For years, Doug Berns has been laying down funk basslines as the anchor of EMEFE, an hyperkinetic, party-starting afrobeat outfit. But when the sprawling band called it quits (earlier this year), Berns decided it was time to turn in a different direction and reveal his inner metalhead. The result is KTHRTK (pronounced cathartic), a thrashing, tightly-wound Brooklyn band that releases its debut EP, “Ender’s Game,” today.
Right from the jump, “Ender’s Game” throttles forward with guitarist Jacob Sunshine’s breakneck riffs: they bruise, and then turn into melancholic arpeggios on Berns’s morose yet anthemic choruses. The band is at its strongest when there’s a gaping chasm between the high and low ends. Berns’ trebly, seething screams soar over the syncopated riffs that dwell at the bottom of the mix.
There’s a palpable synergy in that low end between the rhythm section of Sunshine, drummer Alex Cohen, and bassist Mike Harlen. On “Lord of the Dawn,” the highs fall out halfway through, and Berns writes a labyrinthian riff which the band hurtles through in unison, attacking its minefield of sixteenth notes and of-kilter triplets with gleeful, sinister abandon.
I watched “Pan’s Labyrinth” this week, and the movie is terrorized by a desperate desire for escape. For both the young hero Ofelia and the ruthless Captain Vidal, finding an outlet from the cold, drab world is essential–even if, and perhaps especially, if it means confronting your most horrific demons. The movie’s push and pull comes from their obsession with physical brutality and flights of creativity, respectively. KTHRTK revels in both, particularly on the title track: it’s a six-minute epic, weaving through various grooves, tempos and volumes. It moves between the horrific and the gentle, the legendary and the mundane; it sounds like destruction and freedom all at once.
We caught up with Berns to talk about the EP, universal anxiety and his newfound love of sci-fi. Excerpts are below.
ARC: What does metal allow you to express that your other bands perhaps didn’t?
DB: People need to understand that metal can be really therapeutic. That’s the impetus of this whole band, and the idea behind the name. It’s a very direct, extroverted channel for reflecting on yourself. And the first band I was really obsessed with the music and the bass-playing was Iron Maiden. It’s all kind of born out of that.
Personally, I’ve always struggled with anxiety, really, really badly. The best thing to get it out has always been some kind of kinetic activity. Playing bass is great. I love to do things like run and play basketball; anything that involves expression and a release of energy really helps me get over anxiety. That’s the idea of this music, for the listener and for us playing it: to pull something out of yourself, to comb out the negative emotions, and move on to an inner state of peace.
ARC: What are the essentials of this record, and of your vision of metal?
DB: There are a lot of movements and currents in metal that have a lot to do with Meshuggah. They’re incredible. But I wanted to distill some of the ideas they present down into something a little simpler and more digestible. We take this idea of the locked kick drum with the riffs–I always have been really moved by the way that riffs in metal connect with the kick drum–and emotive vocals. I wanted everything that’s going on in progressive metal and metalcore distilled to an approachable package.
ARC: Why did you decide to embrace the metal scream, and how did you learn to do it?
DB: For the most part, where metal stands today, singing cleanly over music like that is kind of going against the entire ethos of everything you’re writing. For our music, I wanted a raw energy. Jacob’s sound is very raw on the record. His riffs sound very punchy. I wanted to capture that in the vocals too.
I discovered the best way to do it is to use your false vocal cords: your second set of vocal cords. If you can figure out how to push out air with a quick speed through those cords, you can get that scream without hurting your voice. It took a lot of research and trial and error. And doing it live, I still sound like a 13 year old kid going through puberty. But that’s what it is. There are a lot of guys who have really perfected it: I love the vocalist of After the Burial, and the vocalist from Lamb of God, Randy Blythe. That’s why I drew on: A nice full body, full range scream that can really express. It shouldn’t be one note, it should move with the music.
ARC: What is the connection between your music and the novel “Ender’s Game?”
DB: I’m more of a recent sci-fi guy. I read this book and it’s just a fun page turner. The protagonist is this gifted prodigy kid who’s told by everyone around him what to do with his talents. He unwittingly uses them for something he doesn’t believe in. He’s essentially a prisoner.
I wrote the song to capture what this kid is struggling with–what are we supposed to do with ourselves? Who are we supposed to listen to and why?–through all this conflict and competition and politics. And that’s everyone’s life, minus the laser guns. Through the album as a whole, I feel like that idea is constantly at play.
ARC: Do you imagine the song “Ender’s Game” as a soundtrack to the book’s zero-gravity fighting, or more of an extrapolation?
DB: The thrash riffs in the main part are supposed to be those types of scenes. Capturing the kineticism of all those action parts is the body of the first half the song. The outro of the song is the moment at the end of the book, [SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT AHHH] when he looks out on the planet he destroyed. He’s like, “what is this all amounting to? It’s amounting to death and destruction.” So the song is two big impressions of those two things he’s going through: Being in it, caught in it, stuck in it–and then reflecting on what the hell he’s actually been through.