Using a portable, rigged studio, Caleb Shomo did something he had never done before on tour. Supporting the Ohio band’s 2018 release Disease, the Beartooth frontman absorbed the energy from the nightly shows, and began piecing together music for their fourth album Below (Red Bull Records).
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“It was honestly the biggest breakthrough I’ve had as a writer, and it was purely out of fear that I never did it before,” says Shomo, who laid down all of the music to each track on Below on tour. “I’d always been under the mindset of when I’m on tour, I only focus on touring, and when I’m at home, I only focus on writing. I just thought it would be overwhelming, too much work, or I wouldn’t like it, so I never even tried, but merging the two was actually more helpful than I could have ever imagined.”
All his ingenuity paid off, and when the pandemic shut everything down in 2020, the lyrics flooded in for Below, an exploration of the darker side of isolation and its aftermath.
“This album is a time capsule of capturing the absolutely awful year that was 2020,” says Shomo. “Musically, a vast majority of the songs were written pre-pandemic, but all of the lyrics were written during the pandemic, so it’s a very stark contrast.”
Arangements are powered up, while lyrically, the songs nearly border on hopelessness, Shomo says. “The glue is how blunt I was about every side of my emotions during this lockdown,” he says. “There’s an incredible contrast between the musical arrangement and the lyrical content, but the glue that holds this album together, and what makes it a linear experience, is me trying to talk about the emotions I was going through and express the pain, the confusion, and the anger as bluntly as I could from beginning to end.”
Below encapsulates a heavier heart. Tearing through the opening roar of I feel the rage, something starting to grow / Six hundred sixty-six feet in my hell below on the title track, Below is a therapeutic oratory built on despair and rage, dissecting the deeper and darkest thoughts. Closing the opening triad with “Devastation” and “The Past is Dead,” varying degrees of distress, contemplations, and glimmers of hope come through the revelatory “No Return” and “Hell of It,” through the cessation of the thunderous instrumental “The Last Riff.”
“It’s a rollercoaster from the beginning,” says Shomo. “You feel this pain growing, and it’s kind of exciting and confusing, and I’m not really sure how it’s gonna pan out, descending until the end of the album, into this honest, incredibly painful record.”
Intending for the listener to feel empowered, not mortified or depressed by the end of it, Shomo wanted to express something more universally felt, and hidden, while dealing with different trauma or mental health issues. “It was just me trying to be as honest as physically possible, because I know there are a lot of people who have felt the same way and went to darker places than they’ve ever been. When you’re there, especially in lockdown, you feel so much more mentally isolated from everyone.”
He adds, ““The pandemic took a really big toll on me, as I’m sure it did many other people. I really want this to be a statement that no matter who you are, or what position you’re in, we all felt pain like we’ve never felt before, but we’re not alone.”
A first for Beertooth, Below was recorded entirely remote with no co-writers, producers, mixing or mastering. “I literally did the entire thing,” reveals Shomo.
For this album, honesty was critical—not being tied down by the band’s previous commercial success or a particular sound. “I just decided to go the complete opposite direction and try to make an album that was really for our fan base, and for the live show,” says Shomo. “That was the driving force of all the music.”
Towards the end of the Disease album cycle, Shomo began experimenting with new guitar and drum tones, all incorporated on Below.
“Generally our band is very guitar driven but this was the first album where I completely changed that up and decided to go into more of a sonic devastation and how physically loud can we go,” says Shomo. “It was more of this extremist mentality. It was a big departure for me as a writer, but it also gave me a bunch of tools and a whole new perspective on what a Beartooth song could be.”
Implementing something new on Below was nothing new for Shomo, who tends to detach from previous albums, or “cycles,” of the band’s music. Adding another element to the release, the band also collaborated with Z2 Comics to release a graphic novel companion, The Journey Below, which will serve as prequel to the album.
Now, Below is merely the first wave of something new for Beartooth, and Shomo, who is already tinkering with the band’s fifth release.
“I want to be able to look back on our older albums and say, ‘this was something I really loved about it, or this is something I think I could do better next time,’ and I always keep that in mind,” says Shomo. “I try to leave it where it ended and say ‘it’s time to start something new. Let’s see what happens here.’”