THE RED CHORD: Twenty Years of “A Bunch of Idiots Making Noise”
The Red Chord released swan song Fed Through the Teeth Machine a decade ago, though its status as such was as much a surprise to the 20-year-old band as their success.
“None of us really intended on things coming to a halt when they did,” explains vocalist Guy Kozowyk, whose band all remain open to the possibility of future activity, despite no plans to do so. “Similarly to the origins kind of taking off and not really intending it to be just this constant grind, none of us intended on going from a full-time touring schedule to, ‘Oh yeah, we haven’t done anything in the better part of the last decade.’”
Still, all three members who remain in the band from that album agree they went out with a bang after a decade. Unfortunately, their excellent execution may have been their, well, execution.
“Each time we make a record I’m trying to hone in on the way that I think we’re supposed to sound, and Teeth Machine was the closest to what I wanted The Red Chord to sound like,” says guitarist Mike “Gunface” McKenzie, who recently launched new label Nighted Throne and orchestral project Resplendent Host. “Part of the reason I personally wasn’t motivated to do another record after that was because I felt we’d accomplished the goal. This is it. We made the record we were trying to make, and now what do you do? You do something else because if you get to the end of the race you don’t run the race again.”
The Massachusetts band took four laps during that race (assuming we are counting an album cycle as such), rounded out by 2007’s Prey for Eyes, 2005’s Clients and 2002’s Fused Together in Revolving Doors. Through all those releases, the band defined deathcore before it became a definable thing by combining crushing death metal, blaring grindcore and chaotic metallic hardcore. McKenzie remembers an early tour where a member of the crowd claimed, "Wow, those jocks play good death metal." He initially rejected the term deathcore but says he grew to appreciate the recognition when he saw the band highlighted in an episode of Banger TV's Lock Horns series (co-hosted by the author of this piece).
The band's sound evolved steadily throughout their career, pushed by tourmates Between the Buried and Me, and perhaps because none of the LPs boast the same lineup. McKenzie admits former guitarist Kevin Rampelberg’s ideas and ex-drummer Mike Justian’s arrangements were king on the debut. New drummer Brad Fickeisen joined for the sophomore release, and his playing style fused with more even writing contributions from both guitarists to define its sound. He laments Prey for Eyes as having too many cooks in the kitchen, with head chef McKenzie being joined by new addition Jonny Fay on guitar and bassist Greg Weeks; originally a guitarist, he admits he didn’t consider himself a bassist until this album, most notably his writing of the title track.
Their fourth album was also their first as a four-piece. Sure, less fingers might mean less riffs rammed in a practical sense, but it was also based on leading with feeling.
“Instead of let’s see how many riffs we can jam into a one-minute song, it was more of let’s see if we can write a song,” expands Weeks. “Let’s see if we can have this emotion be flushed out in two-and-a-half minutes.”
Looking at the tracklisting, one can deduce Weeks is referring to lead track “Demoralizer,” with its 2:32 runtime placing it closest to that measure. A mid-song lead inspires sorrow and aptly comes after the line, “Cast you into the darkness.” McKenzie elaborates on his usage.
“There aren’t long solos, but they’re just like little flourishes. I feel like playing discordant music and then adding a little bit of dark melody really changes the mood. If you’re just discordant all the time, it’s cool, but you can also deepen that palette with a little bit of melody. I think about horror movies that have melodic, dramatic scores, especially like 80s horror movies. If you have a sad sounding melody in like a scary and weird place, it adds a layer of discomfort.”
Setting moods and delivering melodies are two main facets of the guitar solo, but The Red Chord don’t often do the typical and there’s one key factor about their usage of them that sets them apart. Though guitar solos are often the place for a shredder to really shine and show off, that’s not the case here. Instead, the band utilize McKenzie’s time in the spotlight as a break from the surrounding chaos.
Contributing to that bedlam are their breakdowns, though they buck convention, too. McKenzie references the closing passage from “Hymns and Crippled Anthems,” which he says was inspired by sluggish sections from Premonitions of War and Coalesce.
“The Red Chord was always about doing not-breakdowns. We were always about being like, ‘Let’s make a heavy riff that is basically a breakdown, but it doesn’t feel like one.’ You don’t have the same half-time China [cymbal]. Where someone would do a half-time China, we’re going to do something completely different, but we’re going to still make a big, chuggy, slow riff.”
In fact, the guitarist includes that type of passage as one of a key element of their sound, alongside being impatient with riffs. The band infamously closed out “Dreaming in Dog Years” by running through all the riffs that had preceded. Members recall situations — perhaps reality, perhaps really close to it — when they repeated a riff twice before cutting it to one-and-a-half times or settled on playing a part three times after members argued for two or four.
The last tip of the triangle that is The Red Chord is McKenzie’s up-picking style. The naturally right-handed player started his self-taught journey sitting with a guitar laid on his legs like a lap steel. When he eventually stood up, he flipped his instrument lefty and the trademark was born.
Weeks says the guitarist is one of only a few truly unique guitarists with whom he's played. He emphasizes McKenzie’s unprecedented ability to get his ideas out of his head and into the real world. Kozowyk mirrors his bandmate's skill with his ability to take seemingly disjointed themes and cram them into surreal ramblings.
Take, for example, the lyrics for “Dread Prevails,” which the lyricist says is about Genghis Khan and Judge Dredd. One of the lines, "You think you're sly, but you're not," actually is fox-like; it references Sylvester "Sly" Stallone's role as the titular character of the 1995 Judge Dredd movie. Kozowyk, laughing, says he's surprised he was never called out for the lyric. Another line, “You’ll be added to the pile of friends behind you,” was born when Weeks and then-guitarist Jonny Fay were killing enemies in Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas and leaving them in a heap, all while yelling, “PILE OF FRIENDS! PILE OF FRIENDS!” The lyric, open as many of the band’s are to multiple interpretations, goes to show a main tenet of his tenor: inspiration can come from anywhere. The eerie title Fed Through the Teeth Machine actually has a mundane origin, coming from the educational show How It’s Made and referring to zippers.
Many years prior, The Black Dahlia Murder vocalist Trevor Strnad picked up the mindset to write about what you know. Strnad points to the video game base of “Sixteen Bit Fingerprint” as proof that Kozowyk does exactly that, adding that he “had a really unique way of doing that.” The influence was most pronounced on Dahlia’s sophomore album Miasma, which features a different lyric style than the band’s usual horror stories. However, The Red Chord's recurring trope is more psychological than psychopathic.
“I think the brain and mind and all that stuff is just a really fascinating thing. It’s crazy to think that we don’t know the full capabilities of our brains and our minds, we use so little of it, and we understand so little about it,” reveals Kozowyk. “We have inspirations for movies and commercials and just different gadgets that are going to completely change the world, and there’s no real rhyme or reason as to why something happens or doesn’t happen, and I think a lot of it kind of goes back to illness or mental capabilities in terms of — it’s just a fascinating concept.”
The band’s most focused foray into the concept (and concept albums in general) came on sophomore salvo Clients, a title that referred to customers with whom Kozowyk would interact at his job at a local pharmacy. The family-owned business, which he highlights as one of the old-school style with a general store and soda fountain, was near a popular train station on the outskirts of Boston. It attracted passers-by, as well as folks from a nearby hair school, halfway house for criminals reintegrating into society and an assisted living facility. The meeting-of-worlds was also frequented by some former patients of Danvers State Hospital: the psychiatric institution highlighted in 2001 horror film Session 9. Yes, “Black Santa” and “Antman” are — or were — real people. Kozowyk reveals an impactful story from the latter, one that is eerily similar to the historical event that inspired the title Fused Together in Revolving Doors.
“He was discussing holding the door shut and something being on fire and something perishing, and I didn’t know if that was him being schizophrenic or if that was him confessing to holding a door shut while somebody was on fire. It’s really difficult to ever know, but ultimately when he passed away, as far as I know, there’s no one else who took an interest in anything that he had ever said outside of me scribbling stuff on napkins and notebooks. If anybody thinks to do anything nice for somebody or to listen to somebody or to document something — I guess it was just about kind of keeping your eyes open and observing the world and taking into consideration some of the other things that are going on around you that you might not usually notice.”
Noticing is actually a key message behind the inclusive titular rager. After discussing Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker (Weeks hopes it inspires the return of social services to those who need them), the bassist reveals one of the things he loves about his first album with the band.
“I loved that the idea of the song “Clients” was that he was basically saying that all the people that he interacts with almost every day at his old job had mental health issues and how we all have our issues, but those people in particular have to wear them on their sleeve, where we don’t. We may all have issues, but there are people out there where you know right away and there’s nothing they can do about it. That kind of hit me, the fact that we’re all Clients and we all have these issues.”
Kozowyk faces these issues every day in his law enforcement career — first as a patrol officer, now as a detective with the Juvenile Investigations Division. His lifelong sensitivity to those dealing with mental illness and his career collided in the only song that’s seen the light of day post-Teeth Machine, “Bad Batch.” The song, about a bunch of drug overdoses connected to the opioid crisis that Kozowyk saw at work, was debuted live during a string of shows the band did back in 2014. McKenzie notes they played it live at least four times and thinks it’s funny when people say they’ve never done anything new.
In fact, humor bookends his time with the band. His first relevant experience was an audition, during which he played some original riffs. Band members laughed at his work, causing him to worry, but fortunately, the band members were breaking up at how good the riffs were. Appropriate, given the band’s penchant for trying to get away with ridiculous stuff. In fact, this is the rare serious interview with the band, as McKenzie remembers Metal Injection letting the band run amok whenever we met up after noticing their “talk shit on everything” style.
Weeks, in particular, cracks up regularly throughout conversation as he remembers stunts the band pulled. He recalls throwing a fishing net over Chelsea Grin as they did the crabcore crouch, following a trend of shirts featuring skulls and wings but making theirs very phallic, and even pranking his mother during the recording of Fed Through the Teeth Machine when a detective called to follow-up on a murder that occurred in the hotel room beside his. In fact, the bassist says the main reason he’d get the band back together would be to re-print a shirt he never got that featured a cherub taking a dump on another’s chest under the German phrase for “Love Is.”
The crown jewel of ridiculousness, though, came during the 2008 Mayhem Festival when a press release went out to inform that the New York date would include a special one-off performance featuring members of Slipknot, The Red Chord, Mastodon and more. Attendees saw players from nearly every band (clad in surgical masks and T-shirts featuring very literal depictions of the group’s name, Ladder Up an Ass) screaming, dancing to pre-recorded tracks, banging on triangles and throwing marshmallow Peeps at the crowd; they stood up for animals turned into candy by liberating them. The crowd of maybe 1,500 had dwindled to 50 or so by the end of the group's performance. To add insult to injury, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor even lost a deposit on a rented tuba when a projectile Peep became lodged in it.
That Weeks says he and McKenzie agree it was “the greatest achievement musically that we ever pulled off” just lends credence to his summation of the band as “a bunch of idiots making noise.” And something tells us that’s something of which they’re very proud. Footage from that monumental day exists, but none has yet to be publicly released.
We miss you, The Red Chord.