Article By: Kira Schlechter ‡ Edited By: Leanne Ridgeway
Mortality is not something we think about on a daily basis. We live, we work, we plan ahead. Sometimes, though, in the mundane course of life, we are faced with it, suddenly, profoundly, shatteringly.
Singer/keyboardist Joseph Michael of the L.A.-based progressive metal band Witherfall related his very personal experience with that concept.
“There’s no photos of the four of us for (our) first record together,” he said in a phone interview. “And the reason is that (original drummer Adam Paul Sagan), on the way to the airport to take our first band photo, had to take a detour to the emergency room. He thought he had appendicitis or something. We were joking around — I’m like, ‘Well, you’ll take the next flight, get some Vicodin from the doctor, and we’ll have fun.’
“He called us up and he’s like, ‘Good news, gentlemen, the doctor gave me the Vicodin. The bad news, I have cancer.’ We didn’t re-book the flight. He had to go right into chemo,” he said.
That shocking phone call would change the course of Witherfall forever. That particular moment is immortalized in the pivotal track “Vintage,” from their new album “A Prelude to Sorrow” (out on Century Media Records), the follow-up to 2017’s “Nocturnes And Requiems.”
The album serves as a poignant, emotionally wrenching memorial to Sagan, who died of lymphoma in 2016.
After initially getting the news, “Jake and I just walked down the street looking for a bar to go to and just drown our sorrows and we found this place Vintage,” Michael remembered.
“It was voyeuristic in its seclusion; it (had) this window to Sunset Boulevard. So you see the cars going by and the people walking by, but you’re hidden. So we sat there and we must have drunk six bottles of wine. That whole first part of the song is written from my point of view, sitting there dealing with this news. As the song progresses, it shifts into Adam’s perspective, why is this happening to me,” Michael added.
In the song’s final lines, Sagan is at last bidden farewell – “Travel on my friend, your memory will never die / From nothing you made a world your own / This is not the end, your music remains alive / The cadence of life can’t resolve.”
Witherfall formed in 2013; Michael and guitarist / co-songwriter Jake Dreyer had known each other from their stint in White Wizzard. The band also includes guitarist Feli Bibiano, bassist Anthony Crawford, and drummer Steve Bolognese.
Their music is a brutally complex mix of rapidly-changing time signatures and sweeping instrumental passages – much like classical music, the tracks have well-defined movements and repeated themes. Michael’s vocal versatility mirrors the emotions of the material, from gentle croons of remembrance and grief to Rob Halford-worthy shrieks of rage and pain.
The title of the new album is an acronym of Sagan’s initials. It is also exactly what the band would eventually have to deal with – it was indeed a prelude to their own sorrow.
Michael explained Sagan’s involvement with each album.
“’Nocturnes [And Requiems]’” was recorded six months before he found out he had cancer,” Michael said. “Adam got to hear the record, but he never got to see it released. He died about a week before we released the single.
“The new one has some elements of it that were written while he was sick. That’s where the direction of the record started to take shape. I would go and visit him and play him what I had been working on. He actually heard the chorus for ‘Moment Of Silence’ and it gave him a bit of pause, he was like, what is that about?,” Michael added with a chuckle.
But it was the song “Maridian’s Visitation” that provided an eerily prophetic jumping-off point for the album.
“(During Adam’s) last two weeks on this planet, he was in the hospital,” he said. “He had been having E. coli infections (because of the suppression of his immune system), and the last (one) is what really did him in. He was getting morphine drips for the pain, so he was having all these crazy dreams. In his final Facebook post, he wrote a bunch of stuff about getting out of there soon, and then he said, ‘And oh, about Maridian’s visitation, I will elaborate further in the next post.’ And then there was never a next post.
“He had told me about these dreams the last time we spoke on the phone, about how his niece (Maridian) was coming to visit him. She had died seven years before in some freak accident — they were walking down the street or something and she was holding her dad’s hand and then a car just swooped in and killed her,” he added.
A true songwriter, Michael knew inspiration when he heard it, creepy as it was.
“I saw that post and part of me was like, that’s like a King Diamond song, I have to use that,” he said. “We didn’t even realize if the album was going to be about Adam 100 percent by then, (but) that was going to be what that song was (about).
“And then it just started dawning on us what the record was about, because song after song that I was writing the lyrics for was more of the story,” he said.
Michael’s writing is layered with meaning and double meaning. In “Moment Of Silence,” he sings, ‘the line is breaking’ – is that a lifeline? Maybe. For him, it is far more direct and intimate.
“(Sagan) thought he was going to make it out, obviously,” he said. “But with the chemotherapy, he was worried he wasn’t going to have kids,” so the “line” can also then refer to his lineage, his legacy.
There are many lyrical references to the end being the end, that there is nothing beyond death. In “Moment Of Silence,” he rages, “We are destined for nothing.”
“I personally don’t believe in an afterlife, so you can take it as that,” he said. “The reason why that line is delivered that way is because it should wake you up. It’s not like a video game where if you have a perfect score, you get an extra round. It’s on you if you don’t do what you want to do.”
More prevalent than any theme, perhaps, on “A Prelude To Sorrow” is the ephemeral and inevitable nature of time. We try to “manage” it, we waste it, it “slips away,” as Michael sings on the first single, “Ode To Despair.” In “The Call,” he mourns, “The cold hands of time have frozen in place” – of course, in the end, there is no time left.
“(Sagan’s illness) sure made (that theme) a little colder and more solid,” Michael said.
He mentioned a favorite book, “Mortality,” by the prolific British author Christopher Hitchens, which became even more relevant in his songwriting process.
“He started writing that book after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer – all that book is about is him meditating on what he could have done or what he had left to do,” Michael said. “He talks about the journey of going from the well to the sick and (how) it all happens all at once. So (time) has always been a preoccupation of mine.”
In an odd turn of events, the studio where the album was recorded, Boogie Tracks in Panama City Beach, FL, was destroyed during Hurricane Michael in October. The dock shown in the video for “Ode To Despair” was also demolished.
“They have to try and rebuild (the studio) – I think they salvaged some of the gear,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy how as soon as we were done recording, then that is no more.”
In still another odd turn of events, Michael was tapped to fill in on vocals for Sanctuary on the band’s most recent tour. They had also suffered a powerful loss of a member in singer Warrel Dane.
“I was in the right spot emotionally to do that tour,” he said. “Everyone in the Sanctuary camp, including their fans, was very touchy-feely and sensitive about the whole thing. Perhaps, if I didn’t have that experience and sensitivity, it might not have gone over as well as it did.”
“That was a rough experience – my uncle died halfway through that tour also, so you want to mention death being a central theme?” he added.
Michael has been demoing songs with Sanctuary for their next album; it remains unclear whether anything will result from that.
“I’m flying up there (to Seattle) every week or so to work,” he said. “They have a different way of working – Lenny (Rutledge, Sanctuary’s guitarist) writes some guitar parts and he shows them to those guys in a rehearsal studio and they jam them out and record instrumental stuff.
“It’s a totally old-school way of a band working and I’m not used to it yet. But we have some cool ideas, so hopefully things pan out there,” he said.
After two very difficult years of pain and loss, will those themes always be a part of Witherfall’s work?
“I think that’s what separates authentic artists from people that are just trying to put out product – I have no idea what’s next,” Michael said. “We’re just going to sit there and write and whatever comes out, comes out.
“If the music is somber, we do take joy in playing it. I like dark music – the first record was all about different psychological states and dreams. So there will probably be more of that – barring any unforeseen death,” he added wryly.
As this interview was nearing its’ Riff Relevant reveal, Witherfall premiered a new lyric video for the song “Vintage” this week. You can watch the new visualizer below the following tour related announcements.
Witherfall will open a few dates for Kamelot in Japan late this month. They have a one-off date with Ensiferum in L.A. in January and will open for Sonata Arctica in Europe in March, where both bands will be playing acoustic sets.
You can find all upcoming Witherfall tour dates HERE.