In a time when it seems like the entire history of recorded music is becoming accessible with a minimum of effort, and genre revivals dominate the landscape with a ubiquity that has prompted much critical hand-wringing and even a widely-read book on the subject, it can be tough to locate artists that are truly progressive and forward-looking in their outlook. However, Behold The Arctopus are far from an average, run-of-the-mill band. In fact, while they tend to be classified as a metal band, this instrumental trio’s music is so complex, progressive, and downright unusual that it’s tough to say that they belong in any genre.
Formed in 2001 by guitarists Colin Marston and Mike Lerner, Behold The Arctopus was immediately noteworthy due to their unusual instrumentation. Lerner played a 7-string guitar, which allowed him access to a lower range of notes than is available on a standard guitar, but is hardly an unheard-of choice in the metal world. However, Marston’s instrument of choice is a Warr guitar, a specially designed 12-string instrument with an extremely wide neck intended to be played by tapping the strings with both hands rather than strumming individual chords. It’s similar to the Chapman Stick, an 8-to-10-stringed instrument beloved by prog-rockers like King Crimson, Dream Theater, and Cynic; but the Warr guitar takes things to a whole new level. In an interview with Nefarious Realm, Marston explained the Warr guitar in detail. On the Warr guitar, the lowest notes are in the middle of the neck, with higher notes both above and below the low strings. “[Changing strings] takes twice as long as my guitar or bass, plus the string gauges are more confusing because the melody side is in 4ths and the bass side in upside-down 5ths,” he explained. Denying the possibility of the Warr guitar being “cool,” he quipped, “It’s an instrument mostly used for pretty nerdy, geeky music, and Behold The Arctopus is no exception.”
Formed while Marston and Lerner were students at NYU, Behold The Arctopus was heavily influenced by both members’ education in the musical field. Lerner eventually earned his degree in jazz composition, while Marston’s was in music technology. They initially rounded out their lineup with a drum machine programmed by Marston. The drum machine was used on their 2002 debut EP, the appropriately titled We Need A Drummer, which was released digitally on mp3.com (wow, remember them?). While at first, the duo wrote their songs by playing together in the standard metal fashion, they soon began composing their music in advance as sheet music. Speaking to Nefarious Realm, Marston explained that programming the drum machine influenced the decision to shift into written composition. “Programming the accompaniment gave me a taste for writing away from the instrument and creating a part for someone else to play,” he said. “I realized that way of composing meant one would never fall into metal cliches or default fretboard patterns, and by embracing the distance from the instrument and “your part,” one could gain an interesting and more total perspective of the music and instrumentation as a whole.”
Soon after recording their first demo, Behold The Arctopus replaced their drum machine with an actual human drummer, Charlie Zeleny. Over the course of the next few years, they released two EPs–Arctopocalypse Now… Warmageddon Later in 2003, and Nano-Nucleonic Cyborg Summoning in 2005–a split with avant-garde post-hardcore band Orthrelm in 2006, and their first full-length, Skullgrid, in 2007. Featuring futuristic yet visceral themes in both album art and song titles, these records mingled metal sensibilities and sonic qualities with compositional techniques that heavily reflected the influence of modern classical music and instrumental proficiency that echoed the worlds of progressive rock and jazz fusion. Dense, wildly complex, and loud as hell, Behold The Arctopus’s music is no one’s idea of easy listening, yet offers rewards for those willing to put in the time, and definitely presents an immediate appeal for fans of everything from Hella to Dillinger Escape Plan to Last Exit, Soft Machine, and The Mars Volta.
In 2008, Zeleny left the group, setting off a search for a new drummer that lasted over two years. In the meantime, both Marston and Lerner kept busy playing in other projects. Marston had begun playing bass in Philadelphia-based instrumental prog-metal trio Dysrhythmia in 2004, and during Behold The Arctopus’s downtime, he also joined forces with Orthrelm’s Mick Barr in the black metal band Krallice, as well as becoming the bass player for recently reformed Canadian death metal group Gorguts. Lerner, meanwhile, has focused his activities outside of Behold The Arctopus on his solo project, Direwolf.
In 2010, Behold The Arctopus became a trio again with the enlistment of avant-garde jazz/punk/metal drummer and cult figure Weasel Walter. Walter’s main claim to fame is as leader of The Flying Luttenbachers, a long-running jazz quartet with a constantly shifting lineup, of which Walter was the only constant member. However, he’s played with many other famous artists and bands in all sorts of different genres, from experimental musicians like Jim O’Rourke and Elliott Sharp to metal band Lair Of The Minotaur to punk rockers Erase Errata and many, many more. Walter seemed an obvious choice to occupy the drum throne in Behold The Arctopus, but as he told Heavy Metal Be-bop last year, the initiation was not an easy one. He described being Behold The Arctopus’s drummer as “basically trying to play almost unplayable compositions.” In Marston and Lerner, Walter had apparently met his match, and admitted that they’d forced him to get better. “I’ve spent two years rehearsing about 25 minutes of material at this point and I have had to correct and expand my technique as a drum-set player… I’ve had to work on my technique in a way that I’ve never worked on it before, and I’m a much better drummer now.”
In 2012, the results of those two years rehearsing were revealed to the world with the release of Behold The Arctopus’s second album, Horrorscension. Continuing with the sci-fi/horror themes and intricately constructed compositions, this album also revealed a harder-edged version of the Arctopus sound, with less polished production and crunchier riffing adding up to a more powerful, metallic refinement on what they’d always done. And the album also indicates a return to full-scale activity for the band, with a tour of the East Coast and Midwest taking place this very month and bringing the band to Strange Matter on Tuesday, March 20. In anticipation of Behold The Arctopus’s impending local live performance, I spoke to 7-string guitarist Mike Lerner about their latest album, working with Weasel Walter, and scoring a Mel Gibson movie.
I notice that on your facebook page it says Behold The Arctopus “respawned” in 2012. In what ways has the past year or so of your time as a band seemed like a new beginning?
Well, we might have respawned in 2012, but the incubation period started in 2008 when we parted ways with our old drummer. Colin and I probably took nearly a year of not doing any Arctopus, save for some discussion on who we could find to be the drummer. I think both having Weasel in the band and having a more focused and darker overall sound encapsulate the respawning process we’ve emerged from.
How did Weasel Walter come to join the band? Has Weasel’s background in more improvisational, jazz-based projects like The Flying Luttenbachers influenced the direction of recent Behold The Arctopus material?
Certainly Weasel’s background and pedigree have influenced the sound of the band today. Two songs were written by Weasel for Horrorscension, and both Colin and I are very familiar with the Flying Luttenbachers from before we even met him. When word came our way of Weasel moving from San Francisco to New York, we happened to be in the thick of looking for a new drummer. We talked about it in person, bro-ed down, and decided to do it. It was mutual and we all had a collective agreement on the direction of Arctopus and music in general.
I’m curious about the instrumental interplay between yourself and Colin. Does his use of the Warr guitar make the band dynamic similar to playing with a bassist, or a second guitarist? Or neither? Did the complications added by the Warr guitar inspire your band’s greater-than-normal use of pre-written compositions?
The Warr guitar and 7-string guitar make for a great combo. There’s no set rules and we’ll go from parts where it sounds like two guitars and a bass to parts where it sounds like two lead guitars, to three-part counterpoint lines. Having this wide palate of sounds allows us to reach further in whatever direction we choose. The music always starts with raw music on paper, but our job is to de-midi the material with the sounds we can make.
Your latest album is called Horrorscension, and features song titles like “Deluge Of Sores” and “Annihilivore.” What inspired the gory theme?
I think our overall satisfaction with the world today, the collective efforts of mankind, and the good natured people who lead the free world inspired our deep and thought provoking lyric content.
Considering how complex all of your songs are, I imagine they require a lot of practice time. How much practicing have you done in order to prepare for the current tour?
Jeez. We’ve been at most a once a week rehearsal band, and its usually for about three hours. But then again we’re probably the only band that has homework assignments. Like most bands, we’ll be in top form second week in.
Have you written any new material since the recording of Horrorscension? Can we expect to hear anything new at your show in Richmond?
There are future BTA songs, to be sure. Richmond will hear material not yet recorded as an homage to the future.
If Behold The Arctopus could write and record the soundtrack for a new movie by any director, living or dead, whose work would you most like to score?
Probably Mel Gibson’s next three-hour torture fest, whatever that may be.
After years of dormancy, Behold The Arctopus has been quite active over the past year or so. Do you expect this to continue after the current tour?
Let’s hope so. It takes a while to get the old Arcto-mobile engine started, but once she’s purring you know she’s in heat.
Your band has been associated with a lot of other groups over the years. What other projects are the members of Behold The Arctopus currently involved in? Do any of those groups have any big activities coming up in the near future?
Well, Colin is very active, and we’re all awaiting the new Gorguts record. I know Krallice has shows coming up too. As for Weasel, he’s very active locally, drumming in various improv groups and In Cellular Chaos as well. As for me, I’m trying to wrap up the next Direwolf CD and pushing my iPad app, Sight Reader. You know…. We be hustlin’!
Behold The Arctopus will perform at Strange Matter (929 W. Grace St.) on Wednesday, March 20, along with New Jersey prog-metal group Cleric and local bands Dumb Waiter and Darkshores. Doors open at 9 PM, admission is $8. Click here for more info.