Moving from the North of England to southern Texas is a jolting experience for a young Brit. Or so we learned after speaking with James Cassells, who’s currently sweating his bum off in the heart of the Lone Star State in the middle of August. “Bit of a culture shock,” he says on the phone from San Antonio. “It’s lot drier, a lot hotter, too. But I like it.”
Unsurprisingly, the 24-year-old drummer is not trying to start a tejano band. As is so often the case with rock musicians, he blames the geographical shift on a girl. Asking Alexandria’s new album, From Death To Destiny, is a whole other kind of shift. Whereas 2011’s Reckless & Relentless was all metalcore insanity, From Death To Destiny is a grooving batch of tunes, hitting a broader range of heavy styles while staying sufficiently brutal. This has as much to do with a need to creatively stretch as it does being in a better headspace. “Even now, Reckless & Relentless still seems a very pissed-off record, whereas From Death To Destiny is a lot more rounded,” he says. “I think it’s got a lot more positive notions going through it, instead of just a lot of anger.”
The differences between the new music and the previous album can be felt all the way down to the tempo, patterns, and feel of the drums. Reckless & Relentless, while super-tight and polished, sounded a lot like other metalcore records. From Death To Destiny, embellished in part by a chamber orchestra, combines aggression and lushness without being grandiose. “I think both lyrically and musically as a band we’ve evolved massively,” he says. “Our song structures, from the chords to the drum beats, everything’s just a better sound now than we’ve ever had before.”
To bring about this evolution, Cassells made the potentially ego-bruising move of thinking less like an individual artist and more like a supporting player. “Writing a great song is not down to the drums,” he explains. “Effectively, what I’m there to do is keep the guys in check. I’m there to keep the rhythm going, keep the feel going, but I don’t want to put a million notes everywhere I can. I don’t want to put double bass all over the place. I think it’s almost like I’ve taken a step back in terms of technicality with this album, but five steps forward in how the drums help the song.”
Armed with two years’ worth of road-hardened chops, the temptation for Cassells to unleash them while recording the new record, again helmed by Joey Sturgis in Connersville, Indiana, was overwhelming at first. Once in the studio, however, it was obvious that a maximalist approach wouldn’t do. “I think it was kind of refreshing to step back a little,” he explains. “I mean, there’s still some intricate little cool bits, but it’s just finding the right place to put them in and really letting the song breathe.”
It defies common sense, but by not thinking through everything to such an exacting degree, Cassells ended up with more sensitive parts. It was more about the sensations of arms swinging, the pleasant burn on his shin muscle, the visceral pleasures that no musician experiences to the degree that drummers do. “[I was] getting into the way I’m playing the drums and the sounds I’m creating more than just this ... pattern,” the last word lingering like an aftertaste. “I feel like they just flow really nicely rather than being all dvooh-dvooh-dvooh-dvooh-dvooh all the time like in Reckless & Relentless.” What might be a minor change in other genres is a bigger deal in extreme metal where there is scant time and space for finesse. With the intensity a tad dialed back, Cassells ended up highlighting the twin-guitar attack of Ben Bruce and Cameron Liddell. For example, he cites the choruses of the tunes, where he’s adding more retro-sounding galloping rhythms.
Don’t worry, fellow extreme-metallers: From Death To Destiny is still an Asking Alexandria record, and the drums still sound like Cassells. A heel-toe player, Cassells’ approach is still bass drum—centric in terms of note quantity. But the drummer’s foot control has quantum-leaped this time around. “Whenever you’re hearing a quick pattern on my bass drums I’m actually doing two beats with each foot,” he says. “It’s almost like doing a roll instead of doing singles, so the actual movement of my whole leg is not as much, it’s my feet that are moving more, and I think that helps me achieve a rounded consistency with my notes. Whereas before my right foot would be going haywire the whole time. So if I was doing, like, a triplet, I would do two [beats] with the right, one with the left, rather than right-left-right, which I feel a lot of guys aren’t doing on the quick sort of biting drum parts because their right foot is going constantly the whole time.”
Is he a masochist? In fact, Cassells would rather strain his tibialis than his gray matter. But the need to make drumming life harder than it has to be is a compulsion with him – even if it doesn’t always feel good. “It can sometimes feel a bit forced,” he adds. “It doesn’t always feel smooth or easy when I’m doing it.”