As the famous Italian proverb goes, “After the game, the king and the pawn go into the same box.” It’s an accurate interpretation of life linked to the game of chess: Regardless of how high (a king) or presumably low (a pawn) in stature a person is, everyone ultimately ends up in the same “box,” a less grim metaphor for a coffin in the ground. Working around the concept of the underdog rising, the have and have nots, and the transference of power—the pawn becoming a king—and opening into more omnipresent messages, Alter Bridge’s Myles Kennedy and Mark Tremonti brought five songs each to the band’s seventh album, Pawns & Kings.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Recorded in the band’s home base of Orlando, Florida, with longtime producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette’s Studio Barbarosa, Alter Bridge reconvened in 2022 for the first time in two years to work through a collection of earnest songs, many of which were generated during the pandemic and later embellished with defining riffs, intricate arrangements, and a deeper lyrical plunge into human conditions, struggles and overcoming adversity.
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“It’s a cry for the underdog,” says Kennedy of the album and its nearly seven-minute-long title track. “It’s also a song of empowerment to a point. That line, Though we’re pawns, we could be kings [If we believe / Against all odds we will survive], is really about believing that you can control your destiny.”
When released, the outside interpretations of the title track escalating from Tear down the walls / And show your courage as you heed the call / Embarking on the journey yet to come, fascinated Kennedy, who wrote the track. “We’re always trying to make it so that the songs are painted with a broad enough stroke lyrically, and it has a certain amount of ambiguity so that you can insert your own meaning into it so it’s relatable in your own life,” says Kennedy. “So people’s different perspectives of the song intrigue me, and it makes me happy. What was fascinating was just hearing how different some of those narratives were. Some even asked, ‘Is this about the new world order?’ If it is to you, great.”
Splitting up duties on the album, Tremonti and Kennedy worked on creating as many demos as possible in pre-production. Everything Kennedy brought in—the title track, “This is War,” “Silver Tongue,” “Holiday,” and the lengthier eight-plus minute epic “Fable of the Silent Son”—was pieced together from the end of December 2021 and fully formed within a four-month period while recording and rotating around more exploratory arrangements, many of which started off of riffs or drum loops.
The album’s intensity is palpable from Kennedy’s opening wail on “This is War,” a song that came to the singer in a dream. It’s not so much centered around heading to battle per se as it is dealing with the war within oneself, the self-doubt, anxiety, and other inner tensions—Fight for your life / Can you see what’s coming / Fight for your mind / This is war.
A barrage of percussion and guitar lead “Silver Tongue,” a jab at a charismatic and manipulative figure, and pummels through Tremonti’s nearly seven-minute “Sin After Sin,” which ventures deeper into the larger narrative of Pawns & Kings. “I specifically wanted to write a slow and heavy, almost Doom-influenced, dark trip kind of song,” says Tremonti of the slow-burning track. “Sometimes slow songs are heavier than the fastest songs if they’re done right.”
A menacing march of drums steers the first song Tremonti brought to the table, “Sin After Sin.” Starting with a drum loop, the song began hovering over an initial riff created by Tremonti and, like many of the Pawns & Kingstracks, underwent a few dozen incarnations before it was fully orchestrated. “I think I spent two or three weeks coming into the studio, throwing on a drum loop, playing and writing 30 or 40 parts for this one song,” says Tremonti. “Every day I would put together a new arrangement of the parts that I had until I felt like all were solid, and by the end of it, I could have written 18 songs. That’s why it ended up being a six-and-a-half-minute song.”
Tremonti also takes over vocals on the more subtle and melodic “Stay,” urging more healing. Written from its chorus, “Stay” was a year and a half in the making and a track Tremonti initially considered for his band’s 2021 album, Marching in Time. Once the song was written, Kennedy suggested Tremonti sing it as well.“I’m never going to say no to singing,” laughs Tremonti. “I love singing. Myles loves playing guitar solos. I love singing.”
On the crashing “Dead Among the Living,” Tremonti worked around the band’s drop B tuning used in previous songs like “Come To Life” in 2007, “Still Remains,” off the 2010 album AB III, and The Last Hero track “The Other Side.”
“It just gives this sound that’s familiar in Alter Bridge songs,” says Tremonti. “It’s just a really great riff writing, and we hadn’t done that in the last two records, so I wanted to bring that back out and use it to attack that song. … For each song, I tried to find some kind of different inspiration to be the driving force.”
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More prog rock elements permeate “Last Man Standing,” with Kennedy and Tremonti both offering guitar solos. “I broke out my delay pedal and turned the effect all the way up to get this slap-back effect,” says Tremonti. “Once that part was written, I wanted to jump into the progressive world a bit and make the pre-chorus mess with the rhythm of it [in 7/8 time]. When the chorus hits, you feel like you’re home again and it takes off.”
Lyrically, the tracks are unrelated to the others but follow the common thread of endurance. Initially, there was the assumption that the album was written in response to the war in Ukraine. Although many of the tracks could have veered in that direction, says Tremonti, including “Dead Among the Living,” “Last Man Standing,” and the title track—Don’t let the bastards grind you down / It’s time to show the devil what we are—all of the tracks were written prior to the Russian invasion of the nation.
“Whenever we record an album, one of the things I dread is having to hyper-focus on what the songs are about,” says Tremonti. “It’s different to everyone, and sometimes when you hear somebody else say what it means you’re like, ‘God dammit.’ When you sing a song about someone’s struggle, everybody’s struggle is different. When you sing a song about love, everybody’s love story is different, so it’s got to be a little bit vague.”
As far as a theme throughout the record, Kennedy insists there isn’t one like there has been on previous albums, including Walk The Sky. But tracks “Fable of the Silent Son” and “Season of Promise” offer some glimmer of a conjoined message. “Now that we’re elder statesmen at this point, we lived a few years and learned from our mistakes, so it’s the idea of trying to convey some of that wisdom to someone else or to the younger generation,” says Kennedy. “It’s a theme [between those two tracks] that I haven’t touched on in the past. At this stage in life, I feel like I’ve learned a few things.”
Tremonti’s last offering for the album, “Season of Promise,” was written off the chorus and opening riff in the days before he flew back home from recording. “The melody and that chorus really struck home with me,” shares Tremonti. “And I like the feel of the opening guitar riff part because it had a feel for what the rest of the record was going to be. It was more aggressive and a little on the darker side, but I wanted to create some dynamics when it comes to the mood of the record, so it has more of an uplifting, feel-good jam with energy that I felt the record needed.”
Leaving no boundaries, Kennedy’s prog-ridden “Fable of the Silent Son” meditates on lessons learned and runs for more than eight minutes. The triumphant pseudo-warrior stance of “Last Man Standing” follows before the album closes on Kennedy’s David versus Goliath tale “Pawns and Kings,” another battle cry for the underdog.
Reuniting with Baskette, who also produced all five of Tremonti’s albums as well as Kennedy’s two solo efforts — the 2018 release Year of the Tiger and The Ides of Marchin 2021 — was a welcomed opportunity. “He is a master perfectionist of his craft,” says Tremonti. “He gets the best performance out of each and every band member and he’s got great bedside manner and treats everybody different.”
Having worked with Alter Bridge since their second album, Blackbird, in 2007, Baskette picks up on the band’s idiosyncrasies and even suggested that Pawns & Kingsgave off a more Fortress vibe—referencing the band’s fourth album, released in 2013. An unofficial fifth member of the band, Baskette often works out transitions and final arrangements and becomes the fifth opinion when it comes to which songs should make the cut. “Over the years, you kind of learn each other’s tricks,” adds Tremonti, “and we’ve all learned from one another and became one unit.”
Trust is what Kennedy says keeps Baskette fixed to Alter Bridge. “I trust his instincts,” Kennedy says. “We’ve been doing it long enough, and I don’t have to question where he’s going with a production idea. One of his biggest jobs is to filter the ideas that Mark and I have. We both write a lot, so there’s a lot we’ll throw at him, and he’s able to take the cream of the crop and help us make the best record possible.”
Kennedy continues, “You know what you’re gonna get. It’s just very comforting to know he’s behind the glass. He gets the best out of us.”
The essence of Alter Bridge hasn’t shifted since the band’s 2004 debut One Day Remains, but the technical side of composition has progressed from more sporadic sessions to Kennedy and Tremonti now coming with nearly finished demos as starting points for songs.
“It’s evolved, but it’s not like we’re handing in completed songs,” Kennedy says. “I’ve had people say, ‘We want you to do it the old way.’ Well, it’s the same way. The only difference is that we’re essentially crystallizing the vision before we submit it to our writing partner. It’s still the same exact process, so it’s kind of funny when people say, ‘They’re changing what they do.’
“It’s still the same thing. It’s just a little more refined. Now you’re just getting a better version of Alter Bridge.”
Photo by Chuck Brueckmann