Chris Ojeda: Vocals, Rhythm Guitar
Brian Henderson: Lead Guitar, Vocals
Sean Sydnor: Bass Guitar, Acoustic Guitar
Matt Bowles: Drums
To state that The Cicada Tree is 'classic Byzantine' in no way implies that this is an album solely rooted in the band's past. Certainly, all of the hallmarks that have made their sound so compelling for close to two decades are present and correct: muscular yet lithe riffs and fluid leads play against gripping, dynamic and at times unpredictable rhythms, while rich melodies and lyrics that are both involved and intelligent wind their way through every track. But, once more, the groove metal unit has continued their steady evolution - the interplay between their members organic and natural, imbuing the record's sixty-two-minute running time with a freshness and urgency. "After seventeen years of writing music for Byzantine, I know to let it just come as it may," states vocalist/guitarist Chris Ojeda. "I never really know what the songs are going to sound like or even the direction they might take. My main focus is to always experiment and push the parameters that have been pushed by past Byzantine albums, without straying too far from the original goal."
With recently recruited drummer Matt Bowles (ex-Our Malignant Beloved) infusing their sound with a new youthfulness, alongside the heady talents that guitarist Brian "Hendo" Henderson and bassist Sean Sydnor bring to bear, penning the follow up to 2015's To Release Is To Resolve was far from an arduous process. For Ojeda, racking up a substantial discography has brought an extra assuredness to his songwriting, which shines through at every turn. "The first few albums, you're trying to find your sound, and sometimes you tend to not see the forest for the trees. Now, on album number six, it seems a calmness took hold during the songwriting process, possibly from just having more confidence in our sound. At this point, our fans expect us to experiment and push our boundaries, which is an extremely liberating feeling." The Cicada Tree easily stands as their most accessible release to date, with the likes of "Map of the Creator" perfectly pitching weighty metallic elements against ruthlessly catchy melodies, while the pulsating crunch of "Trapjaw" is irresistible. However, Ojeda's assertion that there are no "jumping the shark" or "wimping out" moments that might serve to alienate their longtime faithful rings true, and when they really push their sound to its limit - most prominently on the nine-minute "Verses Of Violence" and the jazz-infused volatile metal of "Incremental" - they still remain very much Byzantine. True to form, while the epic strains of "Verses of Violence" flirt with multiple genres, it started out as a simple riff and grew organically from there, and at no point did they have a specific running time in their crosshairs. Likewise, "Incremental" evolved naturally even while they were in the studio. "I stopped writing the album at seven songs in, thinking we were going to re-record an old song as well as add two covers," Ojeda admits. "Our engineer, Jay Hannon, told me the album didn't feel complete and I needed to keep pushing myself. I took his advice to heart and wrote 'Incremental' and 'The Subjugated' pretty quickly, and while in the studio Hendo's jazzy solo was the cherry on top for 'Incremental'. It's actually one of my favorite tracks on the album, and it started out essentially as a filler song."
When it comes to lyrics, Ojeda once again teamed with childhood friend Jamie P. Rakes, who has helped ghostwrite the last few Byzantine releases. The combination of approaches taken by these two artists has long resulted in a variety of themes being covered, and this very much holds true for The Cicada Tree. "He likes to focus on relationship woes on songs like 'Dead as Autumn Leaves' as well as the political issues he covers on 'Vile Maxim', which helps me out because I tend to focus on things that happen in my life. Conversely, I always write a song about alien intervention, which on this record is 'The Subjugated'." The album title - and the song of the same name - is drawn entirely from an event the frontman experienced in his home state of West Virginia in 2016, "The Seventeen Year Cicada" cycle. "It's a type of locust that lies dormant underground for sixteen years, only to emerge in the seventeenth year, and it then lives for three months above ground to morph, mate, give birth and die. We had a swarm of roughly 1,000 cicada in my front yard underneath a small tree. My eight-year-old daughter, my pregnant-at-the-time girlfriend and I spent the whole season catching and studying them. It was a beautiful experience." While looking for potential album titles, Ojeda's girlfriend playfully suggested The Cicada Tree, and while initially dismissing this as a joke he soon had an epiphany. "Byzantine was coming up on its seventeenth year of existence and, just like the cicada, we spent the last sixteen years underground. So, 'The Cicada Tree' is a metaphor for the lifespan of Byzantine."
With Hannon having overseen every Byzantine release since 2013's self-titled comeback album, the recording sessions went smoothly, the only real hindrance being the band's availability, given that they - like a great many contemporary musicians - still hold down full-time jobs. Splitting the tracking between their rehearsal space and Hannon's studio in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, fans were given the opportunity to be a part of this process, as the band live-streamed the guitar solo and vocal sessions on the internet. "For an hour or two each night, we let fans watch us record the album as well as interacting with them simultaneously. Some fans even suggested trying parts differently, which we did. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time." Having never had the budget to experiment with a range of equipment, Ojeda acknowledges that each of their albums is a snapshot that ultimately sounds "exactly like we sound live at the time, and this one is a tad 'wetter' and 'denser' in production than our last album, and a little more expansive." With the artwork also of great importance, the band once more turned to Christopher Lovell, who provided the vivid imagery for To Release Is To Resolve, and it effortlessly catches the spirit and tone of The Cicada Tree. The combined efforts of these individuals have resulted in one of the finest moments in the band's enviable career, and having signed with Metal Blade Records, they are looking forward to giving their new material the exposure it deserves. "We have done such little touring in our career, and 'To Release Is To Resolve' definitely didn't get the live push that it needed because we all had to work. We hope our partnership with Metal Blade will be able to correct that, and we'll have more opportunities with 'The Cicada Tree'." Beyond that, Ojeda is already looking toward the future with a very simple long-term goal: "To continue to write and record top shelf heavy metal, and hopefully be considered as a consistently good metal band." Given the catalog that backs this up and the strength of their latest salvo, it's safe to say that those exposed to Byzantine know they are far, far more than just a consistently "good" metal band.