Album review: Beartooth – The Surface
The journey to self-love allows metalcore giants Beartooth to dig deeper than ever before on career-high fifth LP, The Surface.
“I can’t believe it…” Caleb Shomo pauses and shakes his head. He lets out a hearty, relieved laugh. “I just can’t believe it.”
Hanging out in his sunny home studio in Los Angeles – where he and his wife Fleur relocated to from Columbus, Ohio, towards the end of last year – the Beartooth mastermind is taking a well-deserved moment to assess the past 10 years of his band. More precisely, he’s considering the unique and often relentlessly bleak story of each album from this eventful period, and how the band’s upcoming fifth LP, The Surface, is a significant outlier to its predecessors. In all honesty it’s something he hadn’t really planned, and never saw coming. Why? Brace yourselves… it’s because it’s happy.
“I’m still trying to process it,” the frontman grins, proudly. “I feel like anything happy that’s been in Beartooth stuff previously has either been me kind of yearning for happiness, or there’s been a handful of songs that’s me observing something else and talking about it. To write a record that’s just genuinely about self-empowerment, and finding your own path and your own happiness, from my first-person point of view, is fucking nuts. I’m glad there’s something happy now in the Beartooth universe…”
Born out of the ashes of his departure from infamous metalcore outfit Attack Attack! and in an attempt to process the “horrible clinical depression” that he’d already been battling for years by that point, for the past decade Beartooth – completed by bassist Oshie Bichar, drummer Connor Denis, and guitarists Zach Hutson and Will Deely – has been an honest outlet for Caleb’s negative emotions. Given his headspace even just a couple of years ago, few could have imagined things ever ending up here.
“It is really evil stuff,” he told Kerrang! in 2021 of fourth album Below, calling the material he’d written the “darkest” of Beartooth’s career so far. He’d certainly hoped to climb out of such a deep and gloomy spot one day, but never anticipated the turnaround would be quite so drastic.
“Below was just the fucking bottom,” the 30-year-old remembers today. “It’s a period piece about COVID and lockdown and how that affected my mental health, and it was gruesome. And now there’s The Surface, which is what happens when I decide to cut all this shit out. I realised over those last four records that there are some basic do-or-die things going on in my life that I need to address.”
The biggest difference is sobriety. Having completely stopped drinking a couple of weeks after turning 28, a healthy, alcohol-free existence is an absolute priority for Caleb these days, giving him more “mental stability” than he’s ever had before. It’s also meant that he can ensure the band’s fans have the greatest version of Beartooth possible.
“Part of me going through all these realisations is that almost all of it, really, has been rooted in me wanting to just be better at my craft, and be a better singer, a better performer,” he says. “That’s why I’ve gotten in shape, and why I’ve been practising so much.”
Breathing exercises. Running and working out. Cold plunges. Rehearsing “mock” versions of their show in his studio. Taking the time to just be “grateful for life”. It’s all a part of the singer’s new day-to-day – and likewise, it was crucial to making The Surface what it is.
“I wrote [lead single] Riptide one week after I quit boozing, and that was the first song that was meant to be for the album,” Caleb says. “Every song since, there’s been no booze around. And I’m still on that train.”
A posi-metal anthem that hears the frontman admitting, ‘I’m done explaining my pain, this is way too much / I wanna feel euphoria, give me the rush,’ Riptide ultimately proved to be a key catalyst for The Surface, giving him all-new ideas for what he wanted to explore, lyrically. As a result, several of the 10 songs that make up the record came to him pretty quickly, during what he describes as a “serious high that my brain went through” once he’d ditched alcohol.
“I went through a few months where it was super, super-high and super-intense,” he explains. “After Riptide I decided I wanted to get away from the cold and try and deal with seasonal depression being as bad as it was. I ended up taking a trip out to California in late February, early March of 2022. There were quite a few songs that I wrote in probably a two, three-week period, that all made the record that were, I think, really important songs.
“But then there was definitely a cold period,” Caleb continues of his creativity. “There was a really long stretch, that was incredibly difficult. I put a lot of pressure on myself; these records have come to mean a lot to me and to quite a few other people, and I’m very aware of what Beartooth has become. And as much as I try to kind of check out and just do my thing, and not think about what everybody else thinks, those things will always be in my mind.”
This, then, is the “very wild journey” of The Surface…
Caleb Shomo was running late. It was 1:15pm at a studio in Santa Monica, and he should have already been playing the first few songs from Beartooth’s new album for the band’s A&R and label. While his team were sat there waiting past its 1pm play time, though, the frontman was next door, rushing to finish up impassioned closing track, I Was Alive. Missing his deadline was worth it to make sure this incredibly powerful message – and currently Caleb’s favourite song on The Surface – was just right.
“It was so last-minute,” he chuckles. “But it really was like a magical thing that happened; I didn’t think it was going to be on the album or even exist, but now, to me, it is the most important part. I know historically with Beartooth records the last songs are a lot to listen to for a lot of people – myself included – because they’re really fucking sad and super-raw and introspective and really brutal. But it’s so cool that it ended up with the most fucking polar opposite, positive song that I possibly have in me. That song wraps up the entire record, and it’s about just choosing fucking positivity to the point of death. It’s choosing to look at the bright side of, ‘What does death mean? Well, it means that I got this amazing life that I’m able to live.’”
Inspired by the last conversation Caleb had with his grandpa before he passed away from “very aggressive cancer”, and brought to life with the help of friend and collaborator Drew Fulk aka WZRD BLD, it’s a song that couldn’t be further from Beartooth’s early days. ‘When I die,’ the singer belts emphatically, ‘I’ll know I didn’t just live; I was alive.’
“The thing that kept really coming back to me in that conversation [with my grandpa] was that he had lived a seriously full life: tons of travelling, saw the world… he was a surgeon, and he worked incredibly hard,” Caleb says. “In reality he probably could have been way more selfish in what he did, but he pretty much used that to just help other people and to travel and experience the world, and learn everybody’s perspective and different cultures. It was a really beautiful thing. And he was ready to go, basically. And whether we’re ever actually ready or not, I Was Alive is manifesting: ‘That’s what I want, and that’s what I’m choosing to do with my life.’ It’s not, ‘Oh, this is what I hope happens.’ It’s, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life: live a life that just makes me fucking proud, and would have made him proud.’”
Manifesting and intentionality are principles that Caleb frequently talks about and puts into practice these days. He doesn’t know what the future holds, obviously, but through making the album, he’s realised that those beliefs can be “massive”. They work for him. It’s why The Surface opens with the explosive title-track, in which Caleb ardently rallies: ‘Let me say it loud and clear so you never forget / Mighta pushed it to the limit but I’m not dead yet,’ and relatably reflects how, ‘All my worries were a waste of time.’ (Bonus: it’s also a quintessential Beartooth banger.)
“It’s this overly positive, invincible sort of song, which was how I was feeling,” he says. “It’s a snapshot of where I was at when I was on this almost manic high. I truly did feel that way, where it was just like, ‘Why would I ever have thought this way? What is the point of worrying?’ To be able to at least choose to try and look at situations from that side of life is very helpful. I’m glad that that’s how the record starts. It’s just like, ‘Out of the gate, we’re going for a fucking good time! We’re going to try to will this into existence and be super intentional about positivity, not fucking stressing, not worrying.’”
Also of utmost importance to Caleb’s new existence is self-love. Determined to appreciate every part of himself – the good and the bad – he now makes the active decision to give himself grace, make peace with his past, and chose “to be okay with a person you were that you fucking hate”. Whereas early Beartooth material would hear the frontman focus on loathing and self-deprecation (‘I’m nothing but sick and disgusting,’ he emotionally spat on 2014’s gut-wrenching Sick And Disgusting), The Surface boasts recent single Might Love Myself… which, well, is exactly how it sounds.
“Being Beartooth, it’s a terrifying song to put out,” Caleb says with a nervous laugh. “We’re this fucking metal band and all of our songs are super-gnarly, and I just did a show in London with a flamethrower! And now it’s like pink and bright and California sunset and happy. But that’s where I’m at right now. That song is sort of about realisation, you know? It’s something I’ve never really talked about, because it’s something I’ve never really felt. To feel self-love is fucking amazing.”
Does that make everything worth it? Or are you angry about what you’ve been through to get to this point?
“It honestly is a bit of both,” Caleb replies. “I say it in Might Love Myself: ‘Still hate who I became.’ It’s still a feeling that I have, but I’m really trying to love every part of my life and see the positive in it. There’s no way that The Surface would be as real and as powerful as it as I believe it’s going to be in my own life and other people’s lives without me going through everything I went through. You know, if I had just not really gone through the struggles and gone through all of the hardship, then what would I talk about? Why would it matter that I’m happy now? Why am I even putting in work to try and be mentally stable? It really wouldn’t matter.”
He points back to his pre-Beartooth days in Attack Attack!, and how it was a difficult and yet absolutely vital learning curve for him.
“I have a lot of negative stuff attached to that period of my life,” he admits. “But had that not happened, there’s no way Beartooth could have been what it is, and that I would have been able to do Beartooth in a way that is respectful to myself in my own work, and respectful to everybody else involved, and candid and honest and everything I want.
“As much as I’m never gonna be stoked about some of the choices I made, at the end of the day, I am more than happy to live with those choices because of where I am now,” Caleb continues, his reflections on the past and what it means for the present flowing freely. “They’re totally okay. I accept that they are a part of my journey. And the journey is the whole fucking point! People talk about ‘being in love with the process’, if you want to be great at what you do. Like, ‘How am I ever going to be a great songwriter if I’m not in love with the process of songwriting?’ And I think it’s the same thing with life, truly. Life is about just loving the process of it, and loving all the different seasons and the ups and the downs. Even the things that are brutally negative, at least we’re still experiencing emotion. And the fact that we get to have this life and experience it in the way that we do is fucking beautiful.”
It’s a poignant sentiment. And not only has it rejuvenated Caleb as a human being on Earth, but it bodes extremely well for the future of Beartooth, too…
Disgusting. Aggressive. Disease. Below. The Surface.
The first chapter in the Beartooth story is complete, with the final piece of the puzzle of Caleb’s planned “run-on sentence” of five albums unveiled last week. Fans have waited to find out how this musical tale of his 20s would conclude. The frontman himself has been patient, too, having had it all planned out “for a long time”.
But what does it actually mean to Caleb, when the sentence is all strung together?
“That’s really the root of Beartooth’s whole existence,” he explains. “I know that’s kind of morbid, but Beartooth, at the core, from the very beginning, was me just verbalising my way through understanding being depressed and anxious and chemical imbalances. Jut mental health, that’s what it was all about. In a way, I think it’s kind of a reminder to me that no matter what I do, and how happy I get, and whether I’m drinking or not, or whether I’m fucking working out all the time, or whatever it may be, this is still reality, you know? That is something that is always going to be a part of my life.”
Despite going through this challenging journey so publicly with the band, it’s something Caleb wouldn’t change for the world. But does he have any words of wisdom for the young, angry kid who was just getting started with Beartooth, with everything still ahead of him?
“Just fucking do not give up,” he replies instantly. “Don’t throw in the towel on this thing. This truly will be the catalyst for the biggest change in your life that you’re probably ever going to make, that will be one of the most important choices you ever make.
“I would tell myself: give yourself a break, just keep fucking pushing, and just believe in what you’re capable of. That’s it. Because now I know exactly what the fuck I can do – and I know exactly what the fuck I’m gonna do, and it’s gonna be amazing. I’m really excited about it. And I’m really proud of it. And whether something incredible happens or not, this record for me is fucking incredible, so I’ve already won (laughs).”
A definitive conclusion to the band’s remarkable first era, Caleb had originally made a mental proposal that he’d perhaps take a well-earned break following The Surface, and work on a “big revamp” and maybe some other projects. But something tells us now that’s not quite how he sees things panning out…
“No fucking chance,” he laughs. “No way. This record has truly rekindled my head-over-heels love for Beartooth. You know, music will always be the love of my life – it’s just who I am. And to be really in love with Beartooth again is rad. And thing that I keep talking about with this album is: no fear. Like, I don’t care what the outcome is, just do it and be fucking honest and just keep pushing.”
And so – despite his grand plans – The Surface has turned into so much more than Caleb could have ever predicted. It is, in his own words, “the end and the beginning all in the same record”.
“I assumed in my head that this record was going to be me exploring sadness – I just assumed that’s where I was going to be in my life, because that’s where I’ve been every other fucking Beartooth record,” he says. “But it’s not and I’m totally okay with that, and I’m not afraid of it. And I want to embrace that. And now I want to just make more.
“I don’t really have an understanding of what I want to achieve yet in the future, but maybe it is a little more free-spirited,” he considers. “I’m incredibly excited for chapter two of Beartooth, which is 30 to 40. I think that’s gonna be really fucking exciting. I really don’t know how it’s gonna unravel…
“But I’m fucking stoked to hear the story!”
Beartooth’s new album The Surface is due out on October 13 via Red Bull Records – available to pre-order now.
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