Their massively successful cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence" has had a profound effect on the members of Disturbed. While they had another No. 1 Mainstream Rock Songs hit from 2015's Immortalized with their original tune "Open Your Eyes," "Silence" stirred something deep inside of them. "It definitely gave us license to do something we've been wanting to do for a very long time," acknowledges frontman David Draiman when he speaks with Billboard. "Not that we needed anybody's permission, but we've been wanting to do an acoustic record for years."
The Chicago quartet's seventh and latest studio album Evolution, while not an all-out acoustic affair, is their most diverse album ever and one of their best, on par with their 2002 hit album Believe. Draiman has compared Evolution to Metallica's Black album. Yet unlike that megaplatinum release, nearly half the songs here are acoustic or semi-acoustic. That hardly means they're standard ballads, though. "Watch You Burn" is a gritty rocker played out acoustically, the gentle "A Reason To Fight" features an anthemic chorus, while bonus track "The Uninvited Guest" is a somber, semi-orchestral composition. But fans of their electric thunder will find plenty to chew on with bristling tunes like "Are You Ready," "Savior Of Nothing," and "Best Ones Lie."
Draiman notes that the normal writing process for a Disturbed album starts with the heavy stuff. "We just never prioritized the other styles," notes the singer. But the resounding success of the Paul Simon-endorsed "The Sound of Silence" inspired them to think bigger. "We showed that we could do something different and be successful at it," he says. "If we could do that and achieve that, what limitations are there anymore? The answer in our minds was no. So we just literally went wherever our creative juices were going and flowing on any given day, with the specific intention of starting with the more laid back stuff out of the gate."
It was clear that during the band hiatus between 2011 and 2015 – when vocalist Draiman created the industrial-laced Device, guitarist Dan Donegan and drummer Mike Wengren indulged in the melodic hard rock of Fight Or Flight, and bassist John Moyer joined ranks with Adrenaline Mob and later other groups – the members needed to explore other musical vistas. Surprisingly, the return of Draiman, Donegan, and Wengren with Immortalized did not expand much from the uniform approach of the group's previous three releases. But it seems that the spirit of Simon and Garfunkel infused a new musical ethos within them. (A live version of "The Sound of Silence" with guest Myles Kennedy is included on Evolution.)
Just because there is a softer side to the album does not mean that Disturbed have overhauled their sound and gone pop with Evolution. The Chicago band are opening up musically and vocally, but retaining their edge while exploring greater possibilities. "There are so many different textures on this record," says Draiman. "I love that about it. I love the different characters that each one of these songs takes on."
The new album artwork reflects this transformation. This is their first cover in 13 years not to feature their band mascot, The Guy, that hooded figure with glowing red eyes and malevolent grin. He first appeared in embryonic form as a face within the art of their debut The Sickness, then was first fully featured among the throng on their third album Ten Thousand Fists. The Guy grew into a strong, more powerful figure with Indestructible and Asylum, amassed sinister young minions in The Lost Children, then became portrayed as a living mountain for Immortalized.
While he does not appear on the Evolution cover, The Guy has been reborn within. "You see that chain on the cover, the Double Helix inside," explains Draiman. "Underneath the disc is The Guy in fetal mode hooked in – his umbilical cord is this DNA strain. It's symbolic of evolution." (Perhaps, too, is the singer's removal of his signature double labret chin piercings; "It just felt kind of weird walking around like a 45-year-old Hot Topic kid," he told a German news outlet.)
The new Disturbed opus certainly maintains the insurgent vibe that has endeared them to fans worldwide, albeit in a more mature form. The lyrics clearly address the social unrest that has been gripping America and the world, but without specific names being called out.
"To be honest, brother, it's us – it's us versus them," stresses Draiman. "It's always been us versus them, and the them are the people who profit from our fear. Them are people who profit from tyranny, them are the people who profit from pitting us against each other. It's us versus them. When you get in a room full of people at a performance, it doesn't matter. You become one of us and transcend everything in that moment, and fuck it all. At that point, everything else simply doesn't matter. All that matters is that everybody's there for the same reason, to hear the same song, and to get caught in that same moment to take them away from the bullshit. That's the beauty of it."
There has definitely been an ideological shift in the metal world since the 1980s, the time when thrash bands in particular railed against corrupt politicians, the threat of nuclear war, and social inequities. Along with a shift to the right politically, a key quandary in our post-9/11 world is that who the oppressors are varies dependent upon on one's political beliefs. Conservatives feel oppressed by liberals and vice versa.
"And to others, it would simply be being oppressed no matter where your voice may sit, depending on where the divide begins," offers Draiman. "Oppressed is one of the terms that's very, very sell-able and easily thrown around these days because everybody feels it, no matter what side you're on. We thrive on it. We're addicted to it. What would we do without being oppressed these days? We'd be bored to death. You're oppressing me somehow. I especially can't report about it on social media anymore." (Draiman quit Twitter in 2015.)
The singer feels that social media has become a poison from which no good resolution can stem. "You go in with the best of intentions, you want to maintain a real connection, and we do," he remarks of his band's online presence. "We do in our own way with our public sites, and we still try and be as personal with our base possibly can and show as much of ourselves as we possibly can. If you give a finger, they want the whole hand sometimes. It's not an easy thing. There's really no good thing that is going to come from it in the end, other than you getting burned and being exposed to a whole bunch of cesspool horror that you don't ever want to witness in your lifetime. For what? That's what these things have become."
Along those lines, the song "In Another Time" bemoans the virtual world that much of the population has gotten sucked into at the expense of real life interaction. The song "Savior Of Nothing" – "Social Justice Warriors of the world, unite," quips Draiman – is actually critical of people on both sides of that issue. "That's my big thing on this record, and in general – making sure that the knife cuts both ways," he says.
On the flip side, the ballad "Hold On To Memories," while tackling a familiar sentiment, features a vocal performance we would not have gotten from a twentysomething David Draiman. It's one of his favorites from Evolution. "I wouldn't have had the balls to do this back then, to be honest," he admits. "I haven't allowed myself to go there vocally all these years. A lot of this was experimenting, and that experimentation in and of itself was incredibly fulfilling. This is stuff I haven't done since I was a teenager, for God's sake. It was a trip."
While "Hold On To Memories" was created early in the writing process, it was not until near the end of creating the album that they solidified it, particularly Donegan's acoustic guitar solo. Draiman says he encouraged it and praises it as one of his bandmate's best solos. "He's really outdone himself," says the singer.
Another piece of Evolution's sonic puzzle is the return of bassist John Moyer to the studio for the first time in eight years. Draiman says that while Moyer was not involved in the writing process, he is so professional that he was able to record his parts in two or three days. "John's an amazing musician and that's why he was able to do it that quick, don't let me kid you here," adds Draiman. "We wanted to hit the tonality of his tracking because with his pick playing there's a percussive nature to the attack that's really welcome tonally speaking. And specifically having the way that he plays is tremendous and was a big addition."
One of the most personal songs on the album for the singer is "A Reason To Fight." He is still haunted by the ex-girlfriend who took her life and inspired the lyrics to "Inside The Fire" from Indestructible. "That was when I was 16," recalls Draiman. "Some stars fade fast." He also recently lost his grandmother and other people in his life. "Between people in the music community, between Chester and Chris and Vinnie, and everybody that we've just lost recently, whether it's been natural causes or unnatural causes... The unnatural ones are the ones that we really need to start talking about at some point. And start dealing with depression, start dealing with addiction. It is a demon and is something that we need to recognize as something that we need to start actively doing something about. Not just being like 'That's too bad' after the fact. We need families coming together, communities coming together, people coming together, recognizing it and addressing it sooner than later. It's ridiculous. We need to mobilize at this point. We're losing people too often."
The songs "Hold On To Memories" and "Already Gone" certainly possess an overtly melancholic quality inspired by real life circumstances that point to the darker underbelly of the album.
"How much loss and death have we had to experience as a community, as individuals?" muses Draiman. "How many loved ones have we lost to the demon of addiction, of depression, over the course of the past five, six years of our lives? It's unbearable. It really is. The record doesn't feel as dark as the subject matter implies necessarily, but this is a record that deals with death, loss, and rebellion. It's a strange combination, but it's not quite so strange when you go on the journey."