St. Petersburg, Florida. A city largely considered a Mecca among death metal fans. Home to metal legends like Death, Iced Earth, Morbid Angel, Obituary and Trivium, the Tampa/St. Pete area is known for its metal roots. Yet in present times, the musical landscape of the once great blackened city has diminished into a plague of hardcore-related cliches – at least according to Akeldama bassist Michael Schweitzer.
“Kids only want breakdowns and two-steps,” says Schweitzer as we sit in an empty bar in St. Petersburg, sipping on a beer from Cigar City, a local brewery down the street. The decline of the local metal scene is disappointing to hear, but I wouldn’t say that glamour of St. Pete metal has gone away just yet. In fact, I feel as if I’m sitting with a group of guys who will put St. Pete back on the metal map.
Even if you’re familiar with the metal scene, you might not be aware of Akeldama, a six-piece progressive metal band from The Burg. The closest thing you may associate them with is The Faceless album of the same name. A band since mid-2011, Akeldama has seen quite a bit of action in the short time they’ve been a band. After playing Euroblast in Germany and touring Europe with Scar Symmetry in 2012, they are close to the realization of self-releasing their debut album, Everything Beautiful, on September 6th.
Don’t let the band’s age fool you though – these guys have plenty of history together. “As various parts of other bands [in the St. Pete/Tampa area] we’ve played upwards of 100 shows or so,” says drummer Evan Thibeault, as he and guitarist Jeremy Knapp join the conversation following a giant Jenga game. “The majority of us have been playing with each other since we were in high school,” Knapp chimes in as we order a second round of beers.
The process of Akeldama – also made up of guitarist Eric Owen, vocalist Connor Reibling and songwriter/vocalist Andrew Zink – is generally driven by the creative processes of Zink – who Knapp says “writes most of the music for Akeldama and the rest of us just sorta add our bits into it.” The guys agree with Knapp’s statement as Zink sits down to our roundtable. For the most part though, their writing process is that of most bands – however, it is the quality of their output that is impressive, something that speaks volumes of Zink’s production skills.
Zink chimes in, “Well, I’ve been producing since I was 16. Connor and I used to be in a band in early ‘03 and we would produce songs together. Once we broke up our bands in high school, I moved on to [producing] other bands. Just a lot of years of producing practice really.”
Zink’s production skills are only matched by his drive for perfection. His determination is notable on their demo – a crisp, clean sound that is so well mastered that most progressive metal bands would kill to have it. “The night we finished ‘Dream Sequence’ I was in my room for twelve hours on my computer just sitting there,” Zink says. “I was making people bring me drinks, I didn’t even leave my room. I think we finished at 6:30 in the morning. I would burn a CD, run out to my car and listen to it and if I noticed the slightest little mistake I’d run back upstairs, mix it again, burn another CD… this would go on all night.”
The three-song demo, mixed and mastered entirely by Zink at his self-built studio Zink Audio, was released for free download in March of 2011 and quickly made the rounds on various metal blogs and websites with much praise. “The internet has been fantastic. The backbone of this scene is that it is an international scene and you do some form of internet connection to reach your audience,” says Schweitzer. “Got-Djent, Djent Ink and Djentalments Club. A lot of that has helped us so much.”
With a strong demo in their hands, what does a band like Akeldama do? Like any band hoping to ‘make it’, it takes a bit of luck, determination and time. However, the band’s fortunes started looking up rather quickly – starting with the chance to tour Europe with Scar Symmetry and be a part of the Euroblast roster.
“Connor and I actually went over to Europe with the hope of seeing Euroblast. We were obsessed with this festival because something like this would never make its way over to America,” Zink says. “A year later I start talking to John Sprich [the creator of the Euroblast festival]. I messaged him simply saying something like ‘Hey, would it be possible for Akeldama to play this festival?’ He sent back a message something to the effect of ‘You can play the show if you can get here. We won’t put you on the bill, no one is going to know you’re playing, but if you get here we will let you play.’”
This was a big challenge for a young band from the states. Trying your way on your own dime, out to Cologne, Germany, with no promotion, no billing, no nothing – just the chance to play for progressive metal fans. That was all it took for the guys in Akeldama to fully invest themselves in what they were doing as a band. However, there seemed to be a little luck on their side. “One day out of the blue [Sprich] tells us he is coming down to Florida because he has grandparents here,” Zink says, almost thankful. “His parents ended up only living a few minutes from our practice space.”
“I had been following the guys in Akeldama for quite some time before I met them in Florida,” Sprich says, in an interview separate from the band. “Coincidentally, my grandfather lives not far away from St. Pete, Florida so when I was there for a visit I had the opportunity of meeting up with them.”
“So John came out to our practice late one night in Budweiser pajama pants,” Schweitzer laughs as he finishes the last of his drink. “We were all so intimidated. He comes into the practice space during the middle of us playing ‘Motionless; Emotionless’ and observes the rest of practice.”
After practice, the boys offered to take Sprich out for a ‘guys night’ as visiting grandparents can only be so exciting. “We had a long conversation with [Sprich] and he was really humbling because we thought, at the time, that we were doing everything right and taking a lot of steps forward as a band and getting close to being able to ‘make it’,” Schweitzer says, “and he just put us down on our asses and told us that we were doing everything wrong.”
“One of the things he suggested we do is make a music video of one of our songs,” Owen adds in. “We were just shooting the shit with him, and Meshuggah‘s ‘New Millennium Cyanide Christ’ video came up. And you know, that music video is just them dicking around on their tour bus. They’re all air guitaring and Jens is screaming into a pen. We were all talking about how awesome that is and Sprich was just like ‘Well, why don’t you do something like that?’ That is kinda what ignited our idea for the iPhone video for “Motionless; Emotionless”.
That video, made entirely with an iPhone, ended up blowing up, currently sitting with around 25,000 views. It also pushed Sprich to realize, “These guys know what’s up. They listened to what I told them, they’re working their asses off and I wanted to help get them out to Europe.”
So the boys, now with Sprich’s backing, jetted off to Europe with only a handful of shows under the Akeldama name. But Euroblast wasn’t even their biggest achievement overseas. The band linked up with metal veterans Scar Symmetry for a mini-European tour. “Being able to tour with a band like Scar Symmetry who has been around for so long and made such a name for themselves was incredibly humbling,” says Knapp. “They are some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Everyone involved on that tour and at Euroblast showed us amazing hospitality and we cannot wait to go back.”
Akeldama was lucky enough to afford a luxury that most unknown bands aren’t able to – playing for fans who want to hear their style of music.
“When we were first starting to play music you always dream, ‘I want to be on tour, I want to travel the country, I want to play in front of huge crowds.’ Euroblast is that but bigger and better,” says Owen. “We are playing for a group of people tailored to progressive metal. All 6,000 people at Euroblast want to hear progressive metal. They want to hear what we’re going to play.”
Even after all this success, Akeldama still had something to prove – they’d been working on a full-length over the past year. Everything Beautiful, which is set to be self-released, is to be the group’s debut LP. Relationships the band has built also add legitimacy with an impressive showing – Keshav Dhar of Skyharbor, Ashe O’Hara of TesseracT and Per Nilsson of Scar Symmetry all make an appearance on Everything Beautiful. Big names for a band without the backing of a label.
“Everything Beautiful has been in production for so long, and all the while, I’ve listened to it almost every day. I honestly believe that if I can listen to it for this long and still enjoy it, then it’s one of those albums that people won’t forget,” says Owen. “It’s also been a learning experience for us, and though it sets the bar high, I believe it’s just a stepping stone in fulfilling our potential.”
As I begin prodding about Everything Beautiful, the group’s tone starts to shift. The guys lean closer to the table to make sure the recorder picks up every word while shedding their lighthearted smiles for an attitude much more serious.
“One of the biggest things about Akeldama from its inception was that we wanted to have a metal band that was both appealing to the people that want to hear something heavy but at the same time it is something positive,” Schweitzer says. “It has a very positive feel to it. Everything Beautiful has a very positive aspect to it.”
Their goal with Everything Beautiful is for everyone, in some way, to relate to the music. To create that monster of an album that has a lasting effect on the listener. “When you’re emotionally connected with an album it becomes something special to you,” Zink says, and there is clearly pride and confidence in his voice. “Everyone who listens to music has that one album that they really relate to – whether it’s lyrics, the music itself, or whatever, they can find a way to relate to it and it makes them feel better. It’s uplifting. That is the biggest thing about this album. Growing up, music would help me get through hard times. Anyone can blast death metal or whatever, but everyone has that one album that is special to them – that album that helps them get through life. We want [this] to be that album for someone.”
“We could not be more happy with how Everything Beautiful turned out,” says Knapp as we wrap up our conversation. “We have all put in our time, commitment, money, blood, sweat, and tears into something we are truly proud of.”
The bartender comes by to pick up the empty beer glasses while everyone fiddles around with their wallets. We pay our tabs and start walking down the street to St. Pete’s State Theatre where Akeldama has a show in a few hours. I thank the guys for their time and wish them luck. We shake hands and they head off down the sidewalk together and I can’t help but think of something Sprich said.
“If the Akeldama guys manage to keep their band of brothers together and stick to their dreams, which I think they will, then they will become a very successful band.”
It’s easy enough to agree with Sprich. Akeldama is among the best upcoming progressive metal acts out there. When the world gets to hear Everything Beautiful, Knapp knows that even though they’ve done so much already, this is just the first step.
“We believe it will be the beginning of something great for us.”