Fighting talk: How Trivium got their voice back

a portrait of trivium
(Image: © Justin Borucki)

May 2014. Columbus, Ohio. Trivium are playing to a packed Rock On The Range festival when Matt Heafy, worryingly, notices his voice is failing. After the set, he heads home to Orlando to seek medical help, and the band cancel their remaining tour dates. Things don’t look good.

“It was a weird, scary moment,” remembers bassist Paolo Gregoletto today. “Matt had to get his voice checked first to make sure nothing was wrong, and then talk to the voice coach, and then it was like… ‘Screaming might not be a thing anymore.’”

It was the second time Matt had blown his voice out, throwing the future of the band into doubt. Adding to their feeling of instability, they also had to recruit a new drummer, Mat Madiro, right before recording their seventh record. Camp Trivium wasn’t the best place to be.

“It felt like everything was stacking up to create a vibe that wasn’t going to be exactly the right headspace you wanna go into with recording,” says Paolo diplomatically.

But schedules are schedules, and the band headed into the studio with producer Michael ‘Elvis’ Baskette. Matt, known for agonising over every detail of the band, sometimes to the detriment of his wellbeing, was incredibly tense. He was unable to scream, only to sing, and was relying on the new techniques he’d learned from M. Shadows-approved coach Ron Anderson to carry his performance.

“I wasn’t able to expand my wings to their full extreme capabilities, and it was the same with our drumming – Mat was not able to go to the extreme level,” explains Matt. “He’s great at his style, but he wasn’t able to go to 10; nor was I. So that’s definitely a handicap on two ends.”

The result, born of these constraints, was Silence In The Snow: a traditional metal album with no unclean singing that harked back to classic artists such as Ronnie James Dio and Judas Priest. While it was a commercial success, hitting the US and the UK top 20 on its release in October 2015, it fractured Trivium’s hardcore fanbase, some of whom struggled to love its slowed-down pace and old-school feel.

“It just didn’t all click the way we were hoping for,” says Paolo bluntly.

Matt: fighting fit

Matt: fighting fit
(Image: © Justin Borucki)

The vibe in Trivium today couldn’t be more different. Matt’s intensity is there, as he draws his chair opposite ours in the London pub where we’re chatting, but his body language is open and he is smiling, as is perma-chilled bandmate Paolo. The pair, along with guitarist Corey Beaulieu and new drummer Alex Bent, are preparing to release eighth album The Sin And The Sentence. It sees a return to screaming – and with it, a chance to unite the fans once more.

Paolo started work on The Sin And The Sentence in early summer, before Silence In The Snow had even hit the shelves, and began reading up on the technical side of writing vocals. He denies he was unhappy with the record, but was nevertheless keen to drive Trivium onwards and upwards.

“I felt unresolved,” he explains. “I wasn’t disappointed with Silence…, but I felt like I wasn’t done writing. We were really focusing on Silence…, and we didn’t sacrifice trying to put everything into that and touring for it, but in the back of my head I was trying to build up the concept and the vision of the next record.”

The band headlined Bloodstock in August 2015, where Matt tried screaming for the first time since Rock On The Range. Although he didn’t feel like he was operating at full capacity, he knew his power was returning. It was a relief. In April 2016, they entered a rehearsal room and began bouncing ideas around, just like they did in the Ascendancy days in the early 00s. It was there that Trivium decided to put Matt’s voice front and centre of the new material.

“The rule we set in the beginning was the vocals were going to dictate how the song was going to go,” says Paolo. “So if we really loved the vocal part and it was clashing with the riffs, we were going to alter the riffs and work around that.”

Following his research, Paolo ended up writing most of the lyrics and vocal melodies. Meanwhile, in a role reversal, Matt was inspired to throw himself into writing music again, getting involved with the early stages in a way he hadn’t done for years. He credits an interview with Hammer, about debut album Ascendancy’s 10th anniversary, with jump-starting him into action.

“We were talking to you guys singing the praises of Ascendancy, and Ember To Inferno was just re-released, and I was like, ‘Holy shit. This is the band I’m in right now’,” he says incredulously. “And I felt like I woke up. I was like, ‘What the hell have I been doing?’ I’m not saying by any means I’d been phoning anything in, but I hadn’t been writing as much music for the last two records.

“I guess we were talking about what an influential record Ascendancy was, and generations of fans that grew up into it. And talking to Bury Tomorrow, who I’m fans of, and them saying that they were in the front row at Portsmouth for our show on that album, and While She Sleeps saying they saw us at Rock City… that made me snap out of autopilot. Things were going good, and I was content with the steady climb, but that’s what made us buckle down and say we have to be fucking better.”

Two of Matt’s contributions happened by chance. Scream-led track The Wretchedness Inside was originally ghost-written for a modern metal band – he won’t reveal who – three years ago, but they never used it. Matt put it up on his food blog, Kiichi Chaos. When his bandmates heard it, they insisted on revamping it.

More recently, Matt has been scoring for Orlando businesses, such as property companies and food trucks. When his friend from a personal training company asked him to compose a piece like Dying In Your Arms for a corporate video, Matt came up with the song that would become the melodic, solo-filled Endless Night.

“I think my best writing sometimes is when I write things that aren’t for Trivium,” he confesses.

Is that because you feel more free?

“That has to be it. I definitely notice that with recording vocals, for example.”

He goes on to talk of how the atmosphere during Silence In The Snow was strained, and how adrenaline-boosting techniques that might help other musicians to express themselves don’t work for him: he needs to feel relaxed, not pressured, when he’s writing and recording.

“We’ve heard stories of producers that put band guys in really bad situations,” he frowns. “One of these producers knew a singer in his band gets motion sick or freaks out from heights, so they put him in a van with no seatbelt and drove him around the cliffs, and threw him out of the car and made him record the vocals right away. Jim Root told us once that Ross Robinson kicked him in the chest while he was recording guitar on Iowa. And none of that shit works for us. When we’re in a really good mood and nothing bad is happening, when we’re overly happy and overly prepared, that’s when I sound the most aggressive.”

Corey is so metal, his invisible oranges are bigger than yours

Corey is so metal, his invisible oranges are bigger than yours
(Image: © Justin Borucki)

When Trivium went to Hybrid Studios in Santa Ana, California, in May last year, Matt was nervous about bringing that aggression to bear. Producer Josh Wilbur (Lamb Of God, Gojira), a longtime Trivium fan who mixed their last record and saw them play CBGBs back in 2005, took him into the smallest room and urged him to throw out the vocal rulebook. It was something he understandably struggled with.

“One of the things I swore I’d never do again in my entire life was scream incorrectly, because that’s what blew my voice out and was fucking my voice for 15 years,” says Matt. “And this entire record I did it. And I was terrified.”

Matt compromised by recording his vocals in stages. He sang the high notes and the low notes with a proper technique, so he wouldn’t have to worry about hitting them, then pushed himself to do the main vocals wrong. After that, he could go back and work on the harder parts, knowing he had already got the material in the bag.

“Letting go is the hardest fucking thing for me, and everyone knows it,” he confesses, with a self-aware smile. “All my bandmates know it, all my close personal friends know it – that I over-analyse everything I do. Videogames, Jiu Jitsu, music, guitar, dressing, walking, everything. I analyse the shit out of it. With Josh, I was like, ‘Well, can we at least do my plan if you wanna try this? Because these vocals are gonna be wrong and hurt.’”

All in all, Josh made him record the vocals three times to get the best results. Thankfully, Matt came out of the process unscathed.

“Josh was a confidence-builder,” adds Paolo. “He said to Matt, ‘I understand what’s in your head and what’s making you freaked out, but let me tell you – I have never worked with a guy that’s ever blown his voice out, and we’ve always pushed it to the limits to get the performance.’ In the studio, it’s bare bones, and you’ve gotta let everything out.”

For Silence In The Snow, Matt modelled his vocals on the late, great Ronnie James Dio. Surprisingly, he credits pop queen Adele as an inspiration this time around.

“On our records, I feel like we’ve never captured that live energy of me as a singer,” says Matt. “Maybe I was never let loose enough. I watched a documentary series featuring Adele called Soundbreaking, and someone who worked with her was saying that she’s amazing because she has that technical proficiency, but then she has that X factor that you can’t describe. It makes you feel like you’re actually being moved. And with this record, I can feel that in the screaming.”

Matt’s gamble paid off, his voice polished as steel one minute and bursting out of his chest the next. The Sin And The Sentence sounds modern, fresh, eclectic, and a close relative of Trivium’s own favourite records – Ascendancy and In Waves. Matt points to the high-energy Betrayer as an example of the band’s enduring ability to synthesise multiple genres.

“I think this is probably one of the most unique songs on the record in the influences it draws from,” he enthuses. “It’s the most punk chorus we’ve ever had, and that middle section’s very black metal, but there are ‘whoas’ happening underneath it. It’s a strange mixture of music. And that’s why I love it so much. I think that’s what Trivium does best. What we love playing the most, what our fans love about us, is when Trivium has everything. I think that’s the key.”

He says this while wearing a Darkthrone t-shirt. Before arriving at the pub today, the duo visited north London record store Crypt Of The Wizard, where Matt bought Mayhem’s Deathcrush and At The Gates’ Gardens Of Grief on vinyl, plus a 1996 vintage Maiden Killers t-shirt. In the car on the way over, he listened to Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, Damn. When they were writing Sin…, he immersed himself in “everything from Dead Kennedys, to Architects, to Emperor, to Stick To Your Guns, to classical music, to harpsichord music, to gypsy jazz and everything in between”. Paolo was influenced by the “deep intensity” of Run The Jewels.

“We always need to have all our options on the table,” explains Paolo. “Like Matt being way into black metal, and Corey and I being into thrash, and then all of us loving Iron Maiden and Metallica. Being able to have all those things at our disposal and not have to force them out – a riff’s coming out, and we’re writing knowing that Matt can scream and sing – it just opens up what people consider that Trivium sound. And it’s not natural to take any of that away. Like, Matt can’t scream. Well how do you make this Trivium, then?”

Paolo: lyrical master

Paolo: lyrical master
(Image: © Justin Borucki)

Despite Paolo’s comments, he insists Silence In The Snow has a place in Trivium’s discography. Looking back, he says they’ve learned from it and celebrate its successes.

“It was an album that was made under different circumstances than this record was made, and I’m totally proud of it,” he says. “When you don’t have all the capabilities, you have to get better at something else. We had to get better as melodic songwriters. I think it pushed [third single] Until The World Goes Cold to another level because of that, because we were so focused on, ‘Well if the screaming’s not going to be here, we have to make these songs really great.’”

Still, listening to them enthuse about Sin… today, there’s an overriding happiness that they’ve got unclean vocals back in their arsenal. Matt stresses about his voice but follows a strict routine, enforced with the rigid discipline he’s learned from practising Jiu Jitsu. At home, he sings and screams for two to four hours a day, five days a week – even if he doesn’t feel like it. On tour, he drives “my bandmates and my friends crazy” by constantly warming up.

“Every show day, it’s in my mind that I blew my voice out before and it could happen again,” he admits. “I shouldn’t think about it, it’s not healthy, but it’s just there. I’m a worrier. I kind of get it from my mom. I’m not blaming her, but we always think of the worst-case scenario of everything you could ever do. But it’s getting a little bit better, because I take care of myself.”

When Trivium released Ascendancy on the cusp of their 20s, they talked a good game, making ambitious pronouncements that have come back to haunt them on every cycle since. Headlining Bloodstock was undoubtedly a career high, but there’s still more work to be done if they want to unseat the greats. Could Sin… finally help them get there? Matt smiles, remembering those early days.

“Luckily, we’re young – we’re the age now that all the bigger metal bands were when Ascendancy came out,” he points out. “We’ve always set our goals very high, when we were 12 and 13 we said we were going to be the biggest metal band in the world, and that’s the first quote that we said here. Whether that happens or not, still to this day…”

Paolo interrupts with a characteristically positive spin.

“I think a better amendment to that is, we play like we’re the biggest band in the world, no matter what.”

It’s a line that countless bands have used to divert attention away from a perceived shortfall in success, yet you get the feeling that Paolo means it. And sometimes, underneath Matt’s modesty and studied thinking, that younger spirit shines through. Out of his mouth today rolls a quote tailor-made for a magazine.

“We were very hypercritical with ourselves on this record. We looked back at everything. Have I been a good enough singer? No. Have I been a good enough screamer? No. Have we made good enough songs? No.” He stares intently. “We said this record has to be the best thing we’ve ever made, or there’s no point in existing anymore. Thankfully, it is.”

The Sin And The Sentence is out October 20 via Roadrunner

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