No Apology

feature image

An interesting thing this nostalgia; it can make you blind. Take the case of Believer who in the late 80s/early 90s were recognized for their musically inventive, thought provoking style of thrash metal on albums like 1989’s Extraction from Mortality, 1990’s Sanity Obscure, and though apparently befuddling to some, 1993’s über-expansive Dimensions album. After 2009’s comeback album Gabriel and even more so on this year’s Transhuman (both on Metal Blade), many outside of the ironbound devotees were up in arms about the thrash part of the equation being pushed toward the background in the case of the former and all but eliminated on the latter in favor of a more melodic and song-based (though still progressive and full of great riffs) approach to metal. As it turns out, it was Transhuman that was my formal musical introduction to Believer, which allowed me to see things more clearly; that is, without the distorting effects of nostalgia. The fact of the matter is that Transhuman is a brilliantly composed, incredibly catchy and progressive album that still packs a punch with its meaty and inventive rhythms/riffs, as well as smart use of keyboards and beautiful atmospherics. Of course, the lyrical content about transhumanism and the ethical challenges arising from technological advances that are threatening to blur the lines between human and machine is absolutely fascinating. Of the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted over the years, this one with vocalist/bassist/guitarist Kurt Bachman and keyboardist Jeff King is one of the most intellectually stimulating I’ve ever experienced. And by the way, you might want to reconsider the “Christian metal” tag that has been attached to Believer since the beginning, as it doesn’t really, nor has it ever, fit with the lyrical approach. Rather, that approach is one of intellectual discussion that touches on many areas, including the religious. Read, think, and form your own opinion. Don’t believe everything you read, except for the content of this interview of course.

I’ve been following metal for many years, but had never gotten around to checking out a Believer album.

Kurt: That’s not an uncommon statement.

I finally checked out Transhuman and while I hadn’t listened to Believer in the past I had read a lot about the progressive thrash style, etc. The first thing I thought upon listening to Transhuman was “Well, this doesn’t sound like thrash.” But I did realize that the thrash element is not a primary factor these days. Is this really the first album on which the quintessence of the thrash part of the Believer sound just isn’t as apparent?

Kurt: Yeah, I’d say definitely more so than the four albums before it. The first one, Extraction from Mortality, was really kind of straight forward thrash. Sanity Obscure was more kind of a real technical type of thrash. Dimensions was where we got pretty weird. Half the album is kind of thrashy and the second half of the album is the symphonic type stuff; we had an opera singer, we had real violins, and did this whole thing. Then we took the hiatus and came back and Gabriel had some thrashier stuff, but I think we were starting to lean toward more of the proggy and avant-garde type of stuff. We really wanted to push the envelope. I think where people get stuck, to be honest, is the vocals. So if I just sit there and do my thrash vocal type of approach then people still think it’s thrash for some reason [laughs]. So when we really wanted to push ourselves that’s when we did more melody and different vocal arrangements and things like that. I’ve been a big fan of Mike Patton [Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, etc] for the longest time. We’ve been kind of pigeonholed into this thrash scene. You know what the thrash and death metal scenes are like; if you vary the vocals at all people get all pissed. We’re at the stage where we don’t really about that anymore; we write stuff that is really musical and feels right to us. So we were like “Screw it, we’re going to put a bunch of different vocals on this record.” I wanted to push myself vocally because we pushed ourselves musically. We were recording this stuff and thinking “oh my god, people are going to shit when they hear this. We figured that every review was going to be trashing us to the 10th degree basically. And some of them do, but it’s surprising; some people really get it. We like getting a really good review on an album, but it’s not like “Oh, if we do another album just like this then we’re going to get bigger and sell more albums.” We just really don’t care about that stuff. Nobody buys it anyway, so we’re going to do exactly what we want so that when we sit back at the end of the day we know that we accomplished something totally different here. We pushed ourselves and didn’t give into the “Hey, let’s try to sell hundreds of thousands of albums” or whatever pressure.

Actually, it may be better that Transhuman was my first real experience with a Believer album since my views going in weren’t tainted so much by what had come previously. What I came away with is that there is a ton of great riffs on this album that are just a bit left of center, a little different, but at the core still solid and grab you. What is also impressive is the number of songs that have catchy choruses and not even in a “poppy” sense, but just purely memorable. And those two things in large part made me realize that this is simply a great album. Yes, it’s progressive, but it’s not overdone either.

Kurt: Oh thanks a lot. We really tried. What you said there is a huge compliment, but I think that’s exactly what we were going for. The hardcore Believer fans really know what to expect, which is the unexpected and I think they’re fine with the record. I think it’s the people that are kind of caught in the past, the real straight forward thrash type of stuff. We had some comments from people that said don’t judge this album based on their past; you have to go into it thinking that this is a brand new type of thing. What we’ve always done is kind of shatter people’s expectations. That’s not a great business model, but for us it’s the model we really went after. We didn’t want to over-prog it and go completely crazy. We wanted to leave space in the songs. So when I was writing the guitar parts I wasn’t – like I’ve done in the past sometimes – think that I had to fill a certain space. It was really hard to write that way. Joey [Daub], the drummer, had a very hard time. We were like “Dude, do something really straight forward here and let it breathe, and let it open up” and he had to really fight against trying to fill every space. We’re big fans of Rush. They’re such good players, they’re such good musicians, but they know when to bring it back and don’t over play; there are sections where you can do that and times you can do that, but not all the time. That’s what we really tried to shoot for.

With the drumming it’s interesting because with the often slight angularity of the riffing the rhythms can be deceiving in their complexity or lack thereof.

Jeff: One of the things about the way that Kurt and Joey write as far as the rhythm stuff goes is that Joey will also play odd metered drum beats over a regular 4/4 riff. Sometimes there are actually are cases where everyone is doing it on time, but there are also places that are more straight forward so we can have a normal vocal cadence over it, but Joey may be doing 5/4 or 7/4 or something on the drums. There is always something going on that’s mixing up the time signatures; it might not be the whole band, but it’s often at least one person.

So it really can be deceptive in a sense that it isn’t too far “out there” because the riff kind of anchors it, but it’s not all traditional beats either.

Kurt: Exactly, you hit the nail on the head there. We really worked at that. We did a couple of songs in our past where it was 7 or it was 9 and really pushed ourselves, and then we really started tweaking things. Like if I play in ¾ and Joey plays in 4/4 it comes around to be on time every so many measures. What that lets us do is kind of what Jeff was just describing. I could play something that was in 4/4 and Joey would just start screwing with the rhythm. I think we’ve gotten a little better at it, but we’ve also tried not to overdo it. I think that was the struggle on this album like “Hey, let’s both play 4/4” [laughs] and have this groove type of thing going and see how it feels. It sounds kind of strange to push yourself back out of the proggy way, so it was trying to push ourselves in the opposite direction of that proggy thing to see if we could do it.

That deceptiveness in the rhythm patterns has always been a staple of a band like Meshuggah where they’d kind fool you; there’d be a conventional beat, but the way they played around it made you think it was the drumming that was complicated.

Kurt: Exactly, yeah. They’ve really mastered that. It’s a cool thing, a unique thing. Once you start to master that kind of deceptive stuff with drums or guitars or whatever, you can pull of the proggy stuff, but then you can go into 4/4 and syncopate on specific down beats or whatever. It gives you a ton of flexibility on how you want the song to feel.

You mentioned that your philosophy toward making albums is not a good business model, but clearly Metal Blade thought enough of the band to release the last two albums. What’s the relationship with the label like?

Kurt: Metal Blade are really fans of music and fans of metal. When we started coming back and doing stuff again, Howard [Jones] from Killswitch Engage was a fan of the band and he kind of brought the introduction to Metal Blade. We were at the stage where we could record and do all this stuff ourselves. We actually licensed this to Metal Blade, so they don’t have to put out these huge budgets for recording and stuff like that. We’re basically a pretty cheap band for them. It’s a really good symbiotic relationship with them where they’re going to give us some exposure in the press and with marketing and stuff like that and we hand them fully finished products.

So they don’t to recover the same amount of costs compared to other bands.

Kurt: Yeah, so in that sense it’s a great business model for them and it’s a great outlet for us. I don’t really know if we could get a better type of situation for a band nowadays. It’s just really flexible and they’re a great bunch of people. We’re such a small potatoes band for them, yet they’re in constant contact with us and are excited about the stuff, they listen to it, and they promote it, and all of this cool, really amazing stuff. They’re into really working with us. We like to control things from our end and they’ve been totally behind us. I think that speaks for them as not just looking at it from a business angle, but really being fans of the music and friends with the musicians.

One of the things about Metal Blade is that they are one of the few big metal labels that have been able to always keep one foot forward with regard to what might be popular sales-wise on the heavier end, yet still release albums of relevant and solid music. But they keep the other foot in the realm of good metal, regardless of sales potential. That’s allowed Metal Blade to be hugely successful without abandoning the roots. That’s tough, man.

Kurt: It’s really tough. If you look at Roadrunner – and we were on Roadrunner – when they had Cynic, Obituary, Pestilence, and it was a great time. Then with new owners and a new business model and stuff they totally got away from that that. If you’re not selling hundreds of thousands of records, forget it, you’re done. There are some other labels out there that are good, but when you think of the size and scope of Metal Blade, the bands they’ve brought to the scene, and their discoveries… Even with [Brian] Slagel and Metallica in the beginning and all that stuff. It’s really impressive. I think you said it the best. They have the business and they go after bands that really sell, but they’re not like snubbing and turning their backs on bands that may not sell that well. They’re fans of the music and that’s cool, man.

As for the Roadrunner years, when did it all come apart? At what point was it over for Believer and why?

Kurt: We did this album Dimensions and it was this huge thing. Roadrunner basically gave us our budget and we acquired the digital technology of the time. We took months to record it and did like 48 tracks of violins and so much stuff going on. During the recording of the album I realized that I wanted to go back to school and finish my education and Joey and everyone was fine with that. Even Roadrunner was cool about it. There was no falling out within the band or falling out with Roadrunner or anything like that. It was just this personal decision that I wanted to pursue my education and that it was the right time, so that’s what I did.

Which was what?

Kurt: I went back to undergraduate school and went the whole way through; went to Johns Hopkins and got my PhD in Molecular Medicine, did a fellowship, started my own breast cancer research lab. That’s what I do for a living; I’m a scientist. I took a position that brought me back to the area here and Joey and I just started talking one day. He was in this band with Jeff called Fountain of Tears, they were recording this demo, and they asked me to come in the studio and help them produce it, which was really cool. Through all of that we just started talking about getting together and see what happens, and just have some fun. Then fun turns into getting to work and writing some tunes. One thing leads to another and then we were our workaholic selves and talked about putting something out. Then the world spread and that’s where Howard Jones heard about it. Howard was telling us how much of a huge fan he is. He knew more about the band than we did [laughs]. On Gabriel we had a bunch of people on there. Deron [Miller] from CKY did a guitar solo, Rocky [Gray] from Evanescence, and Joe Rica from Sacrifice. We weren’t trying to have a bunch of guest musicians, but people would hear we were recording and then come in and do something. It was cool.

Talk about the lyrical themes of Transhuman and your inspirations for it.

Jeff: We were really inspired by the whole idea of technology and its effect on how we look at ourselves as humans. When you really start to look into the research that’s happening right now, into things like prosthetics and different devices… There are actually devices now that interface with the brain to allow us to regulate epileptic seizures, then there are cochlear implants for hearing, and pacemakers for your heart; there is a lot of that stuff that is common today. Even laser eye surgery. But when you look at what’s coming down the pike and this is stuff that’s actually being developed right now, especially when you get into nanotechnology where we will have these machines inside our bodies that can be programmed from outside and attack diseases and build new blood vessels, our perception of what it means to be human is going to change. We’re actually getting to the point where some of these technologies are merging with us biologically.

Kurt: What are the biological limitations how technology will actually supersede and help us to break through those limitations?

Jeff: Exactly, and that’s where you get into things like the whole transhumanism movement. One of their major goals is to eliminate death or at least make it a death that someone could choose. There is a lot more of that kind of stuff. Then you get into very closely related fields, such as artificial intelligence. Like what does it mean to be conscious? If we create these machines that have the same kind of awareness and emotions that humans have, ethically would we need to give them the same rights that we have? There are all of these different questions that as a society that we are going to have to face. It sounds like a lot of Sci-Fi stuff right now, but when you look into it where we’ve been with science and technology and where we’re going with computers and everything the stuff is happening and it’s going to happen and there is nothing we can really do to stop it, assuming that we don’t annihilate each other in a nuclear war or something first. Kurt has his background in medicine and genetics, he’s a geneticist, and my undergraduate work was in philosophy and I’ve always been interested in it.

That’s a good pairing of backgrounds to lyrics of this type.

Jeff: Yeah, and right now is just a great time for that with all these different fields. There is like this convergence happening with science and philosophy and genetics. So we just thought that would it be a really good having a theme like that, even if it’s a loose theme, which really helps with the writing process and lyrics and everything. And also it really gave us a really good foundation for the artwork. It really worked for us.

To me it doesn’t seem like a far out notion, but clearly it is not a concern of the average person in this country. How long before it is impossible to ignore and becomes a part of the broader consciousness as an ethical concern?

Kurt: That’s a great question. People like [Futurist] Ray Kurzweil comes at it in a very scientific way. He talks about the law of accelerating concerns the way you look at the exponential acceleration of technology and where we come from. Think about it; we were just discussing this the other day. With the album Dimensions, the album before we took a hiatus basically, you didn’t really have a lot of Internet stuff going on. Just thinking about our recording technologies and stuff like that we use to use compared to what we are doing just 15 years later is unreal. It is unbelievable! You look at the past 40 years it’s unbelievable the amount of technology that has developed. We have cochlear implants and now they have these ocular implants. I’m in the medical research field and we’re sequencing human genomes now. Just 10 years ago it was really expensive and it wasn’t something we barely even thought about doing because we didn’t think we’d ever have the technology, and now it’s here. When you have this increase in technology the price for everything just diminishes and that’s why you have this huge acceleration. So Ray Kurzweil thinks that by the year 2045 we’re going to be actually seeing this technology transcend have a huge impact on us, being half human and half machine, to the point where we can even download our thoughts and store our thoughts, and back up our thoughts. You have the immortality thing where you could live forever based on how much machine you want or whatever, but even your thoughts and memories could basically be immortal because you can download them and back them up.

Jeff: We’re already beginning to see the ethical and social types of questions that we’re going to be facing. I’ll give you this one example. There is all this really great technology now to help people restore their hearing, like people who were either born deaf or had some kind of accident or whatever.

Uh yeah, I’m going to need that technology before too long.

Jeff: [Laughs]. We all are. So the question is if the technology exists to eliminate hearing problems and understanding that hearing is very important to our safety should we force people to use it? There are different communities that say we shouldn’t have to have our hearing restored if we don’t want to. Then society comes back and says we can eliminate a lot of really bad things from happening if we make you have this. If you take that one example and then you look at the types of problems caused in society by depression and if we get to the point where we understand enough to actually eliminate that stuff and people can choose what kind of mental states they’re in, then should we force people to be happy?

Kurt: This is a debate that’s been around for a long a time. Do we eradicate things like manic depressive disorder when some of the greatest classical musicians were manic depressive and wrote some of their best pieces in that state? Or some of these artists that were even clinically insane.

Or some artists that even have severe forms of ADHD that when you channel it creatively results in great works of art and awe inspiring performances.

Kurt: Exactly! From the genetics standpoint the whole argument is that we discovered a lot of genes that are mutated that lead to these syndromes. Well, if they’re not necessarily life or death syndromes do you go in to an eight-cell embryo or one-cell embryo and correct it? Now this person when they’re born would no longer be susceptible to let’s say bi-polar disorder or manic depression. It’s a huge ethical debate because you’ll be engineering people. Even with the transhuman type of philosophy, with technology you could be in your 50s and all of a sudden get a prosthetic or organs or you’ll be free of disease and all of this stuff. Like Jeff said, do you force people to do that? Is it a choice? If a ton of people make that choice, then what about the resources necessary since all these people will be alive now? This is going to happen whether we like it or not because we are a society based on technology. That’s what kind of scares me. People don’t want the change, but change is going to happen anyway, so then we’re kind of screwed.

Given the scientific-based discussion we’re having, it makes me think of Believer being classified as a Christian metal band.  Is it even relevant to described Believer that way and has it ever been? Or is it just that a bunch of musicians that happened to be Christian got together and recorded metal?

Kurt: I think it’s the latter. We were hated by the Christian market and taken out of stores. Christian groups would picket our shows.

Jeff: Back then because Believer was not doing it the same way that they expected they were boycotting and all that. Roadrunner kind of helped propagate some of that [Christian metal thing with us]. Back then it was bands like King Diamond and Slayer who were blatantly Satanic, and then we had these Believer guys that were singing about philosophy and religious views and Bible type of stories, but Metallica, like with “The Four Horsemen,” were totally into that too. It was kind of just a big marketing ting.

Kurt: We were really uncomfortable with the Christian metal thing.

It’s never been any kind of overt preaching about Christianity then.

Kurt: We were singing about different things and philosophies. On Dimensions we started to print references to some of the Sigmund Freud books we were reading and some of the philosophical polygenic type of books we were reading at the time, and some of the science-y kind of black hole things. Like with the transhumanism thing, we don’t set out to be preachy. It’s really about anything.

It’s an intellectual discussion.

Kurt: Exactly! That’s what we always wanted to have. We just wanted to get people to think. We’re not trying to spoon feed or push our opinions or beliefs on anybody; we just find it very interesting to think about this stuff and that’s what we’re trying to portray in our art.

I would think that Christianity in its most fundamentalist form would take great issue with the idea of technological interference in mortality.

Jeff: Oh yeah, they absolutely do. You said something that’s incredibly important that I think a lot of these people do not understand. And that is that this is an intellectual discussion. When you get into fundamentalism everything is viewed as ideas or ideologies competing with each other, and my ideology necessarily competes with yours if you don’t agree with me exactly.  What we’re saying is that we’re not even in the same realm with that or the same universe. We feel that there is far more to be learned by discussing things, and discussing things means open minds, that you are open to having your ideas change and you are open to contributing new insights to somebody that might not have thought of this before. The whole concept of this discussion or dialogue is that there is a mutual sharing and it’s not done in the context of oppositional approaches.

Kurt: And the agree-to-disagree thing is really the basis of it. I think I’m almost about to call myself an evolutionist, but I’ll call myself a mental evolutionist. It’s where I want to have an open mind. Being a scientist I’ve had probably the best training in the world in cancer genetics. Some of these guys that are some of the most brilliant guys that were my mentors, the one thing that I learned from them is don’t ever think you’re right all the time. Some of the brightest minds I’ve encountered have this very humble attitude of “Look, if I knew everything there was about cancer, then I would have cured it by now.” So because I don’t have it cured right now, I don’t actually know that much about cancer. It’s like that with so many other things. To us it’s that discussion and being able to evolve mentally. This discussion reminded me about the whole metal scene and why we’re kind of pseudo-outcasts. Like if you don’t play death metal, you suck. Or I hate you or I won’t listen to your record because your vocals aren’t low enough and you are using melody in the vocals. But half of these guys would say they love Iron Maiden. It’s like, wait a minute, why do you love Iron Maiden or old Ozzy Osbourne then?

Where does Believer go from here?

Kurt: We’re going to work on getting some shows together here and maybe do some mini-tours for Transhuman. We’re already starting to throw around some ideas. It’s a long process for us to do an album. We liked that we put an album out two years after Gabriel and we would like to try to keep up with that pace. We’re also thinking about maybe putting out an EP and putting out some experimental types of weirdness and having some fun with that.


  1. Commented by: James Mifsud

    Believer wrote lyrics about God and
    The Lord, the first two ablums were
    full of it. They used the Christian
    metal thing as a marketing tool. If
    they came out as just another thrash
    band in the 80s/90s no one would have
    paid attention. They’re con men,like
    the rest, in my opinion.

  2. Commented by: James Mifsud

    Please forgive me, I retract that comment.
    Believer are brilliant musicians. I’m just a
    pathetic, miserable alcoholic/addict trapped
    in my own misery. I’ve been clean and sober
    and I’ve had the joy of living, then I walk straight back into the hell I’ve escaped from.
    Sorry for spreading the misery.

  3. Commented by: Franklin

    Jesus forgives you

  4. Commented by: tim

    Believer did not use Christianity as a marketing tool, but perhaps Roadrunner did. If you read between the lines in their interview here, you can tell what they’re trying to say. They have their beliefs (in their case, Christian ones) and opinions (scientific stuff, like what you heard on Transhuman) but don’t want to spoon feed them to their listeners. The Bible is not their main source of reference lyrically is about all you can say now. However, if you read up on Transhumanism, you’ll see it is a very relevant subject to folks of the Christian faith. When it comes right down to it, the guys in Believer are a bunch of highly educated and smart individuals who sing about deep subjects, and go out of their way (especially on the last two albums) to leave things open to interpretation.

  5. Commented by: Mike

    Do not be deceived, God is not mocked.

Leave a Reply

Privacy notice: When you submit a comment, your creditentials, message and IP address will be logged. A cookie will also be created on your browser with your chosen name and email, so that you do not need to type them again to post a new comment. All post and details will also go through an automatic spam check via Akismet's servers and need to be manually approved (so don't wonder about the delay). We purge our logs from your meta-data at frequent intervals.