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When you get dealt a terrible hand, you want to go back to what works for you, to what gives your reassurance from life’s tyranny. That’s precisely what Nate Garrett — vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter for the Tuscon, Arizona metal band Spirit Adrift, and guitarist for death metal group Gatecreeper — does on Curse Of Conception, Spirit Adrift’s second record. Instead of making a hasty retreat into defeat and resentment, though, he taps into his earliest influences to make one of the year’s most exceptional metal records. Though struck by joy and wonder he hasn’t felt since he was a teenager, he makes it a point to deal with heavy stuff in the process.
Spirit Adrift’s first record, Chained To Oblivion, was written and performed almost entirely by Garrett. It was a drawn out and relentlessly doomy affair, reminiscent of the work of Pallbearer. Conception is still written by him, but with a band behind him in support — he won’t say exactly who contributed what, though his Gatecreeper bandmate Chase Mason joined as their live bassist. The result is a much more nostalgic record, taking in from a broader range of influences, mainly from Garrett’s formative metal days as an only child in Oklahoma. That’s not a knock; on the contrary, it’s what makes this album a quantum leap from Oblivion. Nostalgia can be a force for good when wielded properly. Gatecreeper, after all, takes from the best of early ’90s death metal, and Spirit Adrift encapsulates the gems from ’80s thrash, Judas Priest, and Dio-era Black Sabbath, with a reverence that also puts them in a modern context.
“My closest friends from growing up and all periods of my life — independently of each other, a lot of my closest friends who have heard this have been like, ‘this is the most you record you’ve ever made,’” Garret told me in a recent interview. “I think it’s the most honest and open and accurate portrayal of who I am.”
Conception is brimming with exuberance from its multifaceted approach. The title track takes meaty, slowed-down thrash riffs plucked from The Black Album and gives them a healthy thrust. “Starless Age (Enshrined)” draws equally upon the apocalyptic doom of Trouble as it does Metallica at their most nihilistic on Ride The Lightning; dual warheads that are even deadlier together. Garrett doubled down on melodies, making them more immediate and bringing them to the forefront.
Conception has many familiar reference points, but it’s united by the unbridled joy of discovering metal for the first time and the wisdom required to put all these discoveries together in brutal, beautiful ways. There’s an ever-present familiar excitement that’s comes for all metalheads, shared through experiences like seeing Black Sabbath for the first time on Pop-Up Video and begging your grandmother to go to the mall to buy their CDs. For Garrett, that’s one such personal memory that he reconnected with while making this record.
“I’ve done a lot of damage to my mind over the years,” he said, “And there’s this whole black spot on my childhood and my early teenage years in my memory, and a lot of those memories and feelings of first getting into metal are coming back to me now. A lot of things have come full circle with this album.”
At the center of it all is an existential quandary: Whether or not we have control over our actions, we didn’t necessarily agree to get thrust into the situation of life in the first place. That’s the titular “curse of conception.”
“The question I was trying to face, or the f–ked-up truth I was trying to address is, nobody is asked to be born,” he explained. “It’s almost inherently unfair to have a kid — I know that sounds really f–ked up, but I didn’t ask to be born, and you didn’t either, nobody did. If there’s anything that we have in common universally as human beings, everybody goes through serious amounts of pain and suffering. And there are good parts of life, too, but it’s not doom metal to focus on good parts of life.”
That’s a pretty bleak way to look at life, to say the least. Metal exists in the face of hopelessness, extolling the message that we’re doomed and mocking it at the same the time. In the ’80s, the great fears were nuclear war, Reagan’s determination to keep the 1950s alive in all its faux-wholesome glory, a surge in evangelism driven by the prosperity gospel, and the decline of both idyllic small-town childhoods and the American Dream itself. Kids had every reason to be pissed at being born, even if they didn’t quite know why. This created ripe conditions for a band like Slayer to prosper. Metal didn’t just offer a salve as comforting as it is harsh. It offered a way out of oppressive normality.
When Conception was taking shape, the 2016 election happened. Garrett recalls being physically sick with grief for days after the results came in. These fears not only felt like they never left, they came roaring back stronger than ever.
“There’s some cultural nostalgia going on for the ’80s big time,” he said. “I didn’t intentionally try to jump on board with that, I made an honest album that’s a snapshot of where I am in my life right now, but Stranger Things and all these other ’80s throwback things, it is kinda perfect the governments in the world are gonna participate in’ 80s nostalgia and bring back the threat of nuclear annihilation.”
There are plenty of metalheads who secretly want the ’80s to come back, and they got way more than they bargained for on November 8. Garrett began the record as a personal statement and ended it the same way, and while it’s not a direct commentary on current events, it proved his broader point.
“Life is like a f–king curse, and on a grander scale, it could possibly be a misnomer that there’s inherent value to human life, and I think humanity is proving that right now,” he said.
It does not damper the soaring vocals and even higher leads of “Earthbound,” nor does it riddle the power-thrash in “Graveside Invocation” with doubt and confusion. Like the election proved Garrett’s assertion of humanity’s eternal damnation, the contrast between proves the point of Spirit Adrift itself: Light and dark work better with each other.
“Something I discovered early on was that’s kind of the trademark of Spirit Adrift,” he said. “I’m reading a book on Led Zeppelin right now, and Jimmy Page didn’t like being called a heavy metal band. He thought the most important thing about Led Zeppelin was the contrast between light and dark. I think Spirit Adrift is the same thing.”