Album review: Black Veil Brides – The Phantom Tomorrow
Rock anti-heroes Black Veil Brides make a relatively understated return with their latest concept album, The Phantom Tomorrow.
Comic book behemoth DC’s latest Dark Nights: Death Metal project isn’t just the ultimate meeting of Batman and breakdowns. As collaborators Tyler Bates, Andy Biersack, Greg Capullo, Maria Brink and Chelsea Wolfe discuss, it’s the intertwining of two worlds in which anything is possible…
Tyler Bates never planned to become Hollywood’s go-to guy for comic book movies. When he was young, the man responsible for scoring some of the biggest adaptations of the last decade or so – Watchmen, 300, Guardians Of The Galaxy and Deadpool 2 among them – was only really into the comics put out by KISS.
It seems surprising when considering that Tyler’s CV is a nerd’s paradise – even movies he’s worked on not based on comic books, such as John Wick and Dawn Of The Dead, certainly have a foot in that world. When greeting Kerrang! for this interview, he is wearing a Punisher T-shirt, a souvenir from the Netflix series which he scored. However, rather than a grand plan on his part, a lot of these accomplishments have been the result of people simply really, really enjoying working with Tyler Bates. Having started out scoring independent movies while in ’90s band Pet, before their implosion, movie work gradually became his main focus. Things only got bigger and bigger. Early collaborations with filmmakers who went on to be colossal – Zack Snyder, James Gunn, David Leitch, Chad Stahelski – led to long-running collaborative relationships.
However, as more and more projects came his way with comics at their root, Tyler started to develop his own interest in the craft, leading to his most comic-oriented project yet (and one that doesn’t even have a movie): publishing powerhouse DC Comics’ Dark Nights: Death Metal soundtrack. The same way Slayer’s Hell Awaits had struck a chord with the young Tyler – “the energy, the commitment, the feeling that something was wrong” – this was one for him.
It isn’t the easiest project to describe – it’s the audio accompaniment to a huge crossover story told across seven issues of a comic book featuring basically every character from the DC universe, bringing multiple decade-long storylines to a conclusion and taking place across multiple, er, multiverses. It’s the sort of comic where a T. Rex wearing a Batman cowl – y’know, to disguise its identity – is frequently not the most unusual thing going on in any given panel. Written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Greg Capullo – a metalhead and former K! reader who has provided art for Five Finger Death Punch and Korn, among others – it’s a tale in which anything that can possibly have spikes on it has spikes on it.
Its soundtrack is equally detail-orientated and laboriously crafted, featuring a line-up of artists as eclectic as IDLES, Rise Against, Grey Daze, Mastodon, symphonic black metallers Carach Angren, rappers Denzel Curry and PlayThatBoiZay and indie singer-songwriter Soccer Mommy. A number of those artists feature on their own bespoke comic book covers, too.
At a time when everyone was physically isolated, Tyler opted to do something involving bringing a lot of people together – an administrative nightmare, but one born from his determination to do the best job he could, avoiding the easy shortcuts he could have taken.
“I didn’t want to do an hour-long bludgeoning of your skull,” he says. “You can really only smash one guitar during a show for it to have a full impact, and that applies similarly to writing music. There needs to be a dynamic range of emotions. You get to the more intense tracks and it’s like, ‘Hell yeah!’, and then you move onto something more cinematic.”
More importantly, it works. It really works. Though why it does perhaps that shouldn’t be much of a surprise at all…
“There are so many things in my life I would have to train hard for, and being Batman vocally is not one of them,” begins Andy Biersack.
The Black Veil Brides frontman and Batman fanatic had spent so much time over the years talking about his love for the Caped Crusader that, when the Dark Nights: Death Metal soundtrack was coming together and Tyler Bates told DC he wanted to create an accompanying motion comic (the excellently-titled Sonic Metalverse), they immediately put Andy’s name forward.
“I used to walk around my neighbourhood in a Batsuit – and not on Halloween, just on a Wednesday – solving crimes,” he remembers, laughing. “I’d call my mom Alfred, which she didn’t love. In a way, I’ve been practicing for this my whole life.”
Andy ended up not only voicing Batman, but becoming part of the soundtrack album on a song with Tyler and In This Moment’s Maria Brink, Meet Me In The Fire. As a passionate fan of comics and rock, he is the perfect person to explore why these two art forms go together so perfectly; the section in the middle of the Venn diagram of metal fans and comic fans is enormous. But why?
For Andy, from a young age, both comics and rock offered elements of wish fulfilment and escapism, presenting the possibility to reinvent oneself.
“Paul Stanley from KISS has talked a lot about how, when he was a kid, he wasn’t who he wanted to be – he wasn’t well-liked or conventionally attractive, so he built the Paul Stanley character,” Andy explains. “I think unconsciously, my interest in characters like Batman comes from not connecting with other people well. I didn't have a large friend group or the ability to socialise all that well. A lot of it just came down to wanting to be something. Characters like Batman, Spawn and The Crow – these dark anti-heroes – appeal to the sensibility that you can be a hero and not popular. Superman is beautiful and appreciated by everybody and everybody likes him, and I didn't give a shit.”
There’s certainly an aesthetic resonance between a lot of metal imagery and the comic book superhero world – a more-is-more approach, let alone the occasionally questionable use of spandex. When KISS made those comics that so appealed to the young Tyler Bates, they famously added blood to the barrel of red ink in the printing press, a cheerfully showy-off gesture of mild excess.
The Dark Nights: Death Metal comic’s creative team set out to fill the story with what writer Scott Snyder refers to as “this larger-than-life, non-stop, balls-to-the-wall energy” stemming from metal, blasting bands like Mastodon and Gojira as they worked. Greg Capullo, responsible for the none-more-metal art of the comic, owns more Black Label Society hoodies than Zakk Wylde.
“Since I was a young metalhead and comic reader, I felt the connection between the two worlds,” says Greg. “The imagery that a lot of metal evokes is right at home in the realm of comic fantasy. I remember wanting to illustrate Judas Priest's The Sentinel [from 1984’s Defenders Of The Faith]. Check out those lyrics: the aggression, the conflict of good vs evil, the fantasy… They just mesh so well. A lot of lyrics are about strength, overcoming hardship and adverse situations and rising victorious – a common thread. The visuals that I enjoyed growing up were equally exciting: Iron Maiden’s giant Eddie dancing onstage, KISS and King Diamond with their crazy make-up, and stage shows with their over-the-top explosive production.”
Visuals are, of course, essential to comic book storytelling, and while the visual element is important to some extent in all music, metal might be the genre that leans into it the most – think make-up, pyro, guitars that look exactly how they sound, and the odd bit of armour here and there. The two best logos in the whole world? They probably belong to Batman and Metallica.
There’s a shared underdog spirit as well, even when titans like, well, Batman and Metallica are involved. Comics and metal are both vastly more varied and complex than they are often seen as by the mainstream; the massive range of material out there being frequently casually dismissed, stereotyped unseen as artless and juvenile, and its devotees a bunch of black-clad misanthropes. There’s a world of subgenres within metal, and every type of comic storytelling imaginable, but both are all too often waved away, chaotic noise on one hand and silly drawings on the other.
This ignores the huge range of music within the umbrella term ‘metal’. Black Sabbath and Napalm Death, two world-famous bands that even hail from the same city, exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Grouping all comic books together is, frankly, even more bonkers. Chelsea Wolfe – who has contributed the song Diana to this project, and who voices Wonder Woman in the Sonic Metalverse shorts – reveals that her favourite comic, for instance, is Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the only graphic novel to ever win the Pulitzer Prize. It tells the true story of the Holocaust with different animals representing different groups of people. There’s not a superhero or cape to be found, and other than being a story told visually with drawings and speech bubbles, it couldn’t have much less in common with Dark Nights: Heavy Metal.
“That was probably my first introduction into this world,” says Chelsea. “More recently, I’ve been loving Katie Skelly’s graphic novels, which are very 1960s film noir. Once I got involved in this DC project, I felt like I’d been missing out on a lot of cool shit though.” This open-mindedness – come for the Pulitzer-winning Holocaust memoir, stay for the dinosaur wearing a cape – isn’t something common to all art forms, but crops up a lot in these two, which maybe has a lot to do with the added effort being a fan of either historically required.
While the internet has made a massive difference in terms of access, for a long time being into comics or metal meant putting a lot more work in – specifically seeking out what you loved rather than waiting for it to be served up to you.
“They both appeal to people willing to go out and find shit that they really love,” says Dan Haigh from metal-loving synthwave trio Gunship, whose contribution to the soundtrack also features former Slayer sticksman Dave Lombardo. “You can really embrace and revel in this outsider-type situation. You belong to something, which means you can go out and find things that are 100 per cent to your tastes, rather than being dictated to about what you should be listening to. I think the same kinds of people are drawn to finding these alternatives.”
Both comics and music make the person enjoying them do more of the work than something like a movie or TV show – by focusing on one sense, the reader or listener’s imagination does the rest, arguably leading to more of an emotional connection than experiencing something more passively would. This is potentially where some of the stereotypical traits fans of both music and comics share come from: completism, obsessions with rarity and exclusivity, and occasional infighting about what does and doesn’t count.
The worlds of comic books and metal are both engaged in ongoing conversations about diversity and representation which occasionally run into resistance. There’s an argument to be made that this outsider status has the power to unify outsiders with outsiders. Metal is extremely global, while, as Richard Reynolds of the University of the Arts London’s Comic Research Hub (and author of the forthcoming Superheroes And Excess) says, “Superhero comics are one of the few places left in the world where your gun-toting Trump supporter and your metropolitan elites interact – they would never meet in any other cultural space.”
For In This Moment’s Maria Brink – whose love of wearing capes onstage was inspired by her childhood hero Wonder Woman – the two art forms are all about storytelling and world-building, artists using visuals and music to bring fantasy to reality. It’s little wonder, in that sense, that everyone from Iron Maiden to Ice Nine Kills, Beartooth to BABYMETAL, and Anthrax to All Time Low have produced comic books under their own name, creating a world around their music.
“The two work together so well,” she says. “You’re bringing something to life, taking an idea from somebody's mind and, whether through music, visuals or a combination of the two, turning it into these beautiful, large-scale worlds.”
So how exactly does one listen to a comic book soundtrack? A movie soundtrack is right there mixed in with the visuals, while the timing of reading a comic is much more defined by the reader. Sometimes you want to get to the next page as soon as possible because you’re desperate to know what happens next, while other times you want to linger and soak in the art.
For Tyler Bates, there’s no right or wrong answer. In briefing the artists involved in his soundtrack, he picked and chose what material from the comic he sent to different musicians involved, seeking to inspire them in different ways. “On the record, if you think of the scope of the comic series, we have essentially two songs for each issue," he explains. “They're not all specifically assigned, and some are more literal than others, but if you really take it all in you, you'll see that there are myriad dynamics emotionally that relate to the characters.”
That said, how you combine the experience isn’t as important to him as the very fact you’re doing it – he simply wants people to hear this music he’s worked on, watch these motion comics he’s made, read the comic Scott and Greg created, and be inspired by just how much excitement and passion went into them all.
“If you listen to the album, and then at some point check out a couple of the motion comics, you'll understand the depth of enthusiasm the artists have for the source material,” he says. “You’ll see how invested everyone was in this – all the people on this record are fans. In a time where everything seems to be a corporate widget of some sort, or some kind of hook to pull money out of people, that's not our interest. Our interest is making a kick-ass record that we all feel is awesome.”
The motion comic in particular was a labour of love, created by calling in unpaid favours and fuelled solely by enthusiasm, something Tyler seems to spread wherever he goes. Will this record make metalheads out of comic-book fans, or comic-book fans out of metalheads? A bit of both, he hopes, given the passion the two communities share. “Comic fans love the comics and characters, and musically I find that they're very open-minded when you love what they love,” Tyler says. “A whole array of artists of different genres committed to create music based on this material that these fans are into, you know? You don't have to be a metalhead to really like Forged By Neron, the Mastodon song on the soundtrack. It's just a kick-ass song.”
This could become how comics work – and Tyler is hopeful that, “if the stars align”, Dark Nights: Death Metal could be just the first project like this that he works on. The passion that drives him the most, beyond creating music, is connecting people – whether hooking a band up with their drumming hero or introducing committed metalheads to indie singer-songwriters. He now has a bunch of projects on the go with people he encountered putting this soundtrack together because, as with all the filmmakers who have him on speed-dial, it seems once you work with Tyler Bates you want to do so again, and again…
Dark Nights: Death Metal Soundtrack is out now digitally via Loma Vista. Physical versions, including exclusive vinyl, CDs and limited-edition comic books are available here.
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