When the Phalanx Breaks: Exclusive interview with Haxon

Pennsylvania thrash quartet, Haxon, are unlike anything in their genre. One spin of their new record, Wrath of an Era, will leave you perplexed by the progressive tendencies and DIY sophistication. It’s a remarkable achievement to ape none of the thrash titans of yesteryear yet still slay like a hungry riff machine running on vitriolic steam and revolutionary zeal. 

Signing to Machine Man Records gave Haxon the opportunity to work with New Jersey stalwart, Chris Bollinger, who consolidated the raw excesses of their rehearsal sound into a hurricane of intensity the band can easily replicate live. Perhaps the one reservation about modern thrash is the slick production. No such problem exists with Haxon, which also explains why they sound like none of their contemporaries, despite drawing inspiration from contemporary giants like Havoc. “The studio experience for this record was a lot less rushed than our first record,” explains guitarist, Tyler Cantrell. “We had a lot more time to really make this album what we wanted it to be, both on a production side and a performance side. This album really wouldn’t be the same without Chris Bollinger or Micheal Haggerty, who mixed and mastered the record.”

Wrath of an Era is unpredictable yet bewildering in its technicality and street aesthetic. Guitar anoraks and the tough guy hardcore listeners will like it in equal measures, yet the band wear their blue-collar politics on their sleeves. Songs like ‘The Periphery’ and ‘Man, the State and War’ are unambiguous in their message – the masses are pawns on a chess board for corporate interests and subservient to the military-industrial complex. You may not agree with such simplifications, but one man’s opinion is another man’s contention. We can have no progress without the spark of political agitation and right to disagree.

As products of the Fort Washington School of Rock, the four members of Haxon approached thrash metal in the early days of 2016 like most youthful enthusiasts who want to outdo Megadeth in the technicality stakes. But now they have different aims. “There were so many influences on this album that it’s hard to name them all, but for more of the progressive elements on this one a huge influence was Porcupine Tree and more of the less-heavy Opeth albums, like Damnation and Sorceress,” explains Tyler. 

No two songs are the same on Wrath of an Era, something the band take great pride in. But this achievement did not come easy and tested their playing ability to the maximum. “For me as a guitarist ‘Etched in Stone Part II’ was definitely the most stressful. A lot of the riffs and guitar parts in that song are more intricate than most of the other songs,” says Tyler. 

They may be more notable for their precocious musicianship and youthful exuberance, but Haxon are here for the long run. We spoke to drummer, Mike Dodaro, about their three-year journey that helped them produce one of the best thrash albums of 2020.

Let’s start with the first thing that strikes the listener when listening to your new album. For a thrash band it’s hard to trace any of the big four of Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth or Slayer as a constant influence on Wrath of an Era. What were you listening to when writing this record?

So many different things, it’s hard to keep track. This album was made over a span of about three years and as a result our musical interests were changing, our playing styles were changing, and I think we were also really changing as people. Back when we started Haxon we were VERY young, and it was very much a “heavy or nothing” type of mentality we had in regard to our music tastes. As we matured and expanded our musical horizons, we began incorporating more melodic elements into our sound, inspired by bands like Opeth, Dream Theater, and Tool, and sooner or later I think we just got bored (and also gave up) trying to be the next Megadeth and wanted to experiment with other things. So, I would say we mainly listened to a lot of dark and melodic prog music during this time.

In our review of Wrath of an Era we said Haxon ‘sound more like Cynic playing progressive thrash metal’. How important was it for the four of you to expand your sound into a more progressive soundscape for this album?

It definitely wasn’t something we intended at first. I think it’s a natural tendency, especially in metal, where virtuosity is so admired, to want to write more complex music as you get better at your instrument. I think all four of us really wanted to challenge ourselves on this album and as a result it became more technical. Expanding the progressive element of our sound was very important for us because it gave us a lot more artistic freedom with the songs than if were to try to write a straight-ahead thrash song.  

Question for Corey Hornbaker: You’re the vocalist of the band, but you started as a guitarist. When can we expect you to pick up a guitar and contribute rhythm parts?

As the writing process begins on the third album, I hope to provide some guitar input within the rhythm section to back up Tyler.

The song ‘Mask of the Other’ mixes technical bass popping with a whirlwind of thrash riffs. Whose idea was that and what made you include something like this on the record?

It’s funny because ‘Mask’ almost didn’t make it on the album at all. It was the last song we had written for the album and it came about largely as a result of a jam session that we mixed together with parts of an old song that we’d scrapped years ago. The bass line was all Dan’s idea, which was another spontaneous moment because no one had any idea he was going to do that until he got to the studio. The original bass line was much simpler (very Pantera sounding) and it gave the song a very 90s groove metal feel. Once we got into the studio though, and Dan played the slap bass part, it completely changed the feel of the song and made it probably one of our more unique ones we’ve written. It was completely in the moment, to tell you the truth.

We must talk about the last song, ‘Etched in Stone Part II’. Few thrash bands have ever attempted something as epic as this for a chorus. It sounds like Dream Theater and Jethro Tull playing thrash metal. Tell us about the lyrical and musical inspiration for this song.

The lyrics behind ‘Etched in Stone Part II’ are essentially about leaving lasting legacies and gaining freedoms for future generations. I wrote the song from the perspective of an individual living within a totalitarian regime and the sacrifices they are willing to endure for the possibility of a better future. I’ve always had a fascination with revolutions, especially the material conditions that drive people to want to achieve revolution and the struggles they endure. The musical inspiration for this song is hard to say. I think it was our attempt to write a Dream Theater song. It was a song that we just never let die and we just kept piling more and more ideas on it until the last second, to the point where I think we were driving Chris crazy. It is nothing like anything we had ever written before and it was a unique challenge for us.

The band met at the Fort Washington School of Rock in 2016. What can you remember about your first rehearsal session as a band?

What I remember about the first band practice was how naturally it felt. Having played together for years prior at the School of Rock, we already had a pretty good feel for each other as musicians. It was just about taking that pre-existing chemistry and learning how to write songs and finding our own sound. I think Tyler and I had just had a natural chemistry when it came to writing songs and when Corey and Dan eventually joined, they both added a lot to the band in their own ways. 

Question for Tyler Cantrell: You decided to pan the guitars in each speaker. It’s a rewarding experience for the listener identifying all the intricate parts but it will be difficult to replicate this live. What plans do you have to recruit another guitarist for your live shows once things return to normal and bands can tour again?

There aren’t any plans to recruit a live rhythm guitar player or anything at this point. What I’ll be doing to achieve the dual guitar sound in a live situation will be heavily reliant on different pieces of gear to make just one guitar sound more like a wall of sound.

The band have a shared empathy for the downtrodden in society and those living a precarious economic existence. Which events of the last ten years shaped the political world view of Wrath of an Era?

I can’t think of any certain events in particular that influenced the politics of the album. However, the ongoing exploitation of workers throughout the world was certainly a big influence on the lyrics. So much of our lives are tied up in our employment, and to see such a sacrifice unduly rewarded is one of the worst human rights abuses. Billions of workers around the globe everyday are required to forfeit their time and their labour to generate absurd amounts of wealth that most of them won’t ever see, all so they can have the right to base essentials they require to live, such as food and housing. This system of production is immoral, and it was this recognition of injustice that largely inspired Wrath

The production on Wrath of an Era is raw but captures the intensity of the band, almost as if you’re in a rehearsal room. It distinguishes you from the thrash bands that released albums this year. How much of this was deliberate and how much was due to budget constraints?

I’d say it was about fifty-fifty. I think most bands go into making an album with the intention of trying to make it sound as good as it possibly can, and we were no exception on this album. While we really didn’t have a chance to record anything that would sound as big and massive as modern metal albums, I think this really worked to our advantage and gave the album a very punk DIY vibe that I really love. Chris Bollinger was a huge influence on the sound of album as I think he gave us the confidence to embrace our imperfections, and in the process, make the songs and our performances uniquely our own. 

Final question: What are Haxon’s goals for 2021?

Definitely going to continue writing and (hopefully once COVID is over) get back to playing shows. Wrath was such a long endeavour for us that it seems kind of crazy that we get to have any new goals as making the album has been our number one goal for the past three years. Going on tour is also a big goal for us as well. 

*** Haxon released Wrath of an Era via Machine Man Records on 30 October 2020. You can read the original SBR review here.