On the evidence of forthcoming album ‘Conquering’, Justine Jones and Sammy Urwin have spent the pandemic molding their band into a world-smashing entity.
Woking is an English commuter town twenty-five minutes outside London by train. There is an incongruous statue of Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel outside the station. The town is the birthplace of Paul Weller of The Jam and The Style Council. H.G. Wells chose nearby Horsell Common as the location for the Martian landing in ‘The War of the Worlds’. It is an ordinary place where extraordinary things might happen.
During the pandemic, Justine Jones – co-founder and singer of Employed To Serve – has walked many times in the sandpit area of the common. The place is good for the imagination. Growing up in Woking also provided an umbilical cord to London’s music scene. That nourished the growth of local talent.
‘Being able to pop into London for shows or any tours coming through there was a huge part of me being inspired to form a band,’ says Jones. ‘We had quite a good local scene as well. Our church put on shows. We used to watch Open Skies, who were Josh from Palm Reader’s old band. There were loads of bands coming through and I think it was quite a healthy scene back then.’
Employed To Serve was formed nine years ago by Jones and guitarist Urwin, at first playing with a drum machine. Jones describes their first album as ‘scatty’ and ‘mathy’ – a herky-jerky record which caught people’s attention. Since then, Employed To Serve have evolved – fast. 2017’s ‘The Warmth Of A Dying Sun’ and 2019’s ‘Eternal Forward Motion’ polished the edges of their sound. Groove (largely) supplanted grinding speed. In the songs “I Spend My Days (Wishing Them Away)” and “Force Fed” they crafted dense and pummelling bangers that sent audiences ballistic. They earned the unprecedented honour of a 6/5 score in ‘Kerrang!’ for one of their shows.
After their European tour was curtailed in Spring 2020, and the band battled illness with Covid, Urwin spent the summer writing a new album called ‘Conquering’. The spirit of the record is a great distance from “Harsh Truth” on ‘Eternal Forward Motion’ – a song about closing the curtains and wallowing in depression. Jones describes ‘Conquering’ as their Hatebreed-‘Perseverance’ album, packed full of defiant beatdowns like “We Don’t Need You”.
Employed To Serve write incisive lyrics about mental health. Jones has spoken to me in the past about drawing on the simple, powerful storytelling of John Steinbeck. He draws characters that Jones recognises in her own life. Over the pandemic, she’s kept things as dystopian as possible, choosing to read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ and George Orwell’s ‘1984’, rather than social media and the unrelenting news cycle.
‘Lyrically, I think heaviness means stark honesty about real-life experiences of ourselves and people around us,’ Jones told me a couple of years ago. ‘For example, pop music can be “heavy” lyrically. Musically, I personally feel that heaviness shines through when there are peaks and troughs in a song. A big riff has more effect after a quiet lull in a song. Don’t get me wrong, I feel like grindcore bands are definitely heavier than pop bands, but I think there are different meanings you can take from the word “heavy”.’
When the band has written a final breakdown as heavy, slow and sickening as that on “Dull Ache Behind My Eyes” from ‘Eternal Forward Motion’, where do you go next? The first 90 seconds of ‘Conquering’ opener “Universal Chokehold” evinces a different beast: a pared-back guitar melody overlaid with cello and strings gives way to skyscraper chords, a sequence of unfathomable drum breaks and then all-over-the-top riffing as the band charges forward – guitar solos are ripped from the maelstrom and Jones’s bark carries through. Recorded over the ‘unforgiving’ winter of 20/21, Jones’s voice gave out, partly through overwork on the label she runs with Urwin, Church Road. She had to record her vocals part-time over successive weekends. It gave her the time and space to work on her phrasing and deliver the performance of her career.
Employed To Serve have evolved into a fully-fledged metal band. Aside from Jones and Urwin, the lineup has three new members: guitarist David Porter, bassist Nathan Pryor and drummer Casey McHale. The new recruits are keen to show they are battle ready. A different rhythm section changes the propulsion and energy of a band. A gifted guitarist lifts a song. Together they can bury a song six foot deep – just listen to the finale of “Stand Alone”, which brings the lid down on ‘Conquering’. They want to win whatever war is thrown at them. These songs are written for the big stages. This is Employed To Serve’s fourth album: it’s time to go big or go home.
‘It’s more guitar solos, more verse-chorus-structured songs,’ says Jones of their new metal-orientated direction. ‘So more technical, I think as well, while still being accessible. There’s a lot more repeating here, rather than just riff after riff, that kind of thing. And also, we’ve done that sound on “Warmth…” and “Eternal Forward Motion”. They were not the same album, but went in a similar sort of direction. So we really wanted to change it up and set this album apart from our previous records.’
On “Mark Of The Grave” Urwin supplies a clearly sung lead vocal. It underlines how melodicism is vying with the cut-throat on this new album – the latter encapsulated in the breakdown following the guitar solo. He has always played shout-man alongside Jones, but his vocals are more prominent throughout ‘Conquering’.
‘We wanted to have some singing on the album,’ says Jones. ‘We’ve had a singing presence since the first EP we did as a two piece. So it lent itself well, having Sammy sing, and I feel like it adds another layer to these songs. It’s just more interesting. It really suits us having the dual vocals. Also, I just can’t sing. So if we wanted singing on the record, someone else had to do it!’
For ‘Conquering’, the band went back to the titans of the nineties. Now in her late twenties, Jones grew up watching Roadrunner Records bands like Machine Head on music channels ‘Scuzz’ and ‘Kerrang! TV’. Music is cyclical. Employed To Serve aren’t the only ones looking back a quarter of a century for their inspiration. Code Orange play gigs wearing Pantera, Sepultura and Type O Negative t-shirts – their influences are on their sleeves. Urwin is clearly visible crowd-surfing in the tightest possible situation in the video of Machine Head’s ‘K! Pit’ gig a couple of years ago, when Machine Head were touring for the 25th anniversary of their 1994 album ‘Burn My Eyes’.
‘They [the nineties bands] did it so flawlessly that I think it’s hard for people not to take notice about what they mean after all these years,’ says Jones. ‘And with bands like Code Orange and us we’re all roughly the same age. So it’s kind of funny. There’s a lot of bands like us, including Power Trip and Venom Prison – we all grew up on this music. We’re all adults now, on however many albums, hopefully keeping that sort of sound alive whilst putting our own spin on it as well.’
For a few years now, a new generation has been organising itself to storm the gates of metal’s citadel. These things take time: a band exploding on their first album is a rarity now. Most are building careers that break through on their fourth of fifth record, something which Jones sees as healthy. She’s not sure how well she would have coped if they had had instant success aged 21.
I saw Employed To Serve supporting Code Orange in April 2018 in a small venue in the city of Portsmouth. It was a day off between Code Orange’s stint supporting Trivium on their arena tour. It was a soporific Sunday-night crowd. Employed To Serve worked very hard to get a rise out of us. They berated, cajoled – but never begged – the audience to warm up. And most importantly – they cared.
Their bold, browbeating new album, as well as their work ethic, has earned them a slot supporting Gojira on their European tour this coming March, alongside Alien Weaponry. Gojira are another band who have talked up the nineties, and acted on that inspiration by writing simpler, anthemic songs on their latest album, ‘Fortitude’ (read the Knotfest interview with Mario Duplantier here). Jones sees the Frenchmen as the ‘gold medal’ metal band of the moment.
The Download Pilot festival in June road-tested the next generation of British metal. It was a government-sanctioned version of the full-blown Download Festival. The capacity was downsized to 10,000 attendees over the weekend, all of whom underwent Covid testing before and after. What was most interesting was the lineup. It only featured UK-based bands due to travel restrictions – many established like Employed To Serve, but plenty of newcomers too.
Jones thought the event was ‘wonderful’, singling out the ‘phenomenal’ Bullet For My Valentine in their Sunday headlining slot. Perhaps she enjoyed it so much because it was a taste of what’s to come: ‘I’m hoping it’s proved that the next wave of bands are ready to take the top slots now.’
‘In time I’m conquering’, sang Kirk Windstein on “Conquering”, from Crowbar’s 1996 album ‘Broken Glass’. Employed To Serve have spent nearly a decade arming themselves for victory. Yet, who expected this sizeable an upgrade in their weaponry? As part of a vanguard of bands who don’t sound alike but inspire each other, it will be fascinating to see who else follows them over the top. Everyone needs to get out of the way – or get in the pit.
Conquering, the fourth full length album from from Employed to Serve arrives September 17th via Spinefarm Records. Pre-Order the album – HERE.