A Pale Horse Named Death Interview

A Pale Horse Named Death
Long Branch Records

Sal Abruscato derived the name A Pale Horse Named Death from an apocalyptic figure, a symbol of the end times. Doomsday is a revelation on the group’s third full length, When The World Becomes Undone. Each song may not relate a literal interpretation, especially a religious one, but life’s setbacks could make us feel our world is indeed, “becoming undone.” Abruscato started writing the record five years ago, amidst a storm of chaos in his personal life. Diagnosed as bipolar, his condition further amplified the magnitude of these events. The sky was falling and he had to document it through music.

Much like Type O Negative, which Abruscato co-founded with Peter Steele, he often expresses negativity through cynicism and comedy. Gothic metal, especially down tempo styles, has to relay a certain amount of gloom. Abruscato accomplishes this but presents it in a cheerful package of melodies and hooks. The duality of the record is just a single aspect of what he calls his most diverse record. Abruscato says the album is a back-to-roots effort and Steele’s influence is a hard one to rub off, not that he would want to. Fellow Type O drummer alum, Johnny Kelly plays a larger role on the album than the previous two, further cementing the legacy of Steele.

Darren Cowan: How do you feel about When the World Becomes Undone? Did it come out the way you wanted?
Sal Abruscato: Yeah, and even exceeded. I was on such a long hiatus; I didn’t know what the reception was going to be. I didn’t know if my people were going to enjoy and gravitate to my musical writings. I’m really happy with the results. I’m really happy with the response starting with when we mastered the record with our mastering engineer. The label got it and they were floored.

This is the most diverse album I’ve ever delivered. People are saying it’s the most accomplished and progressed, the best one yet. I can’t complain about what’s going on. I’m just happy with the response, the reaction. It seems like waiting five years to do this record worked in our favor because there is no one really doing this kind of music. I’m going back to my roots.

You played in Type O Negative, so you’ll get those comparisons. Listening to this album and the other two, this one seems the closest to Type O.
Awesome! I take that as a compliment. I couldn’t be more proud having done the albums I did in the past. I’ve been friends with Peter [Steele] since 1983. I have a lot of his personal mementos. I have song writing books. I have his hat. I have things that actually belonged to him. He’s around me. Maybe he’s poking me in the head a little bit, too? He was a big influence on my life as a musician. I didn’t stray far from my roots.

Johnny Kelly played on this record. You both played drums in Type O Negative. Did this further bring out the roots?
Johnny has been with the band since the first record and the first show we did around 2010. Like myself with the first two Type O records, we were trained to know what Peter wanted and trained to go slow. When Johnny came over to learn what I did and continue. We were both kind of schooled with playing the songs and playing really slow. There couldn’t be a better fit. We jammed with other drummers and no one gets it. It’s harder to play slow than fast. Johnny was a natural transition. Of course, he was yearning to continue some form of this style that has been missing when Peter passed away.

I think it’s an exciting match up for the Type O Negative fans because it’s interesting, two drummers from Type O. Being the co-founding member with Peter, we created the band, then he brought Josh [Silver] and I brought Kenny in, it means a lot. It means a lot the reception we’ve gotten from Type O fans and fans in general, fans who like this type of beat.

One part I really see that working is the title track. This was when you put the album into motion. There is a drum and bass part in the beginning before it drops into what I call the “Type O riff.” It has that guitar sound. You even do that pick slide. Tell our readers about arranging this part. I feel it really sets the album in motion.
This part, the sketches on the album and the title all began in 2014. I’ve had these riffs, rough arrangements and demo versions for five years. This stuff has been waiting to be unleashed on the world. When it was time to start making the record, I sifted through everything. There were a couple of things I trashed that I didn’t feel were
right for the record. For the song “When the World Becomes Undone,” it was there but I still had to create the melodies for the vocals. I had it in my head, but I didn’t have it recorded. So when it was time to actually record, I went with the lyrics and final arrangements after tweaking them. These songs were dormant and just waiting to be unleashed.

There were a lot of things going on in my life. I also got involved with other things, projects and stuff. It was meant to be. It’s time to cement and become this sound that is even more unique now than ever. I’m really happy with the outcome. I told the band they needed to trust me. I have all this material. I have all these sketches. Trust me, we’ll come together and do what we gotta do. We did it. There were a couple changes with the band. There was a member change, which also resulted in a production change. It all came out good in the end.

Joe Taylor is another new member. Taylor played with Lita Ford and Doro. What does he bring to the band?
Matt Brown was my co-producer and engineer on the records in the past. He was the guitarist in the band. Joe Taylor walked into the audition and not only did he have all the parts that Matt did, he also had down stuff from the first two records we weren’t playing live. He’s such a thoughtful, chill kind of person. He’s the kind of guitarist who doesn’t need effects. He’s the kind of guy who needs no processing, no nothing. He can make any guitar sing with soul because it all comes from his fingers. He’s a great audition to the band. He’s awesome. He’s chill. He’s easy going. He gets our crazy, dark humor. He’s kind of that gloomy, dark, Tony Iommi, Jimi Hendrix bluesy kind of guy in the band.

And then you have Eddie Heedles. He comes from where Zakk Wylde came from in New Jersey. He remembers when he was little and Zakk Wylde lived in the area. He’s that kind of guy. I would put him next to Zakk Wylde. I call him the fastest guitarist I know. I have to hold him back! We actually let him breathe a little bit on the song “Love the Ones You Hate.” We just let him go a little bit. The solo is super awesome and metal to the core! It’s fast and heavy. He plays everything all the time. He can do Randy Rhoads like it’s a joke. He can play anything and make it look like a joke. He’s very talented. I’ve been fortunate that he’s been in the band since 2012. We also have Eric Morgan and Johnny Kelly. Ok, great! This is an awesome band!

Everything I’ve read says it’s just you and Matt Brown on your first two albums. Did these members just play shows with you?
I changed things around once Matt was done. I gave more freedom to the other members to do what they do. I still present everything in its entirety. I let everybody do what they do and I’ve gotten good results. With this band, I’m a visionary. I know what it needs to be like. I also decided to be open and transparent and let everyone have
equal rights. I write the music and they have rights as far as royalties. They get to give their opinion a little bit and give a twist on things. This record was more of a family, brotherhood kind of vibe, maybe because Matt Brown left. Matt Brown was very controlling. He’s the kind of guy who wants to keep it all for himself. I understand why we were the way we were; we wanted perfection.

The production was different too. Me and Eric Morgan, the bassist of the band, decided to engineer and produce the album ourselves. We live three hours apart and worked mostly remotely, sending stuff back and forth. I think the approach was kind of gritty and dirty. We didn’t want to be as polished as on previous albums. Now, I wanted everything a little more organic – a more gritty, dirty kind of tone but still with the original, roots sound. We didn’t change too much were people won’t like it. We wanted a type of transparency, openness for the audience.

Your vocals are all over the place. Like you said, the album’s sound varies. It’s your most diverse record. I hear similarities to other singers like Layne Staley and maybe Dax Riggs. Do you get those comparisons much?
Huge compliments! I hear people compare me to Manson and Layne Staley. I’m not really trying to be like those singers, it’s just my natural tone, I guess. I used to be a heavy smoker. I had to quit smoking two years ago, which was probably the best thing I could do for having more diversity and range. I also like those grand harmonies like Alice in Chains did. That’s pretty much a formula of chords. I’m using the same type of vocal chords that Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley did together. I’m very fond of that kind of stuff. I think that’s missing in today’s music. There is not enough embellishment. There are not enough harmonies. There is not enough grandeur I
hear in the vocals. It’s a huge compliment when someone compares me to an artist who sold millions of records. I don’t claim to be some kind of prodigy vocalist.

The grandeur of the choruses is a big part of the album, the way you build dynamics.
Exactly. One of my favorite songs is “Splinters.” I bring a kind of Beatles vibe to the end of the bridge, a little “la la la.” I like really heavy, dark music to do the impossible. Many metal people will tell me, “no way, man. Not The Beatles. That stuff sucks! That’s pussy music!” At the end of the day, you can’t deny that vocal writing, those harmonies. I’m a Beatles fan as well. I think it’s more important to be out of the box with the vocals.

This is the reason Ghost is doing so well. They go against the grain with religion. He (Tobias Forge) does a lot of vocal stuff. He’s like the heavy metal Abba with his vocals. He does a lot of harmonies, and he believes in delivering that kind of performance, which will give him more than just some flat, guttural, one-track that’s just one level, one flat one. I feel he’s offering something really fresh, as opposed to the bands coming out screaming, growling, blast beats and all this bullshit! People are tired of that. Me, I’m a ‘70s kid. I grew up as a teenager in the ‘80s. Back then I was a fan of new wave/goth from the late ‘80s. I used to follow a lot of bands with singers that deal with that kind of stuff. That’s what makes it so fresh now because people have gotten so far away from it, so long. We seem to have our own niche, our own way of dealing with things, and it’s been received very well.

The modern age doesn’t have enough hooks. I can listen to something and think “that’s a cool riff,” but it doesn’t stay in my head like a good melody.
Right. At the end of the day I’m a true believer that you if can write a great song with one note and impose that vocal melody over that note, it can be captivating. Call it ear candy. It’s like a worm in your head that digs deeper and deeper. You can’t shake it out of your head. That’s when you know you’re onto something incredible. I still believe you can write really heavy, droning music and still make it hooky and catchy and not sell out or sound contrived.

I think you can put beautiful melodies over the dark stuff and it becomes ear candy, ear worm kind of thing where people are like, “wow, that’s heavy, but it sounds like a friggin’ hit!” That comes out natural, based on my influences and my exposure in the studio on how beats work, as well. I would analyze them with Josh. The other guys were a little bit older than me. They were, like, eight years older than me. I had a lot to learn from them as well. Peter did bring the music to me. He got me into learning how to play guitar, bass, voice pedals and how to analyze like him. I’m a fan of Trent Reznor’s writing techniques. I would analyze what George Martin did on Sgt. Peppers and early Black Sabbath. Just taking all that stuff and making it into what ever it is and it comes out like this.

(interview published January 22, 2019)

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