Threatpoint, Purveyor Of "Electric City Groove Metal," Is America's Best Unsigned Metal Band
Band Photo: Threatpoint (?)
My connection to Threatpoint began in a most ironic way: by MISSING their show.
It was March 2014, and I was on a fact-finding trip to explore the heart of the underground metal scene in central and southwestern Virginia. After conducting a backstage interview during a sizable Lynchburg gig, word filtered through that I had missed the performance of the evening - by a band of unknown out-of-towners, no less.
It didn’t take long for drummer CJ Krukowski to find me. A short, wiry, mohawked guy with glasses and the zesty energy of about ten gallons of coffee, he pressed into my hands a copy of Threatpoint’s 2013 full-length debut “Dead To Rise.”
“We just sold out of merch,” he gushed breathlessly, as though unable to believe it himself. “ALL of it. We’d never been here before, and now it’s gone. Everyone just went nuts.”
A lively conversation followed, from CJ, to frontman Chris James, to then-guitarist Matt Gosselin, to then-bassist Ron Martin. As always, I parted ways by promising to give the band’s material a spin. Such promises are routinely tossed like pennies into a fountain; next comes the chore of actually listening. And I’d waded through enough average-to-mediocre music in my years as a metal journalist to become one step this side of jaded.
Then I actually listened to “Dead To Rise,” and Scranton, Pennsylvania-based Threatpoint instantly became my favorite unsigned American metal band.
I heard shades of Testament, Machine Head, Sepultura, and Grip Inc. No deathcore shenanigans, no lazy mosh-chugging passing for “breakdowns,” no supershit showoff-y technicality. Just genuinely catchy, compelling, groove-based heavy metal, topped with the commanding bellows of a seasoned Chuck Billy disciple. It sounded like something 2003 could have produced, a year when the likes of Lamb Of God and Chimaira were making their marks, and contemporary American metal was being reinvented as something unabashedly old-school and yet distinctly modern.
Then came sophomore effort “Careful What You Wish For” in fall 2014. A sonically leaner, meaner, deadlier affair, this album whittled down the band’s sound to a potent blend of the aforementioned Testament (frontman Chris has a real hard-on for those guys, the album-title-as-homage being the final exclamation point) and DevilDriver. More aggression, more double bass, more Maiden-style guitar harmonies between mainstay axeman Alex Olivetti and Matt’s replacement Dave Visbisky. With his high end having evolved into a blood-curdling shriek, Chris even seemed to channel Sodom’s Tom Angelripper at times, though strangely, he denies even listening to that band. Either way, as did its predecessor, “Careful What You Wish For” sought to seduce the listener principally through the power of the riff - and the groove.
Well over a year after the initial discovery, I’ve not only had the honor of reviewing both albums (here and here), but I’ve managed to properly attend two Threatpoint gigs. The second, on Friday, May 22 at the Backstreet Cafe in Roanoke, has allowed the opportunity for another group chat.
Threatpoint are ripping through the South on a so-dubbed “Confederacy Tour,” and it’s not their first time doing it. It’s not their only stomping ground outside home, either. All up and down the East Coast and looping through the Midwest in a van and trailer, the band have spent the past two years slaughtering show after show, building a reliable circuit of friendly promoters and rabid fans (I don’t throw that term around lightly), selling a full array of professional merchandise - all without the help of a label.
Case in point: the fanbase has metastasized in Virginia since that first night in Lynchburg, and here, now, the atmosphere is inescapably different. Locals, and even some loyal out-of-staters, are showing up wearing their T-shirts. Shouted song requests abound during their set. Most importantly, a respectable number of people sing along.
Fan though I may be, my purview as a journalist centers, of course, on the fabled Back Alley. And so it’s here that I find myself with the full five-piece, getting the full story, filling in cracks, and bringing myself up to date on the constant evolution of this grassroots American metal machine.
What strikes me the most about Threatpoint’s current incarnation is the diversity in age and taste, and simultaneously, the uniformity of attitude.
Chris is the patriarch of the band, the old-timer, who grew up listening to The Doors. “What stood out for me, listening as a little kid, was that Jim Morrison was a fucking lunatic. And it was heavy, compared to all the records my Mom had. It just stood out.” The Doors led to Twisted Sister and Quiet Riot, then Iron Maiden and Megadeth, and finally Testament and Sepultura. He does have a ‘metal release valve,’ however: “I’m cranked up all the time, playing and listening to metal, so I like to be able to relax. I like Blondie, Lady Gaga, Adele, The Eagles. All kinds of stuff.” Having lived in Texas for a while, he admits he has a weakness for country, and even suggests Threatpoint might cover Carrie Underwood in the future.
Alex and CJ are the twenty-something middlemen, the generational bridge of the lineup. A lifelong Metallica fan and unapologetic Lars Ulrich defender, CJ makes his case: “I get a lot of shit for Lars being my favorite drummer, but if you go back and listen to that Seattle concert from ’89, he’s playing at 300 bpm. Just look at his hand! It’s nuts.” He doesn’t shy away from other influences, though. Raised on Devo, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and Talking Heads, he’s always looking for something easy on the ears, with a good hook that “opens my mind a bit.” Likewise for Alex, who listens to pop on his morning drive to work, and is quite fond of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Michael Bublé, and the Stray Cats.
The second guitar and bass slots have the highest turnover rates in Threatpoint, and currently we have young shredder Mike White, Dave Visbisky’s replacement. On the heavier side of things, Mike grew up on Parkway Drive and The Devil Wears Prada, and under Chris’ tutelage, has enthusiastically begun his education in more traditional styles of metal and older bands. One particular such case study is Soilwork. “Chris told me I’m good at these ‘butterflies,’ he explains. “Little melodic harmonies buried in all the heaviness that Soilwork does so well.” To relax, Mike digs the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sublime.
Along with Mike came his close friend, bassist Eric Ross - “my younger brother, in a way” - who, at 21, is the Cub Scout of the bunch. “It was a ‘buy one, get one free,’ package deal,” Chris jokes. Eric is intent on keeping things heavy and modern, taking pages from Slipknot and Machine Head. “But straight up rock is my soft spot,” he admits. My mom got me into The Rolling Stones as a kid. And ‘No Rain’ by Blind Melon is my ‘happy song.’ That’s a soft one!”
As I process this barrage of names from all corners of the musical spectrum - coming from a band playing some pretty damned heavy music and thrashing it up onstage to the hilt - the truth once again clarifies itself for me: this is what the best artists do. They aren’t the least bit shy about embracing genres outside their primary one. This is what keeps metal fresh and vibrant; these are the artists who will make their own specific impact. Meanwhile, the highway of the past is littered with scores of unimaginative Slayer clones.
It’s also littered with former bandmates that couldn’t keep up with Threatpoint’s hectic touring schedule, bar none the busiest for an unsigned band I’ve ever seen. “We love those guys!” Chris exclaims. “But touring just kills them. What can you do? We’re all still friends. Ronny [Martin, ex-bass] came out to support us and hang out just the other day, for example.” CJ chimes in to voice his enthusiasm for the current lineup, which, to him, Chris, and Alex, still feels too good to be true. “If we’d had this lineup from the start, we’d probably be further along than we are right now.”
A veteran truck driver who once hauled ass from Pennsylvania to the West Coast in two days, Chris half-jokingly summarizes touring: “Basically, Threatpoint ruins your life. We own you. You have no life outside of us. You work, and you do this. Period.”
Said trucker is known to have a sixth sense for navigation while on tour. According to the others, it’s not unusual for Chris to wake up from a nap in the van, sleepily peek out the window at a nondescript gas station in the middle of nowhere, and correctly identify the town and state. And perhaps the tree on which he once took a leak years ago. Speaking of piss breaks, with Chris behind the wheel, you might not get one. “We’re hauling ass - go in a bottle.”
Like every true metal band worth its salt, none of this exhausting travel saps any of Threatpoint’s energy once they hit the stage on a given night. CJ sucks down a Lake Superior’s worth of bottled water behind the kit while Alex, Mike, and Eric take turns venturing into the crowd, continuing to play as they dodge obstacles and unruly moshers. Tonight, at various moments in the set, they climb atop the long, narrow bar, without missing a note, to strike the ultimate rockstar stance. Some bands try and fail to put on a thrilling, heart-pounding show; some become consumed in their technical prowess and don’t try at all. Threatpoint, however, have a gift.
The gift is translatable from the studio to a venue and vice versa. As for the studio aspect, the guys are excited to foreshadow the upcoming third Threatpoint album for me. “We asked our fans what they wanted to hear,” Chris says, “and the same answers that kept coming back were: faster, darker, and heavier. So you know what, fuckers? You got it! There will be a lot more thrash and a lot more speed, and with Mike and Eric, you now have loads of both darkness AND melody. And I’ll be looking to my usual inspirations for melody: The Doors, The Eagles, and Sanctuary.” CJ adds that he’ll be pursuing a more simplified drumming technique, in contrast to his rather intricate work on “Careful What You Wish For.”
One of my problems with that album was its hefty length. At fourteen tracks, a handful of otherwise strong songs came off as recycled filler, their shoehorning in the tracklist doing them little justice. To their credit, the guys have taken this constructive criticism - not just from me - to heart. Chris explains, “The latest Queensrÿche CD, with Todd La Torre, had fewer tracks. Everybody kept saying, ‘We want more, we want more; why is it so short?’ And of course, the reason is that it made everyone want to come back for more. So we’re taking that mentality.”
After listening to the material written so far - ten tracks to date - CJ admits he’s already reluctant to cut anything. “When you’re in a creative mode, you splurge, and you’re just so thrilled, going ‘Yeah, this stuff is so awesome!’ It’s a tough thing, to cut songs.”
Overall, the third Threatpoint album promises to be a far more diverse outing, not unlike the eclectic “Dead To Rise,” but with far superior, matured musicianship. “Careful What You Wish For” played a fine role as the raging sophomore monster come to bury the past while kicking your ass, and now feels as natural a time as any to unbury some of that past.
But Chris is especially adamant about one thing: the groove will remain. As long as I’ve known Threatpoint, they’ve advertised themselves specifically as a groove metal band - “Electric City Groove Metal” is their byline - which I’m curious about. “It’s simple,” Chris states, “No one could figure out how to categorize us. Into death metal, or thrash, or power metal, or classic heavy metal, or hard rock. And they said, ‘Dude, no matter what you’re playing, every song has this badass groove to it.’ So we thought, ‘Well, maybe we’re just groove metal.’ Sort of like DevilDriver and Grip Inc., they’re both known as groove metal bands.”
To Threatpoint, groove is certainly the magic ingredient to metal in general. Which, in turn, is a celebration of energy. “You either get it or you don’t,” CJ proclaims. “There’s something about seeing guys thrashing live onstage, not giving a fuck, and seeing all these people who love them for it. There’s a saying: ‘For those who believe, no explanation is needed, and for those who don’t, no explanation will do.’”
Mike: “Eric and I knew a lot of guys our age who were into metal, and once they got a little older, they dropped out. Some people just weren’t born metalheads, I guess.”
Chris is quick to add that despite the vast age range, EVERYONE in Threatpoint - not just the members under 30 - is constantly, actively discovering new music, even if it’s new merely to him. He turned young Mike onto Testament by playing his favorite metal album of all time, “The Gathering,” and Mike and Eric have introduced newer bands to their elders. Chris raves about his recent personal discoveries as well - including The Southern Blacklist, featuring original Sepultura guitarist Jairo Guedz, and Meshiaak, fronted by Danny Tomb, formerly of Australia’s 4Arm. “I’m always digging for something brand new and fresh that has that awesome groove metal sound, and I don’t stop digging. I love new metal! I love that new CD to listen to in the car.”
Unlike Mike’s and Eric’s poser friends, those who WERE “born metal” - everyone gets a good chuckle out of that one - could do far worse than check out Scranton, Pennsylvania’s Threatpoint. Whether one first hears their refined studio sound or their raw, blissfully chaotic live racket doesn’t matter. Not only are they America’s hardest working unsigned band, but none of these that I’ve covered are nearly as deserving of success.
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