Carlos Cruz On "Towers Of The Serpent"
If ever a band’s name said it like it is, it’s the L.A. five-piece outfit Warbringer. Wielding their own violently creative thrash metal, it’s an approach that’s as noticeable as a nuclear explosion on their new album IV: Empires Collapse. While every track on the record qualifies as a musical mindblow, we chose to focus here on drummer Carlos Cruz’ work on the epic closer, “Towers Of The Serpent.”
“’Serpent’ is a nice balance between showcasing my capabilities, and playing for the song,” says Cruz. “It has straightforward hard rock beats that groove, high-tempo blastbeats, more intricate triplet sections, and bombastic jazz chop parts. The song has a lot to offer, and showcases what the group has evolved into on our fourth record.”
The adventure begins in the intro, from 00:00—00:13, where a sweeping, searing guitar prologue is complemented by patient and spare ride pings and kick drum backstops. “It’s a very doomy but mellow, sinister kind of sound,” Cruz observes. “I want to let the overall feel have a swing to it. On the ride, my wrist is moving up and down, with the tip of the stick on the overall body of the ride. It’s pretty subtle, but gives you some motion, a swaying kind of groove.”
From there to the 00:38 mark, Cruz kicks in with a tough rock drum beat under the rhythm guitar, featuring firm double bass work that gradually grows in scope, without overwhelming. “Every time you hear two cymbal chokes there’s a sixteenth-note double kick pattern underneath it,” says Cruz. “But under the groove there’s kick/snare/hi-hat. At this point, it’s all about the dynamics and how I gradually build it up to where it needs to go. There is a definite motif there: I personally like to create parts off of a seed, a pre-existing idea, so you’re not drowning the listener with one billion different things at once. I use the double flam to snap off the snare and draw more attention, and I also like to give the part space too – it sounds more sinister."
You’ll hear some of that space from 00:38 to 00:46, followed by a series of knockout short blasts, and finally a furious fill leading into the verse beat. Then prepare for a punk upper-cut moving at a cool 240 bpm or so, with some chops between 00:46 and 1:07 seeming to go twice that pace, as Cruz flies on kick, snare, and ride at maximum velocity. “That punk beat is almost a grindcore thing – at one point it’s a bomb blast, but with everything together: foot, left hand on the snare, right hand on the ride cymbal, playing eighth-notes consecutively on all three. It’s essential to have those come out as clean as possible without flamming, to keep them all in line with each other.”
Speaking of playing together, Cruz pulls off a number of unison fills with the band, including a particularly sharp sequence between 1:05 and 1:08. “Unison fills help me write drum parts with a lot more ease, rather than always trying to play off of what the band is doing,” Cruz explains. “It sounds powerful. It makes you feel like there’s a wall of sound coming at you. On that particular part, it’s capped off by my two floor toms and my right foot – one and two and three – and then into the chorus.”
From 1:08 to 1:28, the beat stays tough, but evolves into a strutting hard rock groove that reverts to four-on-the-floor midway through. “The rest of the song up to there has been at a high tempo,” Cruz says. “On the drums, that’s where you want the mid-pace kind of groove. Fans can bang their heads easily, and the kick/snare, kick/snare combo lets the guitar breathe. Again, this is the chorus – you want to play so the song’s message gets across.”
At 1:28, the song’s verse/chorus cycle begins anew, setting off a series where Cruz continues to build on the motifs he’s established – and introducing agile-yet-crushing new ideas wherever appropriate.
The song takes a definite turn for Cruz and the listener at 2:52, where a yawning gap of space ushers the drumming into new territory. Suddenly, after a flourish on the hi-hats, Cruz’s drumming takes on a jazz/prog flavor, as he rolls across his toms and cymbals in a hectic, unpredictable, and highly musical fashion.
“You wouldn’t expect something like that to happen in an extreme metal song, but we have a lot of influences,” Cruz concedes. “That technique comes from me being a huge Billy Cobham fan, as well as Mike Portnoy and Sean Reinert. They have power and consistency, but also chops and finesse to their style.
“Coming from the section before, there’s a noticeable tempo drop. There’s quarter-notes on the kick and the hi-hat pedal, and an almost Latin feel on the toms. Immediately after that sequence you have the explosion of guitar, the bass line is really busy, and I thought the drums should do the same, but keep the pocket. So it’s a really choppy thing I’m doing between my right and left hand, but with ghost notes involved – I’m moving my right hand from my right China cymbal to my right set of hi-hat cymbals. The sticking is pretty interesting, with paradiddles and triplets going on.”
At 3:14, the glorious madness evolves into a next-level improv beat that somehow remains solid below the guitar solo, charging frantically to the 3:27 mark, where the rock beat returns with a vengeance for the final verse. Watch out for the high frequency fill at 4:01! “I have a pair of Pearl Rocket Toms, which really cut through,” Cruz says. “I’m building intensity on this new part, with the guitar army coming in. I want to give this part some closure, with a massive fill from the left to the bottom floor tom, just cramming single strokes.”
The race to the finish hits the denouement at 4:08, where a big fill – strikingly sans crash – leads to a military-style beat that dwindles progressively from snare/kick/cymbals down to one final depth charge as the guitars ring out.
“Those are both my floor toms and my kick drum in unison, to give it all that bottom on the low end,” Cruz concludes. “There’s almost the sense of this symphony orchestra, with a timpani pounding: bigger drums, bigger sounds. It gives it a real sense of closure.”