“Singing has always intrigued me,” says Alex Erian in the middle of a conversation about Balance, the fourth album by his band Obey The Brave, released in July on the Hell for Breakfast imprint, a subsidiary of Slam Disques. The statement seems odd, since Alex Erian has been OTB’s singer since it was created, in 2012 and was previously the singer for deathcore band Despised Icon starting in 2004.
So what does he actually mean? He means that he’s been pining to escape the sometimes limiting constraints of the role of screamer, so typical in the metalcore universe. According to the current standards—and all things being relative—Balance is Obey The Brave’s most “pop” album, and undoubtedly the one where the frontman uses his voice for more melodic endeavours. Alongside him are axeman Terrence McAuley, drummer Stevie Morotti, and newcomer Ben Landreville on bass.
“I was weary of the reactions that would provoke. I was expecting more hate on the internet, but people were pretty cool,” says Erian, referring to the sometimes virulent attacks that such a move generates in the world of punk or metal, no matter how subtle it may be – because it’s usually, childishly, likened to a form of compromise or “going soft.”
“In any case,” says Erian, about those for whom the slightest modulation to a band’s intensity is nothing short of high treason, “what matters the most is creating something that comes from the heart, not fitting into a trend. In my twenties, I focused on the technical aspect of things, musical prowess. Now, it’s all about the feeling. I’ve learned that simplicity is an art form, and while it’s far beyond me to look down on screamers, I wanted to develop another talent. It was a big challenge. I had to work on myself a lot. Singing without screaming takes on an additional form of vulnerability. You can no longer hide behind lyrics that are barely audible, and I believe having lyrics that are more audible makes the message more universal. We wanted to establish a better bond with our fans, and for me, that was the way to do it.”
What message? Let’s summarize Obey The Brave’s discourse as flipping the bird at adversity. “I’d rather die standing up than live on my knees,” Erian swears on No Apologies, a tip of the hat—or of the Montréal Expos baseball cap, as it were—to his friends in the LGBTQ+ community who chose to risk rejection by their loved ones rather than denying who they are one more day. “Calme le jeu,” the compulsory French song on the album, decries the masked-identity games that go on in social media, which have become kingdoms of fakes and shams.
Although he’s never shied away from exploring the dark recesses of his mind, Erian had rarely before spelled out so clearly his quest for serenity and light than on Balance, a project that sees him ferociously battle the harmful instinct of inward-looking attitudes. Does he sometimes feed his own dark side for the sake of creativity? He bursts out laughing over the phone. Of course he does.
“I was telling my mom just yesterday: ‘art is pain,’ but I’m really trying hard to get out of that mindset. It’s difficult, however, because you can’t avoid isolating yourself in order to create, and writer’s block can become overwhelming to deal with (which is, incidentally, the subject of the song “Cold Summer”). When you devote three or fours hours a day to writing, and you have nothing in the end, it can bear on your conscience quite a bit.”
While being careful to not come across as complaining too much, Erian does recognize that equanimity is a rare commodity on the long and winding road of heavy music. He was flying out to California on the day after our interview (on a Tuesday) to meet with the executives of Despised Icon’s record label, before flying back to Québec on Satruday, and heading straight to Rouyn-Noranda’s Festival de musique émergente to play with Despised Icon.
Metalcore as a genre is quite fond of breakdowns, those syncopated interludes that often act as a bridge in a song. What is the goal of a good breakdown? “The goal of a breakdown,” says Erian, “is to engage the crowd even more during a show, make people move, and let them express themselves physically.” In other words, a good breakdown gets the bad mojo out of your system.
As for Obey The Brave, they’ll undertake a short tour of Québec, starting in Shawinigan on September 6, before heading out to the Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Austria in November for a 15-date tour. Balance, in a sense, is also the testimonial of a man who refuses to give up on his ideals, despite all the hardships he’s had to endure, and all the sacrifices of his quest.
“People think we’re living the dream, and in a way we are,” he says. “A career in music is unbelievable, but it can be quite difficult at times. I’m 38, and I’ve been touring since I was 17, and what I realize, with increasing pain, is that the life of the people you leave behind goes on without you. The people around you are experiencing things, and you are not a part of it. Then there’s what I see behind the scenes, and that’s not pretty either. People think that the “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll” lifestyle is glamorous, but I can tell you it’s not at all. Drugs more often than not become a crutch, a way to avoid reality.”
His main incentive to carry on: the hope he sees in the eyes of the young people everywhere OTB plays, and the energy they get from the band’s metalcore explosion, an energy that fuels their desire to defend their convictions. “A lot of people of my generation are quite resistant to change,” says Erian. “To the contrary, I’ve always thought it’s important to foster new ideas, new conversations. That’s how our world evolves. If, as we’re hearing from all over the place, we’re undergoing a planetary crisis, maybe it’s time we listened to the younger ones among us.”