Asking Alexandria’s Cameron Liddell (left) and Ben Bruce each stake out their own sonic territory when performing onstage. “After all the years of writing and playing with each other,” says Bruce, “it’s all unspoken.”
Photo by Jonathan Weiner
“I pictured myself screaming and punching the shit out of a brick wall as hard as I could,” says Ben Bruce, lead guitarist and chief songwriter for British metalcore kings Asking Alexandria, describing his state of mind while recording the punishing guitar sounds on “Let It Sleep,” just one of the cauterizing songs on the band’s just-released new album, The Black. “I definitely channeled a lot of angst and misery into my playing on this stuff, that’s for sure.”
Screaming and punching might also describe Bruce’s mindset during much of the past couple of years. In early 2015, Asking Alexandria’s singer, Danny Worsnop, quit the band after a period of protracted acrimony. If that weren’t enough, Bruce’s friend and guitar tech, Chris Holley, died suddenly after developing a blood clot on a flight. And there’s more: Bruce’s wife, Samantha Cassaro, fed up with her husband’s drinking and demanding tour schedule, filed for divorce. “It was the hardest time of my life,” Bruce notes thoughtfully. “But if you’re an honest songwriter, that kind of turmoil is going to come out in your music.”
“There were a lot of stressful situations, which anyone can understand,” adds rhythm guitarist Cameron Liddell. “Losing a front man is really, really scary for all bands, and 90 percent of them don’t actually make it through. We were just very fortunate to find a great front man, a great guy, who slipped into place way faster than we all expected, and then we got underway with the new record.”
New guy Denis Stoff, a Ukrainian screamer whom the band had discovered on YouTube, matches Asking Alexandria’s unhinged intensity perfectly on The Black. The record marks the group’s return to hard-as-nails, electronica-enhanced metalcore, following their brief foray into more polished mainstream post-grunge on 2013’s From Death to Destiny. In many ways, the record is the band’s most lethal work to date, with Bruce (who recorded all the guitars) slicing and dicing like a Ginsu knife through such breakdown-o-rama epics as “Sometimes It Ends” and “Just a Slave to Rock ’n’ Roll.”
But all is not sledgehammer riffs and crumbling walls of sound: Bruce, who experimented with different scales and chords during the recording sessions, dips into a bit of prog-rock on “The Lost Souls,” and he drizzles ringing, Edge-like guitar lines on the chant-laced power anthems “I Won’t Give In” and “Send Me Home.”
“The biggest thing you can do is try to surprise yourself with whatever you’re playing and writing,” he says. “If you’re coming up with stuff that sounds like you’ve been there before, that’s when you have to put the guitar down and wait for something better to come along.”
Premier Guitar spoke with Bruce and Liddell about their relationship as players, Liddell’s unabashed love of rhythm guitar, Bruce’s disdain for solos, and how each guitarist strives to sound unique while using the same gear.
Before you saw Denis Stoff on YouTube, did you know what kind of singer you were looking for? He sings a little like Danny—some bands might want to go in a completely new direction.
Bruce: We weren’t looking for someone who could mimic Danny and sound like him. We were just looking for someone special. If Denis sounds like Danny, he sounds like the younger Danny, when he actually gave a shit. Denis puts a lot of emotion into his singing. From the screams to the other sides of his range, it’s filled with passion. That’s what I saw in him. He’s a young kid who loves what he does, and he puts everything into his vocal performances. When we heard Denis’ voice, we just said, “Wow. This is the guy!”
Describe how you and Cameron work as a guitar team—how you stay out of each other’s way and how you complement what the other guy is doing.
Bruce: It’s just something that’s come about quite naturally. With myself being the primary songwriter, I’ve always had a specific way of playing and writing—it’s natural. With different band members back in my past, it never really clicked. When I met Cameron, it’s almost like he knew right off the bat what I was going for, and we just slipped into place very easily. We don’t even think about it anymore. I’ll come up with a riff, and he’ll be like, “Oh, I know exactly what to do with that.”
Do you discuss who should handle which part, like “I’m going to be down here on the fretboard, so you should be up there on the neck?”
Bruce: After all the years of writing and playing with each other, it’s all unspoken. It’s a strange thing, but it works.
Cameron Liddell: In the early days, there wasn’t such separation, but nowadays there’s a distinct difference in what we do. I’m quite content to play rhythm and maybe octave chords, and Ben can go off and do little lead lines and stuff. You can’t have two guitarists playing the same thing. That doesn’t work.
Ben, what do you specifically like about what Cameron does on the guitar?
Bruce: He’s just a solid, solid guitar player. Cameron is the rhythm guitar player in the band, and he loves that. A lot of guitarists back off from that because they want to play leads. Cameron has never been interested in being a lead guitarist—even before joining this band, it was never his thing. He grew up listening to bands like Slipknot, so he was always into heavy riffage and pounding rhythms. He doesn’t get upset and try and argue about, “Oh, I haven’t had a guitar solo on this record.” He goes with what his strengths are and what he loves to do, and I really admire that.
Cameron, as far as rhythm guitarists, who did you take your cues from when you were starting to play?
Liddell: From the get-go, it was Mick Thomson from Slipknot. Seeing him was a game-changer for me. I was 12 years old and I went to my first show, the Leeds Fest, and Slipknot blew my fucking mind, man. It was, “Right, okay. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I started looking him up, searching around for how he played and checking out his Slipknot riffage. He played loads of chugging patterns, and that made me want to play rhythm guitar. Don’t get me wrong—I love good guitar solos, but I’m not that kind of player. Never have been, and I don’t think I ever will be. And I don’t mind saying that. Rhythm gets a bad name.
How did you work to become a really strong rhythm guitar player?
Liddell: It was pretty much by listening to a lot of metal growing up. The local band I was in, we were a super-chuggy band, totally rhythm based. I listened to bands like As I Lay Dying. They got me learning cool, interesting rhythms—not always breakdowns, but tight rhythm patterns. I took to it and I enjoyed it. My picking hand became my main priority.
It’s a shame that people look down on rhythm guitar. I guess it depends what kind of band you’re in. I remember when I was trying out for Asking, I jammed out with them and got their rhythms down really easily. Ben said, “Yeah, this is the guy. He’s perfect.” If you’re in a metal band, you need to be a solid rhythm player, no question about it. It’s almost like having a bad drummer in a metal band—it’s not going to work. If you can’t execute solid rhythm patterns, you’d better rethink what you want to do. It’s all based on rhythm.
Ben, you used to have a “no solos” rule, and that changed a little bit on From Death to Destiny, your third studio album. What was behind the no solos thing?
Bruce: It wasn’t that we had a no solos rule. If you listen to Stand Up and Scream, our first record, there are some sweeps and stuff in there. If you listen to Reckless & Relentless, “Someone, Somewhere” has a really cool, bluesy rock ’n’ roll guitar solo. So it wasn’t a rule; rather it’s that when I was young I noticed that guitar solos were something that I wasn’t into so much. It’s a bit self-satisfactory. I was always thinking, “Could this song be great without this guitar solo? Is this guitar solo making the song?” A lot of the time, the answer was, “No, it’s not.” You know—are you adding to the song or just masturbating?
I didn’t want to get caught up in that, because in previous bands I was in, every single song had a guitar solo. Some songs had three guitar solos. It became too much, and it didn’t seem necessary. I wanted to concentrate more on the songwriting.
The Black feels like a dedicated return to grindcore. Do you feel as if the last album didn’t hit the marks in some way?
Bruce: No, not at all. Going back to the beginning of this conversation, I went through a lot, and so I was writing some really heavy music. But it wasn’t predetermined to go in any kind of direction—the music just came out the way it did. I think this new record has songs that are just as anthemic as the last one, so we didn’t abandon that direction.