Fixating on the darkness: Jesse Leach on the harrowing new Times of Grace album

Fixating on the darkness: Jesse Leach on the harrowing new Times of Grace album

- By Dan Franklin

‘Songs of Loss and Separation’ makes it clear that it’s OK not to be OK. It is a somber and introspective record that dwells on heavy feelings, without trying to be unburdened of them.

For singer Jesse Leach the album shuns redemption: ‘There's a certain degree of therapy involved in allowing things to remain dark. Because when you're in a dark mood, or you're going through a bit of a depression, I don't automatically put on some reggae music and go, “Yeah man, things are great!” Sometimes I'll put on something that's dark and goth-y and brooding – that lovely word – and I'll just sit and bask in it.’

The Times of Grace album was written and recorded by Killswitch Engage members Adam Dutkiewicz (guitars, vocals) and Leach before, during and after the recording of 2019’s ‘Atonement’. Joined by drummer Dan Gluszak, it sees them older and wiser than on first album ‘The Hymn of a Broken Man’. Released a decade ago, when Leach was still out of Killswitch Engage, that record sounded in parts like a testing ground for his return.

Now, somewhat fatigued by the Killswitch Engage formula, Times of Grace pushed this new album to incorporate different sounds to their first: elements of outlaw country, shoegaze, post-metal, sludge rock and indie. The process, like the record itself, was slow, steady and painstaking. They wrestled with its sound to the point of exhaustion. Dutkiewicz re-amped the guitars ‘like, nine times’, according to Leach. The album was remixed again and again and again. They both sweated over the storytelling of the album, wanting to give it an overarching narrative. And not a happy one.

‘You know, we love Killswitch, we do,’ says Leach. ‘But what's the sense in making another project that sounds just like the main project you're doing. So I think that pushed us even more to diversify. And that came out through the music that Adam wrote. But it also came out through the direction of the lyrics and the way that I put down vocals. With the two songs with just spoken-word parts, we really were reaching to fulfil our artistic desire, but also make it interesting.’

One of the spoken-word sections occurs on the single “Medusa”, which Leach recites with the alliteration (“slithering serpent succubus”) and venom of a wronged lover. “You won’t kill the love in me”, he screams during the outro in a rare moment of his trademark Killswitch defiance.

‘There's a particular situation that at the time we were writing about: my separation, and what I was going through in my life. It didn't end well,’ says Leach. ‘Everything's great now, don't get me wrong, but at the time we were writing it, Adam basically said, “Just wallow in it. Sit in it like it's OK. There are people who are gonna be able to relate to that.” And, you know, some situations don't necessarily have this great positive the heavens open and everything's OK.’

The other spoken-word section is on “Far From Heavenless”, a song that demonstrates the parity between Leach and Dutkiewicz on vocals. The song begins with music-box delicacy, matched by a low-key Leach delivery that builds into a sweeping refrain (“Is there forgiveness for a soul that wanders?/ Or just bitterness/ Bitterness moving onwards?’”). Finally, the dam breaks with a pounding mid-tempo crush. Then out of nowhere, an inhuman bellow. This is the closest Times of Grace has sounded to Neurosis, whose sixth album they accidentally named themselves after. But it’s Dutkiewicz, and not Leach, bellowing here. He’s never sounded like this on an album before.

‘That vocal we call “the dude voice,”’ Leach laughs. ‘I'd actually say it's rooted in Boston hardcore, a band that Adam and I really love called Slapshot. They're still around. Adam gets drunk and that voice comes out on the bus, or whatever. I love yelling, it just sounds so much more of a badass sound and primal. He said, “What if I did my dude voice here?” And he did, and I was like, “... dude, that right there, more of that, it's so good.” Because it just punches you in the face. And if you're in the same room with him while he does that, it's as loud as you think it is.’

Known for his goofy antics onstage and his musicianship and professionalism off it, Dutkiewicz’s performance is the most arresting thing about ‘Songs of Loss and Separation’. From the nakedness of his voice on the lulling “Bleed Me” (with a strong “Something in the Way” by Nirvana vibe); through “Cold”, a song about losing a friend which brought Leach to tears; to the album’s devastating conclusion with “Forever”.

‘That was a conscious decision,’ says Leach. ‘That song “Forever” is about abuse. It's about narcissism. It's about obsession. It's about misinterpreting love and abuse. And the last couple lines of that are basically... it's dark. The album ends in a very dark place. And once we finished that song, and Adam did the “forever…” that ends it (he just keeps chanting “forever…”) we were like: that's it. That's how this album is going to end. It's not going to end up like we're all going to be OK. It's going to end up like, wow, this shit is fucked up.’

Leach characterises Dutkiewicz, with his musical education, as ‘order’; and himself, the ‘old punk’, as ‘chaos’. He is candid that there were times he wasn’t mentally fit to work on the record. Instead, Dutkiewicz sent him vocal demos and lyrics which Leach fed back on and tweaked. He speaks often about trying to make the album more ‘poetic’. Dutkiewicz responded by taking the initiative and performing lead vocals on a couple of the songs where he wasn’t intending to.

There was an extraordinary incident when Dutkiewicz sent Leach the demo for ‘Currents’, a song about the perils of romanticizing suicide. Leach initially baulked at it because it was so intense. He couldn’t believe Dutkiewicz had gone to that place lyrically. ‘You asshole,’ Dutkiewicz responded. ‘These are your lyrics!’ Leach had actually emailed him the lyrics when he was black-out drunk and had forgotten about them. It was almost as if a shadow self was reaching out to his collaborator.

‘Listening back to all the Killswitch stuff, he's very timid. It's very “mwaaa-maaaah”,’ says Leach about Dutkiewicz. ‘But on this you can hear him pushing. He sounds more like a man on this shit. And I encouraged him. It's bluesy. The way his voice comes out when he just gives a little bit of soul to it. He sounds great. And I think that makes the record. I think his vocal presence, his lyricism, really makes this much more of a collaboration and shows the thread of us co-writing together.’

That’s not to underplay Leach’s own contribution. "To Carry The Weight" sees Leach in self-assured voice, knowing when to reach for loftier realms and when to sing within himself. It’s one of the album’s most positive songs: ‘The sun will rise in tomorrow’s skies’. His harmonies and counterpoint vocals play a complementary role throughout the album. Elsewhere, his shriek – one of the most distinctive in heavy music – is used sparingly. When it comes though, it rips, unmistakeable, through the crescendos of ‘Mend You’ and ‘The Burden of Belief’.

I tell Leach that using his scream infrequently reminded me of his other band, Seemless, which he formed after he left Killswitch Engage in 2002. That band played a kind of propulsive stoner rock, punctuated with Leach’s gut-punch aggression. Just listen to their song “Lay My Burden Down” for a good example of him wringing emotion out of a song with insouciant ease.

‘Had it not been for Seemless, I don't know if I would even have the blues in me,’ says Leach. ‘And you can hear it on the first Times of Grace record. You know, even just the first song, “Strength in Numbers” – there's blues. I'm doing blues notes everywhere. It's a really comfortable style of vocal for me, because I'm not operatic. I'm not really well trained. I don't have this booming vibrato thing going on. I'm more comfortable belting it out. And then, instead of holding that note with a vibrato, I'll slip into a blues tone. That’s naturally how my voice is.’

After surgery for vocal nodules a few years ago, Killswitch Engage toured with Iron Maiden in Europe. Leach was transformed as a frontman. He had been forced not to sing and barely speak and express himself for two and a half months after the surgery. He then had one month to prepare to open for Iron Maiden. The first gig in Tallinn, Estonia, in front of 10,000 people, was revelatory.

‘I started to feel my voice and was like, wow, I'm closer to key than I've ever been,’ says Leach. ‘I'm actually able to do a little bit of vibrato. I remember coming off stage. And we had these big dressing rooms opening for Iron Maiden. There in the venue they had a huge gym-style shower – you could fit six people in there. And I remember closing the door and falling to my knees and just the tears started to flow and I'm like, I can still do this, I'm not going to fuck this up.’

The time he spent resting his voice during those months of recovery also centred him. He closely observed himself and lived a near ‘monastic’ lifestyle. He even speaks differently now. Leach seems more anchored today, even if the turbulence of life still buffets him. It’s questionable he could have made such a sad, and at times unforgiving, album as ‘Songs of Loss and Separation’ without the self-knowledge he has gained.

‘It's easy to run from something and suppress it and numb it, says Leach. ‘But that eventually will catch up to you. I know from myself and people in my life that if you don't face your demons, they're going to continue to torment you. The moment you allow them in, lay all the cards out, man. Sit face-to-face, have a drink with your demon and suss it out. Then it's going to be a lot easier to navigate the future, when you do come across a darker situation. Because of the wisdom you've gained, going through that last situation, you've got your ammunition. Anybody who's gone through dark times, heavy times – comes from a traumatic childhood, for example – you either become a byproduct of that, you become a broken person, or you are a warrior and go in the opposite direction. You rise, and you become somebody who is able to not only push their own lives in a good direction, but in turn help people that are going through that similar situation. I've been there.’

Another way Leach is asking people to open up and address their pain and trauma is on his new podcast with Matt Stocks, ‘Stoke The Fire’. Guests have included Vinnie Stigma of Agnostic Front and Mina Caputo of Life of Agony, as well as Leach’s father, Leroy.

‘Everybody's got a story,’ says Leach. ‘And everybody's story has something to be gained in the collective consciousness of humanity and spreading that story. Allowing people to have that platform is important to me. I've always loved that about people who were able to make good conversations. As opposed to an interview, where you ask questions and get the answer. When you go off-script... just talk about stuff.’

Leach and Stocks were inspired by the way Joe Strummer lit a fire at Glastonbury Festival for people to gather around and share their stories and experiences. For now, the podcast is hosted remotely via Zoom, but going forward Leach sees a long-term future in going out and travelling in the vein of Anthony Bourdain, breaking bread with people in a punk-rock manner. It’s either that or being a bartender.

‘It's such an earth-shifting thing for me where I absolutely love what we're doing,’ says Leach. ‘And I've learned so much. It’s something I really, truly, see happening for the long term – something I want to pursue. So when the day does come when this goes out, and I can't sing any more, or I'm just too old to do the stage thing, and it looks pathetic, I would love to continue to be in some shape or form a podcaster or interviewer-travel person. When I'm old and grey I would love to continue doing that. So it's been a blessing.’

All of us have become more familiar with loss and separation recently. The pandemic stalled the touring cycle of ‘Atonement’ for Killswitch Engage. Yet it opened the door for Times of Grace. There is a set of ‘heavier’ songs that were left off the album. There are ideas for acoustic material, perhaps building on the ‘backyard’ version of “The Forgotten One” from the first album, captured last year. There might well be more staring into the glass darkly to come. Times of Grace aren’t afraid to face it.

‘Let's just say it as it is,’ says Leach. ‘It's dark. It's crazy. It's strange. It's fucked up. And so be it. But you know, that goes along. You can talk about country music, you can talk about folk, you can talk about the old pagan sagas... I mean, there's always darkness, whether you're talking about warfare or death, or whatever. And I think that's the beauty of expression and art and music is bringing that shit to the surface. Now, it's important for us as a society to deal with the darker things because you can't run from them. You can't escape them, it's going to happen at some point or another.’

'Songs of Loss and Separation' is released 16 July on Wicked Good/ADA and is available for pre-order - HERE
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