Following in the footsteps of the great metal-writing partnerships of the past, much of Disturbed’s most memorable material finds its genesis in the special relationship that exists between guitarist and drummer. “Even though the band has been together for 14 years, Danny and I have been playing for 18 years, so when he comes up with a riff, he usually has a good idea of what I’m going to be playing,” Mike Wengren says, referring to his axe-wielding associate in Disturbed, Dan Donegan. “We’ve been playing together for so long, it’s become second nature.”
Wengren, on the horn from his home in Milwaukee, generously reveals the mechanics behind the birth of a Disturbed song: “After being on the road for a while, we’ll take a few weeks off, maybe a month or so, to sort of decompress, and then Danny and I will get together and start throwing riffs and beats at each other to get the writing process going.” Luckily, the goods are in no short supply. “Danny is a riff machine. He’s always in front of his guitar rig, always got a guitar in his hands. He’s got a little mobile unit on the road, a unit at his house. He’s just always pumping out riffs, whether it’s to write a complete song or just a [single idea]. He has a library of riffs that he’s written, so it usually just starts there.”
After listening to the forthcoming album, Asylum, Disturbed’s fifth release in ten years, it becomes apparent that by “throwing” riffs and beats at each other, Wengren probably means something more along the lines of “unleashing.” The riffs and beats embedded in these songs are more than those words alone can convey. These are powerful rhythms, carefully designed and assembled to support the weight of a record the group feels to be their best yet. “I think it shows a lot of maturation. It shows a lot of growth,” Wengren says, noting singer David Draiman’s lyrical contributions were just as vital as his and Donegan’s foundational chemistry. “[David] really used the music as therapy and was able to just write from within and write from life experiences. That’s sort of his way of being able to heal from bad experiences in his life. There’s also so much going on with the world right now that we were just able to kind of touch on a wider spectrum this time.”
Life experiences seem to have played more than a minor role on Asylum. As it turns out, Wengren and his wife were enjoying the first weeks with their newborn when the seed idea for “Crucified” arrived in the form of an email attachment from Donegan. Left to interpret the guitarist’s predictably impossible suggestions for a drum part, Wengren went to work on his V-drums at home. “Danny has always been really great at layering parts,” he says. “The challenge always comes with actually performing it live. His approach on a drum part is very similar to his guitar playing because he doesn’t know the physical [capabilities] of a drummer.”
Any drummer who has ever supported the artistic vision of a great guitar player can surely relate. Was he putting ride, crash, and snare all at the same time or something?
“Oh, yeah, and then some! It’s funny because instead of writing the drum part as a kit, he’ll write the kick part, then the snare part, and then add hi-hat and crashes, and then he’ll layer toms on top of that. So it’ll sound amazing, but [just be] humanly impossible to perform. But it’s very cool from a drumming perspective because it’s a fresh approach, and a very cool way of being able to think outside the box, trying to figure out how to actually pull it all off.”
“Crucified” is a groove-laden, mid-tempo workout with Wengren’s propulsive playing and creative part-writing abilities on full display throughout. From a drumming perspective it’s the centerpiece of the album, culminating in a twisted, paranoia-inducing bridge where meter is temporarily complicated and Chinas, crashes, and ride bells attack from all sides. The verse and pre-chorus/chorus shift between various 3/2 patterns and a pounding halftime feel, accented by occasional and well-placed flourishes of double bass drum – not the kind of relentless double bass drumming that pummels your senses into bloody submission, but the kind that makes you think, Wow, that was just a really cool part.
In fact, Wengren is measured – almost sparing – in his use of double kick, treating them like equal members of the kit (you wouldn’t play non-stop superfast singles on your high tom through the entirety of a song, would you?).
For the most part, a self-confessed “feel” guy, Wengren explains his style as rooted somewhere in the bombast of ’80s-era L.A. prog, yet strongly informed by Vinnie Paul’s sense of hard grooving heard on Pantera’s first three records of the ’90s. Singing the praises of his Texan heroes, he says, “I loved the way that they all had the ability to shred from time to time but then also just lay down the thickest groove – just a simple, heavy groove. Vinnie was a huge influence on me with that.”
It’s this reverence for the appeal of a simple groove that makes Wengren the type of guy any metal guitarist would want on the drum throne. With his knack for strategically rationing and positioning his busier licks throughout the course of a song, he’s clearly more interested in the overall product than his own legacy as a drum hero. “Since I would always focus on what the guitar player was doing, that was really where I’ve always drawn my inspiration for a beat,” he explains. “It was either the heaviness and chugging of the riff that I wanted to lock in with or where the guitar player was holding out a little bit – maybe playing a little more open, more spaciously. Then I felt that was my time or my room to explore, whether it was a more complex tom part or maybe something syncopated.”
DRUMS: Pearl Reference (Mirrorplex finish)
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 6.5" Snare Drum
3. 10" x 8" Tom
4. 12" x 9" Tom
5. 14" x 11" Tom
6. 16" x 14" Floor Tom
7. 18" x 16" Floor Tom
A. 14" AA Metal-X Hi-Hat
B. 12" AA Metal-X Splash
C. 12" Chopper
D. 19" AA Metal-X Crash
E. 19" AA Metal-X Chinese
F. 18" AA Metal-X Crash
G. 19" AA Rock Crash
H. 19" AAX X-Treme Chinese
I. 23" Vault OverRide
J. 15" AA Metal-X Hi-Hat
K. 18" AA Rock Crash
L. 17" AA Rock Crash
Mike Wengren also uses Pearl hardware, Vater Mike Wengren Signature series sticks, and Evans drumheads.