Dez Fafara didn't think about it when he wrote the lyrics to "Rivals," the title track of the new album from the reconstituted Coal Chamber. The murderous song from the premier groove n' gouge metal unit is seemingly top-loaded with mixed messages. Consider the name of the album, which harkens back to the band's public disintegration in 2003. Then check out the song's chorus, where vocalist Fafara vanquishes his antagonist off the grid with sentiments like, "I just want to say this to you/you'll never be anything without me," with a vocal prowess that's one part PTSD-stricken sociopath and one part enraged Gila monster.When made aware of this, the singer is quick to dismiss any notion of resentment toward any of his band members. "First of all, that lyric has very little to do with anyone in the band," he begins. "In addition, this is the first Coal Chamber record where I wasn't writing songs about the members. I promise you the person who I am talking about will hear that song and will know it's about him immediately. I'll tell ya, writing this record has saved me thousands in psychotherapy!"
The rest of us listening to Rivals will be confronted with a different kind of immediacy, one felt by the sheer bone-powdering force and propulsive bounce Fafara, guitarist Meegs Rascon, bassist Nadja Peulen and drummer Mikey Cox have delivered. Recorded in less than three months and overseen by producer Mark Lewis in late 2014, Rivals doesn't necessarily mark a reinvention of the band as much as it is installs a psychic system upgrade for maximum mayhem. New bands big on ambition (while low on vision) and old-guard rockers who continue to mine the same tired tropes should be very, very afraid: Coal Chamber didn't press the reset button on their career as much as they smashed the thing with a ball peen hammer.
"Rivals is definitely not a throwback record," Fafara stresses. "It's definitely a little more mature, sure. It has killer riffs and big hooks. I think it's a heavy-metal record with alternative, goth-rock overtones. It goes to so many places and worlds. Whether people know us or not, I think when people hear this record, they're gonna hear something refreshing." It's a big statement for the band to be making, given their very public disintegration while at the top of their game on a Texas stage 12 years ago, before agreeing to reunite in 2011 for some festival performances.
Mending friendships and modifying lifestyles are two crucial elements to ensure a band can survive a demanding touring campaign. But making a solid, valid artistic statement after a significant space of time apart is a massive undertaking that needs more than muscle memory to succeed. When it came to recording new music, Fafara was pretty adamant the band wouldn't get into the wayback machine to try and force the same zeitgeist they once flourished in. ("It had to be good, or I wasn't putting it out," he says, lucidly.) In addition, there were some basic terms that needed to be addressed before the members could even consider working together again.
"Let's open communication," the singer recalls. "Let's be very forthright and honest with each other. Let's not hold anything back, and let's not have anybody get butt-hurt and let's have communication, when it comes to music, touring, et cetera. When we get to the art, be there. I create a lot of the album graphics and merch designs, and I wanted everyone's feedback. It was really important to be like, 'Here we go: What do we need to do? Let's talk straight, let's write from our heart, let's not give a fuck about anyone else around us. Let's do what we do. Fuck looking back—we've been doing that for years. Let's get rid of the old scars.'
"But you know what the most important condition was? 'Let's have fun.' Now, I get back home from Coal Chamber rehearsals, and my face hurts from laughing. If you're going to tour the world with somebody in a goddamn submarine, you better be able to laugh with each other!"
While there's plenty of fist-clenching rage happening on Rivals, the intangible elements of age, experience and reflection have made Coal Chamber's mania diamond-hard. Right at the onset, "I.O.U. Nothing" finds the quartet coming after you swinging; aiming for your teeth, carotid artery, kneecaps or anywhere else you're going to fucking feel it. But while you're not going to see them gravitating toward Joni Mitchell box sets, Coal Chamber know that man does not live by mosh alone. So while they continue to throw down the bludgeoning riffs and Fafara's vocal exhortations can set off the garage doors of Hell, on Rivals, the band have created textural atmospheres that further heighten the intensity. Cox plays tighter than a piano wire wrapped around your throat, but offers curious dynamics on the spoken-word "Orion," where the space between his beats is just as important as his regimented throb. Rascon's vicious harmonics on the title track and "Fade Away (Karma Never Forgets)" come off so sharp, the air around your speakers just might bleed. Peulen brings the low-end doom at several critical junctures and Fafara has created a number of twisted vocal personalities that would make a law enforcement profiler weep openly. You don't have to be a fan of metal or hard rock to appreciate all of the textural and atmospheric elements at play on Rivals. And pay attention, laptop jockeys and ProTools slaves: Rivals is changing the game for all of you. There are no synthesizers or software programs coloring the proceedings; that's Rascon beating up his guitars through a bevy of pedals. ("He has a really crazy side to him as a guitarist," Fafara enthuses. "He says it best: 'I didn't want things perfect; I wanted them un-perfect.'") Cox and Puelen didn't play to a click track and most of Fafara's vocals were first takes. Every chorus had to be sung; nothing could be cut n' pasted.
"We really didn't want it to be a nostalgic 'throwback' record," says Rascon about the mindset going into the making of Rivals. "We just wanted to make a good hard-rock record. We didn't want it to sound like any of the bands that are out there now. We were going to make a Coal Chamber record, but it wasn't going to sound like our previous releases. It had to sound like an evolution as if we had stayed together back in the 2000s. If you're honest, and put your stamp on it, you're going to come up with some cool shit."
"Some bands have goals," offers Cox. "Like, 'We want to be on the radio' or 'we want to tour here.' If you try that, it never works out the way you want it to. Our main goal for this record was that it had to sound like Coal Chamber and it had to be nasty. And in this day and age of computers, it's really hard to reproduce a nasty sound like you would in your rehearsal studio—there's no vibe. We just wanted to get that old-school energy and not have it be over-polished and cut up in a computer."We've all played with different people and learned more," says bassist Peulen. "Then you put us back together and we're still the same people, but we've grown musically. You're going to get a different result." Rivals is a personal milestone for Peulen as it marks the first time she has contributed to a Coal Chamber recording after years of roadwork with the band. "The recording process was cool. Listening back to it, it doesn't feel like there was a big gap. It sounds like a new band playing like it's their second or third album."
While their implosion 12 years ago left a morass of questions and conjecture about what could have been, the members of Coal Chamber aren't into dwelling on their past right now. Why the fuck should they? With Rivals, they've written a new, emboldened chapter in their storied career, delivering beatdown riffage, lyrical diatribes and alluring sonic vistas the realm of heavy music can always use to move that culture forward. The return of Coal Chamber is marked by two mindsets. The first signifies a celebration of friends who have experienced a greater clarity about them to want to come together in a practice space again. The other mindset posits that they had a case of unfinished business they needed to take care of with bold strokes, lead-pipe cruelty and aural finesse. Cox willingly admits that Coal Chamber "are like a brand new band. We still have to prove ourselves to the world." "I'm so grateful to be able to do this with these people," says Fafara, beaming. "How many times in your lifetime do you have the chance to rekindle a relationship, love affair... rekindle art? Members of Coal Chamber have an iconic aura about themselves that exists without the band. But when you put them together, it's like a superpower. You can feel it in the room when we're rehearsing, and you can feel it onstage. There's something special in each of us individually, but when you put it together, it's an extremely powerful, prideful thing."
"Dez could've started another version of Coal Chamber," says Rascon. "Actually, any one of us could. But that's cheesy. The chemistry of this band can't be replaced. Nobody can do the things we do individually. You could get other players to imitate what you're doing, but it's just not the same. I wouldn't say we were the greatest musicians, but the chemistry and the connection we have is completely authentic. We write what we think is cool, based upon what we can do with each other's abilities and instincts. Rivals is the perfect progression for how Coal Chamber should be. There's a lot of metal out now that really sounds the same. The feeling I get is like it's us versus everyone. It's like that movie 300: The Spartans were up against an army. We're fucking hungry for this. It's kind of exciting!"
"It's definitely unfinished business," says Peulen excitedly. "I never thought there was any real closure after we broke up. But I never thought the breakup in 2002 was the end. I always felt it had to come full circle and that's what it feels like right now. For all intents and purposes, the last word on Coal Chamber's rebirth has to belong to Cox, who, when asked what he's been listening to lately, responds with Rivals in a way that's free from irony, ego and self-aggrandizing. "I've been building recording studios for the past year," he says. "I sit in four hours of traffic in Los Angeles every day. On the way to work, I listen to it for two hours, over and over. And on the way back, it's two more hours, over and over. I have other musical tastes, but I'm totally addicted to Rivals."He pauses to laugh. "Maybe I need Coal Chamber rehab..."