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Heathen In Fine Form On 'Empire Of The Blind'

Courtesy Chrissie Dieu

Empire Of The Blind is the latest release from legendary Bay Area band Heathen. The LP builds upon the band’s classic sound, with doses of progressive metal influence finding their way into the mix while songs such as “A Fine Red Mist” and the titular piece demonstrate that Heathen has lost none of its footing in the world of thrash metal since its debut in the 1980s. While smoldering riffs and complicated rhythm structures abound, the affair proves varied with material such as “Shrine Of Apathy” and “Sun In My Hand” allowing for more contemporary influences.

Guitarist Kragen Lum, whose CV includes stints with Prototype, Psychosis and Exodus (where he filled in for Gary Holt) discussed the writing process for the new release with KMUW as well as his varied musical career.

Interview Highlights

Empire Of The Blind has a little bit more of a progressive rock influence than some past Heathen releases. At least to my ears.  

It’s probably more just my influence. This is the first album where I wrote all the material.
Lee and Dave had some ideas but they weren't really ready to go in terms of recording. We talked about it as a as a group and decided to move forward. We had a nice, long window last year where we could work on the record. Musically, it's got all the same elements that Heathen has always had. We tried to push everything a little bit more to the extreme.

They turned everything over to you and said, “You write this.”

Credit Courtesy Nuclear Blast
Heathen's 'Empire Of The Blind'

I started writing for the record when we signed with Nuclear Blast back in 2012. By about 2014 I had half the record completely demoed with vocals and everything. I continued to write over the next few years but I more or less too busy to demo it and properly finish the songs. I was touring with Exodus pretty heavily from about 2015 until 2019. Whenever we had a long enough break, I would work on stuff but it just really wasn't until last year where I had enough time to finish writing and I had more than enough for an album. There's a song that we actually didn't even record.

I think a lot of people see Heathen as Lee's baby. But doesn't see it that way. He sees it, as he puts it, our band. The band has always had contributions from whoever would contribute or could contribute. On last record, I wrote three songs. I might have written more if I'd gotten into the band earlier, but they already had some songs on their 2005 demo. Lee had a bunch of stuff that he had been working on for years. That first record, there were a bunch of songs that Doug [Piercy, who left the band in 1992] wrote, in his old band Control, there are some lyrics that somebody wrote who wasn't even in the band.

So it's always been about whoever has ideas. And the guys are very open to whoever's got an idea and, and I think that's what makes the band great. There are no rules for this band. The guys were very gracious. They said, “Look, you got a lot of good material here; we should go for it.” So that's what we did.

I love that the way the album opens and closes. It’s like an old school record.

I wanted to try and put together an album in the classic sense. When I think of the albums that I grew up loving, the ones that I wanted to go back and listen to, over and over again, they sort of took you on a roller coaster ride. I think of the album's where there was epic opener and a fast track and then an epic title track, a short catchy song, and then a ballad and an instrumental. There was a lot of variety on those albums.

The idea was really to kind of create more of an album experience. I think in recent years bands have kind of gotten away from the album experience and just put together kind of a collection of songs. That's cool, but I wanted to see if we could do something a little bit more and maybe keep the listener, engaged and interested in the entire album instead of just a couple of songs.

So, there's a fast track at the beginning and a fast track at the end. And there are sort of instrumental pieces on either side. It’s sometimes tough to tie a whole album together. If you put this one on loop, the outro goes into the intro. I call it the Circle of Death.

Once you think this record is going in a certain direction, it gets heavier and darker. There’s this journey that you go on. Did you know that the album would be sequenced the way it is or was that something that we determined later?

It was mostly determined before we went in. I had a really good idea while writing the songs of what I thought the sequence should be. There were maybe a couple in the middle that were up in the air. But I even tried to structure it so that if somebody was getting it on tape or vinyl there was a sense of a Side A and a Side B. Back in the day you would have a specific type of song that would start the second side. I wanted to have that kind of attention to detail.

I went back to those classic albums that I just listened to over and over again and listened. I’m the kind of guy who analyzes things and I analyzed what made those cool albums so cool. We tried to format it this album in a similar way to get that same kind of listening experience.

You have a different rhythm section on this record. Tell me about when those guys came into the picture and how that changed things up in the group, if at all.

Credit Courtesy Chrissie Dieu
Guitarist Kragen Lum

It didn't affect the songs or the writing or anything. Ultimately, we just wanted to have a stable lineup. This band, unfortunately, has not had a stable lineup over the years. I've been in the band 13 years, and I think played with like seven different drummers. So we really just had to make a decision on what we wanted to do going forward. We all agreed that we wanted to have a band where we could have everybody stay together and that everybody got along and wanted to spend time with each other and I just found those guys.

Jason I've known since 1991. He when he joined my band Psychosis in Los Angeles and we've been friends for a long time. He's great bass player and a great guy. And he actually filled in and played bass for Heathen in I think it was 2013. When we opened for Death Angel in San Francisco, we didn't have a rhythm section for that show. So Jason played bass and Tom Hunting from Exodus played drums. It was great. He's great on stage. He's great in the studio. It was just kind of a perfect fit.

Jim is someone we’ve also known for a number of years, we've toured with him, he played drums for Generation Kill when we did a European tour with them, and he plays drums for Toxik now and he used to be Tom Hunting’s drum tech. He's a great person and a great drummer.

Again, we just wanted to find some guys that that we really wanted to spend time with and that wanted to put their all into what we were doing and they really did. You can hear it on the record, their performances are great.

You mentioned Breaking The Silence which of course you're not on. But I remember that record coming out in the 80s and having it on cassette. Because I was such a rabid metal fan, I would see something in a magazine and then go buy it immediately

I did the same thing.

Were you a fan of the record at the time that it came out?

Yeah, actually. Back in 1987, right before that came out there was a vinyl single for “Set Me Free” and the B-side was “Goblin’s Play.” Living in Los Angeles I would listen to KNAC and they had a thrash metal show called Manic Metal and they would play “Goblin’s Play” before the record came out and I heard it I was like, “Man, this is awesome. What is this?” I eventually saw the video for “Set Me Free” and I really liked the cool mixture of elements that the band did. They were playing sort of thrash metal but they had this melodic stuff in there, which most of the thrash metal bands didn't do at that time. It was kind of a cool mix between hard rock stuff that I liked and the thrash metal stuff that I that I liked.

I bought that album as soon as it was available and then did the same when Victims of Deception came out which I liked even better, but it came out at the absolute wrong time. If they if that album had come out a couple years earlier, I think the band's trajectory might have changed a little bit but they put it out and then grunge took over and most of the metal as we had known it there for a long time went away and was replaced. We had a handful of things that were great, still metal lies that came out in the 90s, you know Pantera and Nevermore. But, unfortunately, it was bad timing for that second record.

Breaking the Silence, was ,of course, produced by Ronnie Montrose

The guys did not enjoy that experience, though. I think that I think it was just a clash of ideals in terms of how to produce the record. That's the one where I think that if they could go back and re-record it, or even just remix it, they would do it in a heartbeat. Lee tells me has some cassettes somewhere of the rough mixes and its sounded crushing. When they got to final mix it was not. I think the only mix of the old albums that Lee is happy with is Victims. I think even Evolution of Chaos is one we're not completely happy with in terms of the mix. We would have preferred to remix it rather than just remaster it for the anniversary edition that came out earlier this year. But the label wanted to keep the original mix and so Zeus remastered it and did a killer job. It sounds so much better and has dynamics and everything now.

How did you go from being a fan of the band, a guy who bought the first album after hearing the music on the radio, to being in the band?

It’s actually a pretty cool story. In 2001 I went up to the Bay Area to See the Thrash of the Titans benefit gig, which was the benefit for Chuck Billy [Testament] and Chuck Schuldiner [Death]. They were both fighting cancer and a bunch of the Bay Area bands that hadn't been playing together, got back together and played for this benefit show. So I went up there for the show.

And afterwards, I was talking with a friend who worked for one of the big metal labels. I asked him if he knew any singers that might be a good fit for my band Prototype. We were considering having a separate singer at that time. We were having a hard time finding the right person for the job. My friend recommended David and so we got his phone number and gave David a call and he came down to Los Angeles and actually demoed a couple of songs for Prototype.
It didn't end up working out. He actually sort of talked his way out of the gig, because he thought that he thought that our current singer guitar player who's been the singer in the band for the entire time, was great. He didn't understand why we were even looking for somebody else.

So a few years later, when Heathen was looking for a guitar player, he called Vince, the other guitar player in Prototype, and asked if either one of us would be interested in auditioning and Vince passed. I said yes and went up there. I think I took three weeks to work on learning the songs I really wanted to nail it. So I asked him for an extra week. I think I learned four or five songs and went up and rehearsed with them.

I think we played the songs maybe twice through and they asked me right there on the spot if I wanted to join the band. It was a surreal moment. I grew up listening to this band and also Exodus, who I ended up playing with for a number of years, so it was kind of crazy. But you know, one thing leads to another and I think from kind of from that point on I've kind of always just gone where life takes me so to speak instead of swimming upstream.

Let's talk briefly about Exodus. You were you were stepping in for Gary Holt. The guy who's been there the entire time. So you had some big shoes to fill.

As far as I'm concerned, Gary is one of the originators of this kind of music. He was there from the beginning. He's one of the most influential I would say, not just guitar players, but songwriters of this kind of music. So it was really big shoes to fill. I remember the first time I filled in, in 2013, I did a European tour for the Exhibit B album.

And I was nervous. I was concerned about whether or not I would be able to pull it off. It really wasn't until the next time they asked me to fill in, which was, I think it was just at the beginning of 2015 it was really last minute, I had literally 12 hours’ notice to remember the songs, pack and fly to Australia. It wasn't really until then, that I was that I felt like, “Wow, I think I can do this.” I just did my best I studied Gary's playing techniques and stuff. There are some things that he does that I'm frankly not that great at. He's a whammy bar master. That's not my thing. You I can do it. Even the rhythm parts. There's some little techniques that I didn't do and that he does, but I, I learned them because I wanted to replicate his playing down to down to the last detail that I could.

Because I ultimately I just wanted to make it so that if people were showing up at a concert, and they close their eyes, that it still sounded like Exodus. I'm a huge fan and I wanted to do it justice. So I just did my best with all of that stuff. And I was glad for the opportunity. I still work with the band and on the management side. It’s great though; they're an awesome bunch of guys. They're great people. They're a great example for other bands, because they're family, even the ex-members.

At this moment in time people are who have been playing live all these years are off the road for the year. You've built a career doing scores and teaching and that sort of thing. Are you thankful that you had the ability to kind of diversify?

I don't necessarily think it was a conscious effort to diversify. I just have a lot of things that I've always wanted to do. I made a decision when I got laid off from Activision. I worked there for like, 12 years. I was very fortunate to kind of get in the video game business when it was taking off again, like in the very late ‘90s, early 2000s. I had a great career there. When I got laid off, I just made a decision. I said, “You know what? I've done this for a long time. And now it's, it's time for me to do what I want to do. And I'm going to give go back to being a musician full time and try and do what I can.”

Since then, I've really just tried to, you know, accomplish everything that I would always have wanted to, whether it was guitar books or album recording or touring or anything like that. I've really just tried to do as much as I can with it. I enjoy teaching. I enjoy releasing the guitar books. I just like to do those projects. I've just wanted to do it and if it helps in a time like this where we can't play live, that's great. certainly wasn't my intention. But ultimately, I just, I want to do as much as I can while I can in terms of music.

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.