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How 'Guardians' Became August Burns Red's Heaviest Album Yet

August Burns Red
Ray Duker

August Burns Red

It's getting difficult for the members of August Burns Red to keep one-upping themselves. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania metalcore quintet has earned four top 10 albums on the Billboard 200, picked up two best metal performance Grammy nominations and remains a touring juggernaut 15 years after releasing its debut album, Thrill Seeker. On their new full-length, Guardians, August Burns Red have accomplished another feat: writing their heaviest album yet.

But it didn't start that way.

Guitarist JB Brubaker and bassist Dustin Davidson began tracking demos for the band's latest studio album last April, completing eight songs before embarking on the Constellations 10th anniversary tour. But Brubaker didn't get quite the response he had hoped for when they showed the demos to singer Jake Luhrs. "I remember Jake said to me, after hearing the eight demos, he's like, 'Yeah, the songs are cool, but I feel like this record's definitely not as heavy as Phantom Anthem or Found in Far Away Places,'" Brubaker recalls. "And I was thinking, 'I thought it was pretty heavy, but shoot, maybe we're lacking some heavy bangers.' So Dustin and I were like, 'Okay, we better write some super heavy stuff for the last few songs we record.'"

Mission accomplished. Guardians amplifies all the August Burns Red hallmarks—dizzying guitar riffs and leads, atmospheric interludes, blood vessel-popping screams and plenty of breakdowns—making for a logical next step in their discography while also challenging them to elevate their playing and songwriting. "Bloodletter" boasts one of the group's most bludgeoning and virtuosic performances to date, as guttural roars and djent-esque breakdowns give way to sweeping guitar arpeggios. But other songs on Guardians allow the progressive metalcore veterans to streamline their attack, as on the hooky lead single "Defender" (which Brubaker calls "the most simplistic song I've ever written") and the anthemic "Lighthouse," which features an unprecedented clean-vocal chorus.

Brubaker wrote "Defender" after August Burns Red finished their 2018 tour with Parkway Drive, whose latest album, Reverence, consummated the Australian quintet's shift from Gothenburg-inspired metalcore to arena-ready metal anthems with prevalent clean vocals. "That's sort of a territory that August Burns Red hasn't dug into too much, and we investigated that a little more on Guardians," Brubaker says. "It was almost an experiment to see how our fans like it and how it's received, and to see if we still feel fulfilled as artists playing the kind of metal that is a little bit more straightforward."

It's not uncommon for metal bands to simplify their sound to court a wider audience, but for August Burns Red, it was a major ideological shift. The band has pushed the boundaries of "metalcore" with a series of increasingly progressive albums over the last decade, including 2013's literally titled Rescue & Restore, on which they sought to revitalize a subgenre riddled with cliches. Back then, the members of August Burns Red were reluctant to identify as a metalcore act, but as natural selection has weeded out the genre's worst offenders, they've grown more comfortable with the classification.

"The word metalcore became a little bit taboo for us in like, 2013. There was just this enormous boom of bands playing metalcore and it was just so watered-down and predictable and boring," Brubaker says. "And at this point now in 2020, I feel like so much of that heap of bands that were active seven years ago, so many of them have come and gone now that I'm not as embarrassed by the term 'metalcore' anymore. Because I feel like the bands who are left standing from that boom, it's sort of like the cream rose to the top. And while I much prefer just calling August Burns Red a metal band, I get why people would call us a metalcore band. I mean, we play a ton of breakdowns. So if you want to get quite literal about it, the 'core' is obvious."

For years, August Burns Red got lumped into another scene as well: Christian metal. It's not inaccurate, per se—several members of the band identify as Christians, and many of their lyrics contain gospel-centered messages—but it does virtually nothing to define a band's sound, and August Burns Red dropped the label years ago. Still, the lyrical through-line of Guardians—extending a helping hand to somebody in need—can be read in a spiritual or secular context. Consider the spoken-word interlude on "Lighthouse": "A monster's legacy ends the day he dies / A man never forgotten is the one who's crucified / The treasure is in the tatters, not just another cog in the wheel / Help those in need and you'll have said more than your words will ever say / Divine design will light the way."

Brubaker didn't write any of the lyrics to Guardians (guitarist Brent Rambler and drummer Matt Greiner handled most of those duties), so he declines to speak in-depth about them. But he does emphasize the band's desire to promote positivity and compassion in their lyrics, whether fans interpret them as an extension of the gospel, sociopolitical commentary or something in between.

"I grew up in a Christian household my entire life, went to church every Sunday. That was a very important part of my life growing up, and while I do not consider myself to be a Christian today, I certainly understand the values and morals associated with Christianity, and I think that they're very positive, and a great template on how to live your life," Brubaker says. "Christian or not, there's a responsibility to be a good person."