Concept. Album. Taken separately, these words are relatively harmless, as in: “Hey, check out my photo album.” “Wow, here’s Uncle Billy waving at the camera – what a concept!”
But the closer you nudge them together, the more you feel apprehension creeping up your spine. The dread deepens until finally you remove the periods and are left with perhaps the deadliest single phrase in rock and roll. “Concept albums,” you see, are the Nehru jackets that many a band has buried in the back of its closet. They seemed cool when you first tried them on, but in the light of day they conjure uncomfortable images of leprechauns dancing around a tiny Stonehenge.
Maybe that’s why Corey Pierce insists that despite its formal organization as three “articles” (“Twilight of Civilization,” “In the Darkest Hour, There Was One,” and “Devolution”), IV: Constitution Of Treason wasn’t conceived as a single epic effort. Yes, a story line threads through the songs — sorry, “sections” is what they’re called — into which each “article” breaks down. But this, the drummer maintains, owes more to coincidence than premeditation.
“It was just something that happened,” he shrugs, referring to the unfolding of a plot that’s part New Testament and part Doctor Strangelove. “Along the course of writing this record, one of our guitarists noticed that the lyrics had similar themes, so he wrote this story line and showed it to us. That’s how it came to fruition.”
It must have been after this epiphany that some of the CD’s defining moments took shape, especially the solemn recitation of an excerpt from the U.S. Constitution, set against shadowy thumps and ominous guitars on “Welcome to the Apocalypse (Preamble),” which qualifies as a Stonehenge moment. Even so, the vision, ambition, and execution of Constitution Of Treason are a major, even overwhelming, tour de force.
Much of the credit goes to Pierce, whose playing combines intricacy, creativity, and power. These elements collide, not just once but pretty much nonstop, which explains why Constitution feels like the musical equivalent of a 50-minute nuclear explosion. He falls into the modern metal category, with all the requisite velocity of hands and feet, muscle, and volcanic intensity – but in this roiling world he’s staked out a space in which there’s room for breath, for nuance and, bizarre as it seems, a suggestion of swing.
Take, for example, the first song … er, “section.” “The End Of The World,” not to be confused with the old Skeeter Davis tear-jerk ballad, ranges from funereal booms to double-bass wind sprints to syncopated cymbal smashes, all of it locked to stuttering, snarling guitars and throat-scrape, screaming vocals backed now and then by old-fashioned harmonies. Whatever the band throws down, Pierce picks it up and scores. You just can’t pry him loose from the groove.
“I feel the emotion in the music and try to make it sound the best it can,” he explains. “If it sounds good to just play the hi-hat for 30 bars, that’s what I’m going to do. If I have to ride a crash for a whole song, I’ll do it. A lot of guys will say, ‘You can only use this cymbal for jazz,’ but I don’t care: I’m going to try it out wherever I want, and if it sounds good, I’m going to use it. I don’t give a damn how things are supposed to be done. Who is someone else to make the rules of how you’re supposed to play? I make my own rules. And my main rule is: I’m not making any rules. Anything is possible.”
Pierce has earned the right to write his own game plan – and he did it by sticking religiously to the rules. His playing is steeped in rudiments. In fact, he was so into building chops as a kid that he didn’t start playing in bands until after high school. He never even sat behind a kit until he was 16 years old; locking himself in his room and shedding on snare from morning until sundown was his idea of a good time.
Before that, though, Corey Pierce was a piano student. His mother, a pianist, kept him at the keyboard through two years of lessons, to the point that he could play a few classical pieces and feel his way through basic jazz progressions. But in eighth grade, he decided to take concert band; with no piano part in the repertoire, he grabbed some sticks, tapped out the snare parts, hit a few dings on the triangle, and realized he had found his niche.
Then, in high school, he lucked out. “The band director there, Fred Oltarzewski, happened to be a drummer,” Pierce remembers. “He was really good, in fact – a hell of a jazz drummer, a very talented guy. He also taught at Dutch Boy Drum & Bugle Corps [in Kitchener, Ontario] and at Bushwackers Senior Drum & Bugle Corps [in Harrison, New Jersey]. He took a liking to me, and I learned a lot from him.”
Specifically, Pierce inherited his teacher’s enthusiasm for drum corps. Oltarzewski hooked him up with some of the Bushwackers, who helped develop the young student’s reading and technical chops. Right from the start Pierce committed to a demanding practice regimen. “I was always playing, though not on the kit,” he says. “I was doing jazz ensemble at school, but I was way more into rudiments, the reading and writing and the classical aspect of percussion, learning about timpani and chimes and marimbas and stuff like that.”
Pierce’s attention began eventually to wander from the rigid precision of drum corps to a style of music his older brother, a guitarist, was playing around the house: Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Cream, Pink Floyd. After discovering groups like Slayer and Anthrax on his own, Pierce started checking out how it felt to play a complete kit. Even now, though, he wasn’t in a hurry to hook up with a band or start doing gigs. “I had no interest in going outside of myself,” he says. “I was perfectly content to just keep drumming. I was concentrating on seeing how far my chops could take me, and that absorbed so much of my time that jamming with other people wasn’t part of the picture.”
Step by step, though, Pierce’s fascination with metal drew him out from his room and into a community of like-minded kids. Some of them are still with him, as members of God Forbid, but in those days they were looking for something original by playing through songs by Metallica, Coven, and other favorites. That inspired their first attempts at writing, which in turn led the group to play its first gig. They called themselves Manifest Destiny – and their debut would prove to be as embarrassing as their name.
“You build up an idea in your mind about what your first show will be like,” Pierce remembers. “You’re so excited and amped up. Then you get there and all you see are five people, and one of them is your dad. Your drums sound shacked. The guitar amps suck. You’re going through a whack P.A. at some dirty, bum dive. The whole situation is messed up.”
But the band didn’t feel discouraged – humiliated, sure, but not discouraged. They went back to the woodshed. They listened to other bands and learned from what they were doing. They rehearsed obsessively, as much as eight hours a day. Individually and collectively, their playing tightened and toughened. “We were getting into heavier things – a lot more death metal, like Dying Fetus, Suffocation, Pessimist, Brutal Truth, and more experimental bands like Candiria,” Pierce says. “Then I caught onto Meshuggah, before the Swedish thing blew up over here, in terms of polyrhythms and odd times. We’d think up the craziest stuff and try to play it. I’d go to Dallas [Coyle, guitarist] and say, ‘Listen! I got this pattern that’s, like, 5-4-5-3-3-2-5-5-3-4-7-8-7-7-5 …Let’s rock it!’ It was ridiculous, but in the long run it developed our focus, so that when we got into less elaborate structures we sounded that much better because of what we had become physically capable of playing.”
Starting with an appearance at a local club, opening for Vision Of Disorder, they began drawing crowds and riding the updraft to the point they’ve reached today, with four albums and a slot as the only American band on last October’s Fury Of The Fall tour. Speaking with DRUM! in the midst of this trek, Pierce expressed pride in what God Forbid has achieved with IV: Constitution of Treason.
“It’s the culmination of all that we’ve gone through, negative as well as positive,” he says, on the band bus somewhere between Detroit and Milwaukee. “I was practicing ten or twelve hours a day. I was physically drained all the time. And I wasn’t playing well. I kept focusing on playing fast. When we did our first record, Reject The Sickness, for every guitar riff I’d try to find some kind of double-bass pattern I could put under it. But I’ve stopped doing that. I’m not practicing speed exercises; instead, for the double kicks, I’m working on gallop patterns, coming up with more complex rhythms that still have a groove feel. I began to realize that it’s not about physical endurance; it’s about relaxing and having control over your playing. I’ve learned how to get the same volume as I used to get without doing as much work. More than anything, practicing now is about being in the proper frame of mind.”
With his head as well as his hands fully engaged, Pierce anticipates branching out from God Forbid – for the first time. “I’ve had offers to do clinics,” he says. “I’m talking with Mark Morton, from Lamb of God, about getting together. I’d like to maybe do a blues project. But at this juncture it’s hard enough just to keep my playing up and to keep my focus on what needs to be done with this band. It’s a full-time job, but I have plenty of time ahead of me and a long ways to go.”
BAND: God Forbid AGE: 31 BIRTHPLACE: Somerset, New Jersey BIGGEST INFLUENCES: Dave Lombardo, Dennis Chambers, Billy Cobham, Ken Schalk CURRENT RELEASE: IV: Constitution of Treason
ALL GEARED UP
DRUMS: Premier CYMBALS: Meinl HEADS: Evans STICKS: Vic Firth HARDWARE: Premier and Gibraltar