europe). Make no mistake, this set of tracks is without question the band's finest output to date—easily one of my favorites of 2020—with expertly-honed songwriting offering a blistering spin on legendary influences such as Integrity and the Cro-Mags delivered with Unreal City's tightest and most potent production/performances to date. Amongst the final albums recorded at the Mars Recording Compound—even featuring guest spots from Aaron Melnick and Blaze Tishko—as well as to feature artwork from ever-brilliant visionary Stephen Kasner (R.I.P.), the reverence for Cleveland runs strong herein. As with the group's past efforts, however, it's far from a carbon copy.

Stream the just-released new single, "Sin in God's Name," below; followed by an interview with vocalist Joe Sanderson and guitarist Rob Orr...

Let's flashback a bit and then work our way up to the present. Rob, I've searched around and can't seem to find any record of you having spoken about parting ways with Integrity years ago. What's the general story there?

Rob: It's been a number of years now. My tenure with the band ended in 2014 when the Melnick brothers played again. They were going to continue on as that lineup, but it wasn't meant to be. We ended [that lineup of] the band amicably after the Suicide Black Snake tours. There didn't really seem to be a point to continue on after such a monumental thing happened, and I was content with my accomplishments. It's really hard to keep a lineup together and tight with a demanding schedule like we had, and I was over that aspect as well.

Afterward, you ended up playing in Dead Shall Rise/Gazzan with the Melnicks and Blaze Tishko. What's your point of view on how that experience came and went? You've been in the truly unique position of having performed alongside a number of legendary figures who have impacted your own work...

Rob: So, that whole thing came about from the 2014 Integrity show in Baltimore. I had been rehearsing with Aaron and Lenny on guitar, but played drums for fun one night. Aaron said Mark [Konopka] and I should swap a song at the show, which then also gave Mark his first "guitar god" moment. We had a lot of fun getting ready for the 2014 gig, and with their new project's drummer leaving shortly thereafter, I offered to play with them. I had been missing playing in a band after doing what seemed like a ton of stuff myself musically. It was surreal to have all of these people who were involved in the same thing at different points playing in a different new band down the road. That band is not together, but the record was reworked and released as In Cold Blood's [Legion of Angels] LP. The whole experience was a riot, and opened the door to a lot of new things for me—and them, too, I'm sure. I'm grateful to have been able to work with so many wild and talented people.

Joe, during Unreal City's "downtime," you picked up with Eternal Sleep. Having referred to Unreal City as "under the radar," it's interesting that Eternal Sleep built up some decent momentum more quickly. Do you have any feeling as to why that may have been the case?

Joe: I think Eternal Sleep was able to gain momentum as a band due to the core members being consistent—it's been the same four people since right after the cassette demo came out in 2012—and I think that is fairly unique for a hardcore or metal band in the current age. Also, we toured constantly for almost five straight years and had an incredible label in Closed Casket Activities release our LP and help us get on better tours and reach more people.

Rob, what's the status of your black metal project, Dødsleie? Is that turning out to have been a one-off outing, or...?

Rob: Dødsleie is in fact dead, but it never was alive to begin with. The group has a purpose, and when it's needed, it happens. I find it really hard to make cold, raw shit and not suffer for it. There's new music being developed amidst a faction torn in decision of how cold it needs to be.

Before we get on track with Unreal City, back in May the two of you snuck out there with a very different-sounding new project—Smile Machine—exploring catchy alt.-rock that's subversively dark in terms of its visual/lyrical nods. Where's that all coming from/going?

Joe: Smile Machine started with me writing some songs for fun in that style a couple of years ago. I had no real plan to ever release them, but as I continued to work on them, it became my opinion that they seemed interesting enough to give a decent recording to. So, Rob composed drum arrangements for them and we ended up recording and mixing them over the course of a year or so, slowly piecing it all together. When the quarantine began, they were yet unfinished, so with some time on our hands we decided to finish them over email. I currently have written a handful more songs for it, and I'm sure I'll release them digitally at some point, but for now this will remain a recording project.

It's been over a decade since the last Unreal City full-length, and the band's level of output has been fairly on-again/off-again all along. You've both alluded to it having been sort of a rough road to keep things going and get to this point of being back and ready to come out swinging. Can you elaborate on that "tumultuous tale" a bit?

Rob: For me, a lot of the band's magic had revolved around a few key members and their contributions. It really is hard to keep that sort of thing together when everyone ages and has different commitments. I also am prone to putting other people's involvement above my own in importance, which I've gotten much better at, and things happen more frequently now. I think our little collective had really pushed the boundaries of possibility with being all over the globe to the max. There was a lot of stress to succeed back then, and fortunately we all found that in other ways. There were some fights, cold wars, and disagreements over time. These are things I've always found necessary to make good music. Still, though, the band never broke up, but was mostly dormant for a while. We have always found the necessity to create through this channel. When you have perspective on something, you can really see more clearly and make it better. It's crazy to think now that the band had essentially relocated to California at one point, but never played there during that time. We always felt somewhat cursed in a sinister way, and I think that's because of our method of incorporating all influences—non-musical or otherwise—into the music. Luckily, that sort of knowledge on how to fail led us to success later. So, by taking what we learned afterward in our personal achievements and injecting that back into our group passion, we've found a balance. It's been incredibly fruitful to know failure and try new things.

I don't think I ever had any awareness that the band had relocated to California at any point. When did that take place, what was the driving force behind the move, what happened, etc.?

Rob: We had played there in 2010 and I think being from the east coast, moving there seemed amazing. Everyone had plans to migrate, but we ended up doing it at different times and it just didn't work out. [Unreal City's bassist] Ransom is currently still in Los Angeles.

Cruelty of Heaven was one of the last records tracked at the mighty Mars Recording Compound. I'd imagine that may have been a bittersweet experience. What was it like?

Rob: One of the doors I mentioned opening earlier from jamming with those Cleveland guys would be that to Mars studio. I had pretty much assumed Bill [Korecky] was done except for the random here-or-there passion project. It really was great to work with him in 2017 after sharpening my craft for almost 10 years. I was totally inspired to get into recording after listening to records he had helmed forever. When Unreal City had worked with him in 2007 on analog tape, Bill totally got us and a dream was completed. Later, I was able to help him out with some major technical issues in the studio. That took our working relationship to a personal friendship, and he allowed me to use the studio whenever. That's how Unreal City was able to crank out some stuff in the interim. Mars did finally close after the sale of the Neve console in 2017. We had been tossing around the idea of what to do with our new material. I did a bunch of research checking out new bands, records, and engineers trying to find something else.

Joe and I decided before anything else that we were going to barricade ourselves in the studio and make an album until it was done. We have a habit of rushing stuff due to growing up D.I.Y. and the ever-looming budget constraints. Determined, I called Bill one afternoon and asked if I brought out my studio equipment, could we use the room one last time? I really am not sure why he agreed, but we holed up in there for a few weeks and got it done. I am incredibly grateful for his willingness to teach, assist, and of course for the Urei speakers which amazingly were still in the wall. He is a genius and contributed so much to tracking the guitars while I focused on strictly playing. For a couple of weeks we would work all day and then go hang out in the city (my second home) at night. Our bass player, Ransom, flew in for two days from L.A. amidst work deadlines to play on the album. It was an amazing experience, and I highly suggest to anyone working on an album to try something different and go all-in. The Mars studio is gone, but Bill is active on his new rig working at a mega lifetime goal.

The album sounds phenomenal and also presents the band's strongest songwriting to date. Tight and focused, the material really hones in on the finest aspects of some of your staple influences, delivered with a direct and in-your-face Unreal City spin. Was there any particular approach to the writing or intention behind the growth this time out?

Rob: Thank you so much. I mentioned earlier that we put everything we come into contact with into the band. Inspiration really does come from everywhere for us. I really let the music just happen uninhibited and it all came together. [Our drummer] Jeremy and I hammered the shit flat for months at our practice space. Joe tackles the sequencing, and that guides him on what his role needs to be on each song. We were super mobilized going into the studio, which helped. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the drums, which helped immensely with visualizing the final picture and how to land there. I took the stuff home for a few weeks to get a rough mix together and get the drum tracks built. When we re-entered the studio to mix, it was pretty much done. I have to say, I do love an analog desk, but the recall provided with a DAW [digital audio workstation] made the whole mix seamless, and it's very clearly audible. The influences are very plainly worn on our sleeves. I think it's important to be said that a band is and sounds familiar, but that nothing sounds quite like said band. I have always felt like we were outcasts in most ways, and our music reflects that. I made sure to write songs that were emotionally charged, draining, and riff-oriented. The production style is new for us and makes the music that much heavier. To anyone reading this, try new things and work super hard, it's worth it.

How did Unreal City get hooked up with Closed Casket Activities? Did that just result from the Eternal Sleep connection?

Joe: Yeah, for sure, working with Justin [Louden, Closed Casket Activities founder] on the Eternal Sleep record was a great experience. I think I may have said this in another interview before, but I really appreciate the way he operates and what he does for his bands. I think all the good things the bands who work with him have to say on that score speak volumes. At some point during the production of Cruelty of Heaven, I thought to myself, "I think Justin would really like this," so when it was mixed I sent it to him and luckily I was right and he did like it. I think even if I didn't have such a great working relationship with him already, I would feel that Closed Casket Activities was the perfect fit for this record, so I feel very fortunate that came together.

The solo after the shout-out of "A-Double!" at the end of "Revolutionary Suicide," is that actually Aaron cranking out that explosive burst?

Rob: Yes! It was pretty simple: I just asked. Aaron and I push each other to stay creative. He's the only guy I know that can wake up bright and early after a long night out and head down to the garage unannounced to chisel a bust out of a chunk of stone for leisure. I see that after waking up and think, "Shit, I should stay hungry and be productive today." We are always passing files back and forth of new stuff we're tinkering with in our studios. He came into the studio ready to go and flung his slide like a mortar shell halfway through the solo after finishing with it. Honestly, he's a creative powerhouse and always working on something. He just finished an awesome claymation music video for the last Inmates record, Creatures of the Night, check it out on YouTube!

Blaze also kicked in a solo for "Sin in God's Name." I'm sure it's a similar story, but I have to ask about that one, too!

Rob: I only have a handful of guitarists that I would want to have a guest spot. Luckily, I know two of them personally. It came about naturally as well: just a phone call. The only interesting tech part is that he was forced to play a Kahler over a Floyd Rose. He's now thinking about jumping ship and playing for the other team, and we will gladly take him. Blaze is a great guitar player, and it was an honor to have him and Aaron both play on the record.

All photos by Rachael Fogle Photography.

I've not seen the lyrics, but the early news bits state that, "The whole album is about how modern life becomes a prison." I'd love to hear more about the inspiration or mindset behind that aesthetic, to the degree that you're willing to discuss.

Joe: For me, writing lyrics for Unreal City has always been an exercise in using metaphor—often biblical—to explore what could most likely be characterized as a pretty grim and nihilistic outlook on the world. For this record, I was particularly influenced by a few pieces of art that explored the mindset of imprisoned individuals, and I started to imagine what such a mindset would look like as applied to the outside world. A world, as we've watched, that continues to descend into seemingly endless madness. The lyrics were written before the coronavirus lockdown and long before the murder of George Floyd, but unfortunately the theme seems to resonate more and more. We live in a state where a racist, violent, power-hungry police establishment tramples our rights constantly, and it seems to become easier and easier to visualize the nihilism necessary to survive.

The artwork was created by the inimitable Stephen Kasner—one of his last pieces before he tragically passed away. I don't even know where to begin with that heartbreaking reality...

Rob: Art is amazing. It can take you someplace else. If you don't feel that in looking at it personally, you haven't found what you need: keep searching. We always find that aspect to be super important. Stephen had done the artwork for our first album some time ago. It was soon after we received the finals that he had fallen out of favor with just about everyone. With the original version of Ephemeral Subsistence only coming out on CD, there was quite a bit of unused art we had been sitting on. There was a slight problem with the one piece and I needed to get into contact with him. I knew that he was mostly unreachable, and after failing on every platform, I decided to just write him a letter. I got a phone call randomly one day from him afterward and he was very moved. We then rekindled our friendship and spoke every day up until he passed. He had promised to create a new cover and another piece to round out what we had. Sure enough, I got the artwork and a voicemail declaring its completion. He passed the next day. It was really sad, and I will never fully recover. He was a major influence for me. It's crazy, he had the skull still that he shot for the originals in 2007 and reimagined it for our front cover. I will truly be indebted to his unmatched kindness. We also are incredibly lucky to have Anne Grushecky handling our design needs, and the layout is perfect.

Despite having been titled before the current pandemic situation exploded in the U.S., the album title is eerily prophetic in that "cruelty of heaven" is a phrase from The Decameron describing the Black Death. With Unreal City prepared to hit the ground running and claim your due, releasing an album in the midst of pandemic uncertainty... do you foresee added challenge in finally—and rightfully—surpassing your "under the radar" status?

Rob: I am usually tasked with handling the titling of records. I got the term from Jung. I found it fitting at the time I read it. I'm not sure if Earth is heaven or hell, [nor] if the cruelty comes from above or from humans on the planet itself. There's a tongue-in-cheek irony needed on my end for survival. Life can sometimes snap together so easily, but there's always a catch.

Joe: We had a tour booked in April with Reserving Dirtnaps out of Memphis that was cancelled, and had some other things floating around on the horizon as far as touring that are obviously out now. That's really frustrating, for sure, as it's felt like one missed opportunity after another in the history of this band. However, I remind myself that we are all fortunate to be healthy and that this one is truly beyond our control. There being no party doesn't feel as bad as there being a party you're not invited to. Also, I think this record really is far and away the best thing this band has ever created, and that the music will speak for itself. Perhaps, if we're lucky, folks out there will be paying more attention to the release during this period. When the world turns back on, we'll be there; and if it doesn't turn back on, playing live music won't really be something on my mind.


With a street date of August 21, Cruelty of Heaven is now available for pre-order through Closed Casket Activities on CD or LP (in Europe, order through Evil Greed). Vinyl junkies note that the blue/white "pinwheel" with purple splatter has already sold out, so don't sleep if you'd like to grab one of the remaining copies on pink/white with green splatter. Hear/see more from Unreal City via Bandcamp or Facebook.