Somewhere in the middle of the forest in a forgotten corner of Woodstock, Phil Bartsch sits behind a drum kit in an upstairs room. Black cords snake the floor, powering amps and microphones or running to effects pedals. The drummer looks over at his friend and ally John Bryan. Both of them smile as Bartsch keeps time with nothing in particular and Bryan runs a scale on the guitar. The bandmates nod almost imperceptibly in response to something heard in their black can headphones.
A grainy, unseen voice emerges from the tiny speakers. “If he’s going to stay in here, he’s got to be quiet,” the disembodied voice says.
With the note-taking noisemaker now safely outside a glass sliding door, the two finish recording the last few minutes of their latest song. On the deck, there are a few artifacts revealing the mindset of the poor souls crammed into the recording studio: a chain-smoker’s ashtray filled with butts and a stack of Marvel comic books. Outside, the third member of Dead Empires, Tyler Gomo, watches his friends with folded arms and a big smile. “You’re going to love this album,” he says.
I first heard about Dead Empires more than a year ago, when I bailed on plans for my own birthday party to see a show at Market Market Café in Rosendale. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Dead Empires played that night with the band It’s Not Night: It’s Space. At the time, it was treated with a respect in the local music scene that I didn’t really understand. It was often introduced with questionable descriptors like “good” or “You’ll really like them.”
Dead Empires is an instrumental progressive rock group with heavy metal roots. It’s often booked with hardcore metal acts, since no one knows how to classify it. So for me it was a hard sell. As a writer, I gravitate towards poetic, lyrically driven music with a clear narrative. I tend to reject metal outright for its machismo and cheese.
Something about John-Bryan-and-crew’s act stayed the blade of the guillotine. I listened to it, heard it – even without words. Metal acts often chase their tails looking for shock value or to outdo their own bravado. Dead Empires’ songs arced symphonically from angry rock riffs to the melancholy and pensive.
The surprise of the band’s sound comes, in part, from how its members approach songwriting. They find influence in the Melvins, Slayer or Baroness, but they also draw inspiration from jazz greats like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. “Whenever I describe the music to people and they ask what we sound like, I just say ‘heavy,’ because we probably fall into the ‘metal band’ category. But there’s so many things we do that stray so far away from that,” Bryan says.
The frontman and lead guitarist also noted that the sometimes-gossamer sound of Dead Empires comes from the challenge of writing songs without lyrics. “Not having a vocalist puts you into a pretty unique position as far as being a band goes,” Bryan says. “What I think is important is to try to create atmosphere that isn’t…I don’t know, boring, for lack of a better term: atmosphere that isn’t stale.”
Dead Empires began as a concept in late 2008 and officially became a band in 2009. “It started with me and John jamming,” Bartsch says.
“We were both in different bands. And we basically just had been friends, and always said we’d wanted to do a project together,” Bryan says. “So both our bands kind of split up at around the same time, and we actually just got together.”
While Bryan, Bartsch and Gomo hail from Westchester, Wappingers and Hyde Park respectively, the three men have ties to the New Paltz area. Gomo is a SUNY-New Paltz alumnus and Bartsch currently attends the college. Often the band can be found playing gigs at Snug Harbor in New Paltz or Market Market in Rosendale. But Dead Empires has also played shows in New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as Brooklyn and Manhattan.
When Dead Empires hit the studio in late April to record its first album Waiting in Waves, it did so with a little help from its friends. The band is relying on the fundraising site Kickstarter.com to help finance the cost of recording the album.
Using Kickstarter isn’t a novel concept, but Dead Empires is one of the first local bands to try it. [Almanac recently ran a piece on legendary Kerhonkson jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd’s successful Kickstarter campaign to record an album of jazz standards.] As a bonus to those who help finance the album, it’s giving prizes ranging from special-edition vinyl records to a lunch with the band at Soul Dog in Poughkeepsie to a complimentary drum lesson from Bartsch. As of presstime, the band had raised all but about $650 of the $2,500 that it was were looking for – but its Kickstarter page will remain up until 10:24 p.m. this Friday, May 11.
Waiting in Waves should be released this summer. People who’ve contributed $100 or more on Kickstarter get into the CD release show for free. Dead Empires’ next live show takes place this Saturday in Kent Lakes. Check online for more details. To catch the band locally, keep an eye out for a future show at Market Market or Snug’s.